Who Let The Dogs Out?

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‘Dog bites man’ is not supposed to be news. But in Kashmir, a barbaric man-animal conflict is playing out in the streets of Srinagar Baba Umar reports.

Man’s best friend? Since culling stopped in 2008, the number of dogs has multiplied
Man’s best friend? Since culling stopped in 2008, the number of dogs has multiplied, Photos: Abid Bhat

ON A chilly winter evening on 20 January, a carefree Mudasir Ahmad Wangnoo, 12, was returning home from tuition classes in Baagwanpora, downtown Srinagar, when he suddenly came face-to-face with two dozen stray dogs. What happened next on the banks of the partially frozen Dal lake was like a scene out of Animal Planet.

“I saw the canines tossing him up and down, tearing him apart like a pack of hyenas,” recalls eyewitness Syed Sajad Hussain. “Two dogs shredded his jacket 10 feet away. While the aggressive ones attacked his legs and torso, the weaker lot licked the blood splattered in the snow.”

So vicious was the attack that a horrified Hussain expected to see a dead body when he and his son managed to scare away the dogs. Luckily, there was still some life left in the bloodied body lying on the lakeside.

A shell-shocked Wangnoo was rushed to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), where doctors counted 125 dog bites on his body. Besides deep injuries to his neck, windpipe and face, the doctors found that the canines’ teeth had punctured the boy’s heart, leading to pneumopericardium, a critical condition in which the air enters the heart.

“Doctors from four departments are treating him. We can’t say he is stable. It will take at least six months for him to recover. If he survives, he will have to undergo counselling,” says one of the doctors attending on the young victim.

The attack is the latest in a series of incidents in which a human has been left horribly injured or killed by out-of-control mixed-breed canines. The dogs have been rampaging through the streets of Srinagar ever since their culling was stopped in 2008, following criticism by animal rights activists led by Maneka Gandhi.

TEHELKA couldn’t reach Delhi-based People For Animals chairperson Maneka for her comments. Even a faxed questionnaire as demanded by one staffer remained unanswered till the time of going to press.

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Biting Trouble

53,925 People were bitten by dogs in Kashmir in the past four years

91,110 Dogs roam the streets of Srinagar, according to the latest census

Rs 800 Is the cost of sterilising each dog, borne by the government and AWBI

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While Wangnoo is still battling for life, there are others who have died within days of being attacked by strays. Sehrab Wagay, 4, was bitten by canines on 23 July 2011. He was shifted to the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar on 9 August. He died the same day.

Ravaged by decades of armed conflict, Kashmir has also been a silent witness to a battle of dog vs man, mostly in the urban areas of the Valley. “We are concerned about the dog menace. But when we try to do something, we are stopped by animal rights activists. They are always creating hurdles,” then Srinagar Mayor Salman Sagar had said in 2007 after receiving Maneka’s letter asking the administration to sterilise dogs instead of poisoning them.

“It’s scary. The danger is real and serious,” warns Jammu & Kashmir Health Department chief Dr Saleem-ur-Rehman. In its latest survey, the department has found that 53,925 people were bitten by dogs between January 2008 and August 2011 in the Valley, some who died agonising deaths in hospitals. On an average, four people die of dog bites every year in the state. “And this figure may increase if we don’t control the number of dogs,” says Rehman.

Dr Muhammad Salim Khan of the Government Medical College (GMC), Srinagar, fears that the dog population will overtake humans in the summer capital, which has 14 lakh people. Khan’s worries are backed by the latest dog census conducted by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), which recorded 91,110 dogs in the city. The dog-human ratio here is 1:13, while the nationwide figure is 1:36.

“If a bitch lives her entire lifespan of 14-16 years and produces nine puppies every six months from age 2 onwards, she will mathematically give birth to nearly 80,000 dog progeny in her life. It is feared that there will be around 20 lakh dogs in Srinagar in another five years, overtaking humans,” he says.

In Kashmir, stray dogs are not considered man’s best friend, keeping in view the number of people they have attacked. In 2008, activists led by Maneka Gandhi had blocked the state government’s efforts to poison one lakh strays in Kashmir, leading people to wonder aloud whether rights activists love dogs more than Kashmiris.

