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Animal Welfare in India a year after ouster of Maneka Gandhi

NEW DELHI, CHENNAI--Bijar district magistrate Pankaj Kumar on August 9, 2003 overturned a local court ruling that elderly widow Janki Devi's dog must be killed for alleged biting. The case drew note throughout India, wrote Imran Kan of the Indo-Asian News Service, when "other people said that the land mafia, with an eye on Devi's property, leveled false charges against the dog."


Hearing of the plight of the dog and the widow, former federal minister for animal welfare Maneka Gandhi petitioned on their behalf, offering to adopt the dog herself if need be to save his life. Triumphs have been few for Mrs. Gandhi in the year since she lost her ministry under pressure of an alliance of the biomedical industry with practitioners of animal sacrifice, but this time she won a round of symbolic importance, affirming that a dog's life has moral value. There were fears when Mrs. Gandhi was ousted from her position as an independent within the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party coalition government that animal welfare in India might fall into an abyss.


Yet foes of street dogs have not managed, so far, to undo the Animal Birth Control programs that Mrs. Gandhi reinforced as national policy in place of mass killing. Stray Dog Free Bangalore director M.K. Sudarshan in early July presented data to the Fifth National Rabies Conference in Bhubaneshwar showing that the annual numbers of dog bites and rabies deaths in India have been consistent at about 17 million and 18,000 per year, respectively, over the past decade--as might be expected, simply due to growth in the human population. Blue Cross of India secretary Chinny Krishna then demonstrated that in cities with active ABC programs, including Bangalore, Chennai, Jaipur, and Kalimpong, rabies deaths have been virtually eliminated in only three to five years.


Similar results are now evident in Pune, like Bangalore a hotbed of anti-dog political activism. Coinciding with a vigorous ABC program, Pune rabies deaths have fallen from 56 in 1997 to just five in the first half of 2003, Pune deputy health officer Pramod Dhaigude, M.D., told The Times of India. Sassoon hospital medical officer Namdeo Patil added that while dogbite cases have increased over the same time, "Stray dogs account for only 30%."

Circus seizures

Confiscations of exotic cats, bears, monkeys, and reptiles from traveling shows continue, as well, at times seriously overburdening the handful of zoo-based rescue centers that are the only accommodations available to the animals. P. Oppili of The Hindu on May 3 exposed the plight of four lions "abandoned by a circus company in the dusty small town of Sattur, confined to cramped caravan enclosures for nearly seven months" from lack of anywhere better to take them while the King Bharat Circus appeals their seizure. Ramesh Susarla of The Hindu reported on June 12 that eight tigers and three lions had been killed in fights resulting from overcrowding at the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park rescue center in Visakhapatnam.


The Deccan Herald on July 27 described how 17 lions belonging to the New Grand Circus "are starving in small cages" in an industrial park because the Bannerghatta National Park rescue center "is already filled to capacity with 82 lions." Keeping circus animals in cages indefinitely was not what Mrs. Gandhi had in mind during the decade-long court battle that finally enabled the confiscations under previously unenforced provisions of the 1973 Wildlife Act. Her intent was to place the animals in quality care-for-life sanctuaries.


The 20-acre Wildlife SOS sanctuary for ex-dancing bears built by Kartick Saya-narayan and Geeta Sheshamani near Agra, opened in December 2002, was the intended prototype. The World Society for the Protection of Animals, One Voice, Free The Bears Australia, Care For The Wild, and International Animal Rescue have all contributed heavily to either the construction costs or the ongoing operating expense. But relations with WSPA have often been strained, initially over who was paying how much for what, and currently over how many bears the sanctuary can accept. Licensed to house a maximum of 20 adult bears and 25 cubs, Wildlife SOS now houses about 60 bears, with more coming.


"We urge you to reconsider this rapid intake," WSPA wildlife programs Watkins on August 13 e-mailed to Wildlife SOS. The advice may be more easily given than taken, as WSPA has reason to recall. Former WSPA Asian project managers John Joseph and Peter Henderson resigned in 2001 under intense media criticism for their management of a WSPA-funded bear sanctuary in Pakistan. Their mistake was that a cub they could have acquired from the immediate neighborhood was defanged, declawed, and subjected to dog attacks in bear-baiting spectacles while they stood on principle and refused to pay compensation to her owners.

Cattle issues

The most problematic of all Indian animal welfare issues currently, as perennially, is cattle welfare and cow slaughter. Much as "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" among U.S. politicians, fiery opposition to cow slaughter is the last resort of Indian demagogues who fear losing their next election-- and the rhetoric often has little to do with actual concern for bovines. Instead, outspoken opposition to cow slaughter may merely mask anti-Muslim and sometimes anti-Christian bigotry, and the definition of a "cow" worthy of protection is often warped to exclude any bovine of any species who is not economically productive.


The frequent hypocrisy of Indian cow-worship was exposed twice in July 2003, first when the city of Chennai moved to evict 1,800 cattle from the facilities within city limits that the privately funded Madras Pinjara-pole has occupied since 1908, and then two weeks later when 23 of 70 cattle removed from the streets of Chandrigarh were found dead at the foot of a cliff, allegedly pushed off by the "gypsies" who were hired to take them away. The answer to that sort of thing, Mrs. Gandhi believes, is teaching empathy for all animals in place of cow-focused fetishism.