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APRIL 2003

Hard times and hostile politics threaten street dogs and ABC

GOA, MUMBAI, BANGALORE, PUNE, CHENNAI, NEW DELHI, VISAKHAPATNAM––Corruption, caste politics, ancient anti-dog prejudice, and lack of funding for escalated street dog sterilization and vaccination threaten to reverse seven years of remarkable gains in India toward achieving world leadership in the humane population control of street dogs.

Whether India will maintain pursuit of the official national goal declared in December 1997 of trying to accomplish no-kill animal control nationwide is now up to the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court.

Goa bench of the Bombay High Court Justices D.G. Deshpande and P.V. Hardas in January 2003 ruled that the grossly underfunded dog sterilization and vaccination efforts of nonprofit organizations have failed to reduce the dog population enough to protect public health, and that the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act could allow high-volume dog-killing to resume.

The 30-page Deshpande/Hardas verdict endorsed the position of plaintiff Rosario Menezes, an organization called People for the Elimination of Stray Troubles, and 38 local governments.

But Deshpande and Hardas left the final decision as to whether or not dog-killing should resume up to the Chief Justice, who is expected to appoint a special panel to take the matter under advisement.

With the verdict of the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court pending, Justice N. Venkatachala of Bangalore also favored dog extermination in a 70-page ruling favoring Citizens for a Stray Dog Free Bangalore.

Venkatachala, said The Hindu, wrote that World Health Organization rabies division chief F.X. Meslin has called the Indian street dog sterilization efforts a failure. What Meslin actually said was that they have not yet reached enough dogs to be completely successful. Venkatachala reportedly also attributed to Meslin a claim that the World Society for the Protection of Animals does not oppose shooting or otherwise killing street dogs. WSPA representative Joy Leney has outspokenly favored killing street dogs by lethal injection, but not by cruder methods.

Venkatachala characterized “the so-called stray dog-lovers” of India as a limousine-riding elite who are “unleashing terror by promoting Animal Birth Control,” The Hindu stated. Venkatachala went on to accuse Bangalore officials of “doling out public money to their favorite organizations in the guise of implementing animal birth control,” even though the ABC programs in Bangalore, as elsewhere, are chiefly supported by private contributions and volunteer labor.

“Street dogs under the ABC program receive modern vaccine (at public cost),” Venkatachala wrote, “whereas dog-bitten human victims receive outdated sheep brain vaccine. This is against any tenets of philosophy, reason, and virtue, and must not happen in any civilized society.”

A parallel controversy over the scarcity of modern post-rabies exposure vaccines erupted in Thiruvanathapuram. The planned start of an ABC program there was delayed in March by opposition to the proposed clinic site.

In fact, the use of modern post-exposure anti-rabies vaccines in place of the vaccines cultivated in sheep brains has been vigorously urged and pursued for many years by the Animal Welfare Board of India, the Blue Cross of India, and People for Animals, which are respectively the Indian federal animal welfare agency, the originator of the ABC strategy, and the organization administrating the most ABC programs nationwide.

Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, conducting the largest ABC program in Bangalore, also strongly endorses the use of modern post-exposure anti-rabies vaccines.

So does Beauty Without Cruelty/ India, the leading activist group in Pune, where one Meghna Uniyal has mounted an aggressive campaign against ABC.

Commented People for Animals founder Maneka Gandhi after Uniyal posted some of her anti-ABC remarks to the <HSI.Animalia> online discussion board maintained by the Humane Society of the U.S., “Uniyal and her husband Sujoy are involved in a battle over land with her relatives who run the Blue Cross in Pune, which does the ABC for dogs. First Uniyal said she wanted to do the ABC work if she were given the land used by the Blue Cross. When the land was handed over to her, she refused to accept it, as the colleagues and doctors she had said were prepared to work with her were nonexistent.”


Hydrophobia


The use of the sheep brain post exposure vaccine persists largely because this type of vaccine is locally produced around India with the help of government subsidies, Mrs. Gandhi told ANIMAL PEOPLE in 2001, noting that the makers tend to be politically better connected than the animal advocates who urge their replacement––not only to help suppress rabies, but also because the production method is cruel to sheep.

Much of the opposition to the Indian ABC programs originates from fear of rabies, endemic in India for centuries. As recently as a decade ago rabies was still believed to be killing more than 20,000 Indians per year, but that estimate has been discredited by the increasing recognition of outside experts that it was based on poorly coordinated data collection, much speculative projection, and a widespread tendency in India for people unfamiliar with rabies to describe any disease producing a high fever as being “rabies,” if preceded by a dog bite. Accordingly, while actual rabies is inevitably fatal, it is not unheard of in India for alleged rabies victims and rabid dogs to make miraculous recoveries.

