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Street Dogs and Sacred Cows

A stray dog scavenging for food in a pile of garbage is a sight most American animal control officers have seen during the course of their daily work. But few have witnessed people scavenging right alongside the dogs, looking for food or pieces of trash they might be able to sell for the few pennies it will take to survive another day on the streets.

Such scenes are tragically common for those who work for Help in Suffering (HIS), an animal charity located in Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan in India. India is home to more than a billion people, a quarter of whom, according to UNICEF and World Bank reports, live below the poverty line. Infant mortality rates are high, HIV/AIDS is an increasing threat, and the average annual income per person is less than $600 a year.

Even in the most forgotten areas of the United States, where animals suffer due to human poverty or outdated utilitarian attitudes, the circumstances witnessed daily by HIS volunteers would be unthinkable. While many longstanding societal problems in India have gradually dissipated, HIS staff members still have their work cut out for them amid grave challenges: abject poverty, attitudes towards animals that are deeply ingrained in the caste system which governs every aspect of Hindu life, and nonexistent waste management resulting in the spread of animal and human diseases.

In spite of the overwhelming odds against it, the organization is making progress. HIS rescues and provides veterinary care for camels and equines and elephants, but its biggest success has come through an aggressive sterilization and vaccination program for the city’s enormous number of stray dogs. Over ten years, the program has not only diminished birth rates of homeless dogs in Jaipur but reduced the incidence of human rabies cases in the city to zero.

WHAT IT IS: An aggressive sterilization and vaccination program for stray dogs in Jaipur, India

WHY IT STARTED: To replace the traditional practice of poisoning stray dogs as a means of rabies prevention with a more humane approach

WHO LAUNCHED IT: Help in Suffering (HIS), an organization founded in 1994 to rescue and care for creatures large and small

NUMBER OF DOGS STERILIZED IN 10 YEARS: 27,000

DECLINE IN NEIGHBORHOOD STRAY POPULATIONS: 28 percent

CURRENT INCIDENCE OF HUMAN RABIES CASES IN JAIPUR DUE TO HIS’s EFFORTS: 0

Hope for Animals and People

For many of Jaipur’s human residents, quality of life is not much better than that of the street dogs the organization works to sterilize, vaccinate, and protect, says Jack Reece, a British veterinarian who helps administer the program. “It’s very common to see young children living on the street with these dogs,” says Reece, who loves the people and the work so much that he hasn’t been able to tear himself away since he began volunteering in 1998.

The desire to play and bond with baby animals is universal among children, including those in Jaipur who have friendly relationships with neighborhood strays. But while cuddling with street puppies may bring moments of joy to both species, love of Jaipur’s street dogs doesn’t necessarily transcend to an ability to care for, shelter, or feed the animals. The street dogs are “not really pets, not really feral,” says Reece. Frequently the dogs picked up by HIS have a piece of string tied around their necks, often placed there by a child as a kind of identifying collar—but the animals continue to roam freely, scavenging for a living. Often when HIS finds a dog, the piece of string has become embedded in the animal’s neck.

Before HIS initiated its sterilization and vaccination program, an even more serious consequence of the stray dog problem in Jaipur was rabies. Largely wiped out in the United States, human rabies cases still occur regularly in India. Fortyfive percent of the cases occur in children under 15; puppies less than a year old represent two-thirds of rabid dogs. The universal kid-wish to play with baby animals could end up being the last wish kids in Jaipur ever make.

Because of the serious risks stray dogs pose to human health, the local government’s method of dealing with the animals has traditionally involved poisoning them with strychnine. But since 1994, HIS staff have been rounding up street dogs, bringing them in for surgery and rabies shots, and then releasing them back to the location they came from once they’ve healed sufficiently.

The program has received funding from the World Society for the Protection of Animals, a French animal charity called Animaux Secours, and Humane Society International, an arm of The Humane Society of the United States. Under the oversight of Reece and fellow veterinarian Sunil Chawla—who heads the animal birth control program—veterinarians from all over India and other parts of the world have spent time at HIS, helping perform sterilizations and other medical procedures.

Since the program started, more than 27,000 street dogs have been sterilized, and the population of neighborhood dogs has declined by 28 percent.

Over the past ten years, Help in Suffering, an animal charity in Rajasthan, India, has sterilized and vaccinated 27,000 street dogs like this one. As a result, the incidence of human rabies cases has declined to zero.

A Fine Balance

The numbers represent an amazing achievement, especially given the significant roadblocks. Beyond the ever-present problem of insufficient funding, HIS staff also cope with cultural attitudes that make their work for animals even more challenging. Religious beliefs in Jaipur, where the Hindu faith is still practiced with great adherence to tradition, have occasionally caused the local population to be suspicious of HIS methods.

Hindus believe in an unchangeable social hierarchy known as the “caste” system; the caste people are born into is fixed. This means that the career paths people can choose are also fixed. There is a powerful religious stigma against handling dead animals or animal waste; only members of the lowest caste— known as “untouchables” or, more respectfully, Dalits—will do this kind of work. HIS employs members of this caste; the nature of the work means few others will do it. But these workers also end up performing many tasks that are considered above their station in life—assisting with surgeries, for example.

That’s caused some problems on occasion, says Reece. “I’ve had a couple of visiting veterinarians who’ve gotten a little bit of an attitude, not wanting to work alongside my staff,” he says. “And I won’t have that. My policy for people who come here, to work or to help, is treat our people well, or please leave.”

While staff have been prepared to take on some of the cultural traditions of the area, not all of the problems have proved surmountable. One of HIS staff’s big frustrations has to do with cows. Considered sacred, cows are allowed to wander freely through the city. Though no one would dream of harming them deliberately, they’re usually left to fend for themselves. The result is a city full of cows who are emaciated, cows who get hit by cars and are left to die naturally, cows who scavenge for food and end up eating things that are harmful to them. “We’ve taken 60 pounds of plastic bags out of a cow’s stomach before,” Reese says, explaining that the cows eat rotting vegetables and end up consuming the wrappers as well.

For many of these animals, the most humane option would be euthanasia—but it’s an option that HIS staff can’t consider. Since cows are holy animals, the punishment for killing one—even humanely—is seven years in prison. In a state to the north of Rajasthan, several animal aid workers were recently killed by members of a radical Hindu group who suspected that the workers had killed a cow. Reece won’t risk endangering his staff; although HIS will provide medical treatment to injured and starving cattle, they can’t euthanize them.

It’s disheartening, but Reece has learned to live with disappointment in exchange for continuing the organization’s other good works. The group’s animal birth control program and other animal rescue and rehabilitation efforts have been so successful that many of the locals who once regarded HIS with suspicion now approach them for help with their own animals. Reece attributes the drop in rabies cases to the organization’s vaccination program as well as to its visibility. Greater awareness of how rabies is spread has helped people be more careful with stray dogs.

The growing public appreciation has been a mixed blessing for HIS, which was recently approached for assistance in lancing an abscess that had formed on the back of the largest elephant in Jaipur. It was a difficult task, even before the elephant stood up mid-surgery, forcing one of the staff to scramble onto his back and finish the process nine feet in the air.

But for a group that’s taking many sacred cows by the horns, it was all in a day’s work.

 

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