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Activists of the Youth Front (M) of Kerala Congress march through Kottayam demanding culling of dogs

The state has witnessed many people being bitten and even mauled to death by canines and has appealed to the apex court to find a solution to this vexed problem

~By Nayantara Roy

In Kerala, man and his “best friend” are at war with each other. Various PILs before the Supreme Court and a Special Leave Petition by the State of Kerala are trying to resolve the serious and poignant issue of an abnormally large number of attacks on people by stray dogs and a subsequent backlash on the canines by humans.

Petitioners in favour of culling them have drawn attention to the phenomenon of stray dogs wandering around in packs, with access to a lot of meat and poultry products in garbage and from slaughterhouse refuse, who have apparently even attacked people in their homes. Children and old people going to school or for walks are frequently attacked and so are domestic animals. Several deaths too have been reported due to attacks by stray dogs.

ABC RULES

However, petitioners in favour of animal rights have said in their submissions to the court that the indiscriminate and inhuman killing of stray dogs, often quite cruelly by angry citizens, is certainly not the answer. They desire that the state government adhere to the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001 (ABC Rules) under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, a central Act.

These Rules provide for the capturing of stray dogs, sterilising and immunising them and then returning them to the place where they were found. The Rules provide euthanasia only for dogs suffering in some way, either from injury or illness, but not for killing healthy dogs. There is, however, a provision in the parent Act from which the Rules are derived, which allow for killing of dogs under a “law in force for the time being” and this is the legal issue being raised by those in favour of culling them.

Strays are sterilised as part of the animal birth control programme in Kozhikode
Strays are sterilised as part of the animal birth control programme in Kozhikode

According to a report of the Justice S Sri Jagan Committee appointed by the Supreme Court to decide and award compensation to victims of attacks by stray dogs, prior to the enactment of the 2001 Rules, stray dogs in Kerala were culled by municipalities. After the 2001 ABC Rules came into force, culling was stopped. However, sterilisation and immunisation as perceived under the Act took place only erratically, leading to an increase in the dog population.  The report also says that changes in the garbage disposal system have contributed to the ferocity of the dogs owing to the access they now have to garbage heaps and meat products contained therein.

The report suggests that logically, after sterilisation and immunisation,  some sort of identification should be placed on the dogs so that anyone bitten by a stray knows if it has been vaccinated or not. Anti-rabies vaccine for humans is expensive and the better quality one, which the report says must be made available at all government health centres, even more so. The report says that the cheaper vaccine has side-effects which affect some people. This happened when a seven-year-old girl became tragically paralyzed after suffering a reaction to the cheaper vaccine.

RULES FOR DOGS

A November 2015 Kerala High Court judgment attempts to resolve the problem placed before it by a number of writ petitions, some filed by persons who would like to invoke provisions in the Kerala Municipality Act, 1994, and Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, 1994 (and Kerala Panchayat Raj (Licensing of Pigs and Dogs) Rules, 1998). These enjoin local governments to cull stray dogs, and there were others filed by animal rights activists who demand implementation of the 2001 ABC Rules. The High Court judgment held that the Rules being the product of a central Act, override the state Acts and hence have to be adhered to.

The government of Kerala filed a petition in the Supreme Court against this judgment, saying that Section 11­(3)(c) of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, permits the destruction of strays under the authority of any law in force for the time being. The government argues that as Rules made under an Act cannot override a part of the parent Act, Section 11 (3)(c) allows the local Acts to operate as before. Furthermore, when the central Rules came into being, the Kerala Municipality Act was already in force. Therefore it was “the law in force for the time being”.

The government naturally agrees that any culling, if required, should be done in a humane manner, ensuring that the animal does not suffer. Even the report of the Justice Jagan Committee said that while sterilisation may in the long run reduce the dog population, it is not of any help now when there is clearly a problem between dogs and humans and that culling or some other method is needed in addition to the ABC Rules.

CANINE ZOOS

In August 2016, the state government came up with an alternative to culling. This was a comprehensive plan to create dog rehabilitation parks/zoos in each panchayat while working in tandem with animal welfare bodies. It included steps such as creating a database on dog bites, presence of pack of dogs, proximity to unauthorised slaughterhouses, waste dumps, etc; to catch dogs with the help of trained personnel to sterilise and vaccinate them, fix an RFD collar, deworm and feed the animal for five days; put up suitable dogs for adoption; certifying it is safe to return particular dogs to areas they were captured from and so on. Unfortunately, this plan was shot down by animal rights petitioners who took the stance that all strays once sterilised and immunised, must be returned to where they were found.

Incidentally, the plan spells out proper adherence to the ABC Rules with the help of extra veterinarians and other personnel. It includes regular immunisation plans and weekly monitoring of the ABC programmes, funds for which will come from the animal husbandry department and local bodies.

In the meanwhile, the Justice Jagan Committee has been affixing compensation amounts to victims of attacks by dogs. The money is to come from local bodies. In September 2017, the state government filed a plea that there should be a Rs 5 lakh ceiling on the amount of compensation as local bodies were finding some of the amounts exorbitant and well beyond their capacity to pay. These included amounts of Rs 18.75 lakh, Rs 16.66 lakh, Rs 15.7 lakh, etc.  In the 6th, 7th and 9th reports of the Jagan Committee, a total amount of Rs 93,12,855 was recommended in 76 dog bite cases. This amount, local bodies claim, is beyond their meagre means.

While the wrangling goes on, it is the top court’s unenviable task to sort through this sad conflict between humans and animals for a piece of the pla­net. Several questions spring to mind, such as is it possible for “man’s best friend” to become so ferocious merely because of excess meat in the diet or due to excess numbers? Or is more research needed? The suggestion of zoos for these strays could work as in many countries, dog pounds (stopgap places where strays are kept) operate as shelters as well as adoption centres. Ani­mal welfare bodies could monitor them regularly to ensure decent living conditions for the dogs till the numbers come down and we need not have the guilt of culling on our collective conscience.

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