Dog-killing in response to fear of rabies was for decades a convenient means for corrupt politicians to keep local goondas on municipal payrolls, whose real job was intimidating opponents. Selling dog leather became a lucrative side industry to animal control––and awarding contracts to process dead dogs also proved to be a politically handy way for politicians to dispense patronage among the lower caste illiterates who make up more than half of the Indian electorate.

As opposition to dog-killing comes mainly from the Brahmins, other high-ranking vegetarian castes, and Jains, who also tend to be educated and of high socio-economic status, humane concern for dogs is easily characterized by demagogues seeking the illiterate vote as a demonstration of the alleged disregard of the rich for the suffering of the poor.

Yet this markedly misrepresents who the humane workers of India actually are. Far from riding in limousines, many do not even have automobiles. Visakha SPCA founder Pradeep Kumar Nath came to India as an almost penniless teenaged refugee from Bangladesh, and still owns virtually nothing, having put most of his personal income into the VSPCA work. Many other Indian humane workers have sold their homes and property to help fund animal aid projects, like Animal Welfare & Protection Trust cofounders C. Padmavathi and C. Narasimhamoorthy, of Santhoshapuram, who took up ABC work in retirement, after witnessing illiterate and untrained municipal rabies control workers catching dogs with chains, breaking the dogs’ bones to inhibit escape, and then drowning them in a garbage cart full of acidified water.

Even the few humane workers like Blue Cross of India cofounder Chinny Krishna and Mrs. Gandhi who were born to relative privilege have earned more status than they inherited––Krishna as designer and builder of the radio telescopes used in the Indian space program, and Mrs. Gandhi as a journalist and long-serving member of the Indian parliament. Her support base among lower income women reflects an outstanding voting record on behalf of human rights, education, social justice, and public health––and a reputation as the most incorruptible figure in Indian politics.


After Mrs. Gandhi


Federal support for the 1997 national mandate to achieve no-kill animal control gained economic backing when in mid-1998 the Congress Party coalition that had ruled India for all but one year since 1949 collapsed and was succeeded by a coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The coalition enlisted Mrs. Gandhi, elected as an independent, as minister for social justice and empowerment. In that capacity, and later as minister for culture and minister for statistics, Mrs. Gandhi arranged federal funding for ABC programs, but her influence waned as the BJP coalition gained strength in more recent elections. Mrs. Gandhi lost her position in the BJP cabinet as result of mid-2002 clashes with the Indian pharmaceutical industry, including the producers of sheep brain-based anti-rabies vaccines, and with practitioners of animal sacrifice. Although animal sacrifice has not been part of mainstream Hinduism since Vedic times, and is technically illegal in India, animal sacrifice cults have considerable strength in some regions, and are politically aligned with fundamentalist Hindu nationalism, a major branch of BJP support.

Mrs. Gandhi was replaced as minister for animal welfare by T.R. Baalu, a Chennai parlimentarian whose background was in the liquor industry. Under Baalu, federal funding for the ABC programs stopped. With weeks the In Defense of Animals ABC hospital at Deonar, a Mumbai suburb, was forced to do sterilizations without electricity. The Delhi Municipal Corporation ABC program acknowledged operating at 25% of the pace it had projected for the year, while reported dog bites in Delhi jumped 20%.

“The only good thing to come out of all this is that for the first time everyone realizes how much Maneka did to get a moribund government department to move and respond,” Chinny Krishna told ANIMAL PEOPLE, after the federal Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals was reconstructed to the liking of the pharmaceutical industry. “It is imperative,” he continued, “that we seriously look for alternative sources of funding for the ABC initiatives, so that there is no let-up. Once any of the municipalities with ABC programs go back to killing, it will be virtually impossible to stop it.” Krishna warned.

Introducing ABC has been for Krishna almost a lifelong avocation.

“In 1964,” he recalled, “appalled by the horrific way that Madras was killing street dogs, the Blue Cross began to study this issue. We were surprised to learn that Madras (now called Chennai) started its catch-and-kill program in 1860. From an average of less than one dog per day in 1860, the number of dogs killed by the city rose to 135 dogs per day in 1995. The Blue Cross was convinced that if a procedure designed to control or eliminate street dogs had not showed positive results after implementing it for over 100 years, something was wrong. Starting in 1964, the Blue Cross proposed ABC. The municipal response was to reject our proposal outright. It was not until 1995 that we were finally able to get the Corporation of Madras (Chennai) to agree to try out ABC as an alternative to killing dogs in part of South Madras.”

