“Don’t shoot!” yelled a resident of F-11, Islamabad. But he was too late, officials of the Capital Development Authority’s (CDA) dog disposal squad had already pulled the trigger and 11-month-old Jumper was dead.
A resident of the street, Affan Javed, adopted Jumper when he was a puppy. His vaccinations were up-to-date, and his health and behaviour were both beyond reproach.
And, yet, he was killed because he was perceived as a threat.
The CDA told Javed that they killed Jumper because “after a bout of heavy rain, many dogs are known to go rabid, so it’s better to kill them before they harm anyone”.
Another source who unofficially coordinates with the CDA, Sunil Jamil, the founder of an HWO Animal Rescue Islamabad, tells The News on Sunday that CDA officials only kill dogs upon citizen’s request. “When they get a call from a concerned citizen that a dog is annoying or scaring them, they act,” says Jamil.
In Jumper’s case, the call had been made by a new entrant in Javed’s neighbourhood.
Jumper was mistaken for a stray dog because Javed had chosen not to put a collar on him since the last time he put a collar on a dog, Popo, he was dognapped. A pet being mistaken for a stray dog and then being shot dead is an anomaly. But the fact that everyday scores of stray dogs are hunted down and killed, either by poisoning or shooting, is anything but an anomaly.
CDA officials tell TNS that they shoot on average 50 dogs per week. They know this not because they diligently keep a tally, but because their bullets come in cartons of 25 and they roughly go through two cartons every week.
If the CDA alone is killing this many dogs in a week, and the local governments of Lahore, Karachi and other cities aren’t far behind, then why isn’t the ‘problem’ of stray dogs being solved? The answer is simple, and important for those who say that in a country where humans are dying of poverty, oppression and terrorism, why should compassion be extended towards dogs? It’s because the killing of stray dogs in not just inhumane, it is also completely ineffective in erasing the threats that people experience from them.
Let’s first unpack the ‘problem’ that Pakistani citizens have with stray dogs: “Their barking scares me.” “I’m afraid they might bite my children.” “They scavenge in the trash and are dirty.” “They spread many frightening diseases, such as rabies.” The common theme amongst these complaints is that they stem from fear. And fear, in such cases, stems from a lack of knowledge and understanding.
“People need to understand that just because a dog is a stray dog doesn’t mean it will bite you, and even if he happens to bite you, that doesn’t mean it must have rabies,” explains Jamil.
Due to our poor treatment of animals that live on the street, stray dogs are often a lot more scared of us than we are of them. Their barking may be a misunderstood call for friendship. As for the trash, Jamil says: “If you have a problem with dogs sniffing through and spreading your trash, then don’t throw your trash in open places.”
It’s simple enough: without the trash, the dogs won’t come scavenging to your neighbourhood.
“It surprises me that citizens are worried about dogs harming their children but not about exposing their children to the brutal violence of killing a living being,” says Umer Gilani, an Islamabad-based lawyer who has an interest in animal rights. “A dog shooting is such a brutal, traumatic experience to watch.”
However, the possibility of being infected with rabies or being attacked by a dog should not be taken lightly. Just last week stray dogs attacked a four-year-old boy in Bahawalnagar. By the time his parents found him, he had succumbed to his wounds. Every year, thousands of people around the world die due to rabies and Pakistan has historically had a problem with ineffective and inaccessible rabies medication. But according to the World Health Organisation guidelines, exterminating dogs is not the answer to defeating rabies.
Extermination is nothing but a quick fix. When you poison, shoot, or relocate a large number of dogs, this forms a vacuum effect and encourages the surviving dogs to repopulate since now they have improved access to unutilised resources. In simple terms, even if you kill the entirety of the dog population in one neighbourhood (which in itself is unlikely given what bad shots our marksmen are), it will encourage dogs from the next neighbourhood to come to settle there since now there’s uncontested land and food available to them. They will manage to repopulate faster and more efficiently than before. A single breeding pair is all it takes to replenish the stray population.
So what to do about the rabies? Neuter, vaccine and shelter. That’s the only tried and tested long-term solution to quell the threat of rabies as well as overpopulation of dogs. “Neuter and inoculate the dogs and gradually the population will reduce to a manageable amount,” says Gilani.
Other animal welfare activists agree. Jamil says that since most people in the country can’t care less about dogs, this should be packaged as a human welfare programme. “If we neuter and vaccinate the dogs, this will take away the threat of overpopulation, aggression and rabies. This means there will be less dog biting incidents and hence less human deaths, so it’s actually human welfare,” he says. “The answer to the city’s worsening canine problem isn’t to kill them but fix them. A city-wide spaying and neutering programme that reduces population and aggression is the need of the hour,” said Ayesha Chundrigar, a Karachi-based animal welfare activist, to a local paper. At face value, the costs of spaying and neutering are higher than the costs of poison or bullets, but in the long run, it is the only solution.
Of late, animal welfare activists have also come out on the legal front. Humza Rashid is one of the lawyers who filed a constitutional petition against the mass killings of dogs in Lahore. The single bench that heard the public interest litigation dismissed it, saying that the stray dogs aggrieve locals of the affected area. The lawyers appealed, stating that these killings are illegal since the law around them is unclear and not fully formulated.
The local government ordinance provisioned that by-laws about putting collars on healthy dogs, checking stray dogs for rabies, deciding how dogs can be exterminated, and who will pay for all this, were meant to be created. “These by-laws were never created, we don’t know who in the municipal authority has the power to commission these killings or who is funding them,” says Rashid. The appeal was heard and municipal government employees called to court to explain their actions.
“Yahaan banday mar jaatay hain aur koi nahi poochta, aap kutton ka pooch rahay hain?” the government representative cheekily said to the bench, but the judges remained unamused. They scolded him for making light of the situation and called for another hearing in September. “We will see what happens in September, but right now the lack of by-laws makes such killings illegal.”
Reportedly, a case has also been lodged against officials who shot Jumper. Only time will tell if justice will be served. Until then it’s important to learn from the dog culling mistakes of other countries. In 1910, the newly installed Young Turk regime wanted to rid Istanbul of all stray dogs. The move was an attempt to ‘modernise’, ‘reform’ and ‘westernise’ the city, which had housed dogs for centuries. According to French anthropologist Catherine Pinguet, “stray dogs were seen as symbols of a disorderly and backward urban society” and that’s why they had to go. Much like Pakistanis of today, “For modernising officials in 1910, stray dogs represented dirt, disease, and danger.”
City officials carried out repeated poisoning campaigns; they even went so far as to capture and release hundreds of stray dogs on a barren island with no food or water, forcing the dogs to eat each other. None of these brutal strategies worked: maybe if the modernising officials had invested in neutering and vaccinating their strays back in 1910, today there wouldn’t be a conflict between those who want the city ‘cleansed’ of strays and those who wish to show compassion.