Although Mumbai halted animal control killing and started an ABC program in early 1994, “Chennai and Jaipur were the first cities to begin sustained ABC,” Krishna continued. “Within six months, the results in the areas we covered were promising enough to prompt the city government to extend the program to the whole of South Madras. People for Animals agreed to take up ABC in North Madras and the city converted its electrocution chamber into an ABC center.

“We find a steady decrease in human rabies cases wherever an ABC program is carried out,” Krishna stipulated. “In Jaipur, the cases of rabies from the walled city where Help In Suffering is carrying out the ABC program is zero for the third year running. In Kalimpong where the program has been carried out by an HIS associate, there has been no reported case for the last 15 months.”

Data kept by municipal health departments confirms Krishna’s claims:

City Rabies deaths in Rabies deaths

year before ABC in 2002
Bangalore 19 (2000) 4
Chennai 120 (1996) 16
Jaipur 10 (1996) 0
Kalimpong 10 (2000) 0

“Several other cities have taken up ABC, but in many cases it has not been a sustained,” Krishna lamented. “In many places where ABC was implemented, local officials suddenly ordered the destruction of dogs on a massive scale, in a knee-jerk reaction to complaints, and the dogs destroyed were usually those who had been spayed and vaccinated at great expense and effort,” coming to trust humans as result of receiving humane care.


Hell on wheels


Pradeep Kumar Nath ran into that problem in Visakhapatnam but eventually won over most of his critics by achieving the sterilization of up to 85% of the free-roaming dogs in the city within under four years of the start of the Visakha SPCA’s ABC program.

That, however, was just the start of his ambition. The Visakha SPCA dog sterilization campaign is now moving out into the Visakhapatnam Circle of approximately 2,600 villages, beyond the municipal limits. Outreach to the first 92 villages is already underway––a considerable reach for an organization raising barely $50,000 a year, but urgent, Nath believes, because of outbursts of anti-dog violence in December 2002.

“Bheemunipatnam, the second oldest incorporated municipality in India, 30 kilometres from Visakhapatnam, resorted to killing stray dogs by beating them with sticks,” Nath told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Most of them ran around for some time in total chaos, attacking anything in the way before falling down. A small girl was severely bitten on the forehead. This also happened at Gajuvaka municipality. As soon as the incidents were brought to our attention by representatives of Vikasa, an organization working to help the fisher folk, we began intervention. The killings have stopped for now at Bhimli, Gajuwaka, the Visakha Steel Plant, Anakapalle, and the entire village area on the promise that we will extend the ABC program to them, but we are having to operate in dual locations,” due to the distance between the villages and the Visakha SPCA hospital.

Photos that Nath e-mailed to ANIMAL PEOPLE on March 24 showed in unflinching detail exactly what Nath and his niece, VSPCA hospital manager Swathi Buddhiraju, are confronting.

Dog control in Madhurvada, another local village, was until their arrival the job of collectors who packed as many dogs as they could into an iron cage on two wheels, drawn behind a truck. Dogs who did not suffocate from being piled on top of each other were bludgeoned.

On the day the photos were taken, Nath and Buddhiraju confronted the dogcatchers with a copy of the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The dogcatchers fled, leaving the trailer behind. Buddhiraju opened the cage while Nath documented the scene. Seventy-two dogs escaped, leaving the remains of 23 others behind.

Even a photo of dogs leaping to freedom, over the corpses, was too horrific to publish in ANIMAL PEOPLE, but the sequence can be forwarded electronically on request to those with a serious need to understand the context of Indian ABC work.

“We are filing criminal charges against the persons responsible,” Nath said. “We would like to conduct ABC programs in all of the villages. I would like to be a millionaire so that we would have the money.”


ABC programs mentioned:


Animal Welfare & Protection Trust, 788 Kalaignar Karunanidhi St., Santhoshapuram, Chennai, India 601 302; telephone 91-44-227-5224.

Blue Cross of India, 1-A Eldams Rd., Chennai 600 018, India; 91-44-234-1399; fax 91-44-234-9801; <aspick@kmr.net>.

Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, 257 1st Cross, Hall II Stage, Indira Nagar, Bangalore 560038, India; 91-80-525-8429; fax 91-80-558-7172; < "Suparna Baksi Ganguly" <suparnaganguly@hotmail.com>.

People for Animals, 14 Ashoka Road, New Delhi 110001, India; 91-11-335-5883; fax 91-11-335-4321; e-mail <gandhim@alpha.nic.in>.]

Visakha SPCA, 26-15-200 Main Rd., Visakhapatnam, India 530 001; telephone 91-891-564-759; fax 91-891-528-662; <vspcanath@satyam.net.in>