In uptown Batmaloo, Irfan recalls how years ago a huge dog seized his newborn brother from the patio of their house and ran towards the vegetable garden in the backyard. “The successful chase saw the dog dropping the bruised baby. But, even years after the incident, our family is still scared of stray dogs,” he says.

In some localities, stray dogs notorious for assaulting humans and cows have been given nicknames. In Maharajpora, locals often talk about the Paanch Paapi (five sinners), a group of stray dogs that has been terrorising schoolchildren and people going for their morning namaz. Likewise, Sikander and Khandey Rao send shivers down the spine of Gangbugh residents.

“During the canine census, we found that every locality has alpha dogs that are violent and aggressive. They dominate the territorial battles and are responsible for attacking humans,” says SMC veterinary officer Dr Sajad Ahmad Mughal.

The unusually high aggression is attributed to the protein-rich diet found in the non-vegetarian food waste, which is generally left to rot on the streets. The state consumes almost 51,000 tonnes of mutton and more than 1 crore chicken every year. According to the SMC, more than 380 metric tonnes of garbage and high-protein solid waste is generated every day in Srinagar, which already has the distinction of being the fourth dirtiest city in India. About 60 percent of that waste is disposed of by the SMC, while a bulk of the rest ends up becoming food for the stray dogs.

While the job of culling dogs falls on the SMC, the city corporation has always been caught in a bind between animal rights activists on the one hand and angry residents on the other. In 2003, the SMC was forced to shelve a plan to sterilise male dogs. Recently, when it tried to send 20 workers to learn the art of catching dogs, the latter threatened an agitation saying, “The SMC can’t bully us into catching dogs.”

THEN A pied piper appeared. Last summer, the SMC tried to hire Khursheed Ahmad Mir, an MBA graduate and self-professed ‘pied piper’, who claimed that Srinagar can be rid of dogs humanely. Mir had claimed he had cleared monkeys from several areas of Jaipur, National Archives and Khuda Baksh buildings in Delhi. Mir, who is often awarded contracts to purge government hospitals of rats, had also claimed to have driven out 150 dogs from the upscale Sanat Nagar locality in Srinagar.

However, after a series of negative stories appeared in the local press, Mir backed out saying the government couldn’t afford to pay him. One SMC official said that Mir was seeking a “shocking” fee of Rs 20 crore and his plans never had any “scientific basis or template”. “I think Mir’s plan was to catch the stray dogs and ferry them in a train to the Northeast, where dog meat is preferred by some communities,” says an official on the condition of anonymity.

Since the SMC is not allowed to poison dogs, there have been many instances when people would take matters in their own hands. In one such incident, almost 20 dogs in a posh Srinagar locality were secretly poisoned some years ago.

According to an SMC official, a struggling journalist sent pictures of the dead dogs to Maneka, who requested Chief Minister Omar Abdullah for his intervention. “After all the bashing the SMC received, that journalist is still struggling,” says the official jokingly. “Nobody understands that the people are angry. Their kids are being attacked and they want to kill the dogs on their own.”

Leaving their mark Bite victim Wangnoo battles for life
Leaving their mark: Bite victim Wangnoo battles for life

The dog menace has reached the courts as well. In August 2011, the Srinagar High Court heard a PIL filed by social activist Nadeem Qadri. The HC had directed the government to create dog pounds as it feared that the “dogs will be stoned to death by locals”. In reply, the SMC told the court that it will need Rs 862 crore to construct pounds for neutering dogs.

The SMC’s project envisaged constructing 1,800 pounds, each having 50 kennels. The SMC said it would require 30 teams of three-member dog catching squads, 17 dog-catching vehicles, 3,600 caretakers, 1,800 cleaners and 360 night watchmen.

Ahmad Mir, a self-styled pied piper, offered to rid Srinagar of the stray dogs. But his offer was declined when he demanded Rs 20 cr

Last November, the SMC advertised dog-catching posts and held a talent hunt. Among 100 participants, 10 people in the age group of 20-30 years were finally selected. However, the plan was abandoned following criticism about the huge expenditure proposed on stray dogs.

Despite painting the scary scenario in which the city streets will be ruled by 20 lakh dogs, SMC Joint Commissioner Fayaz Ahmad Bala has a positive attitude. “We won’t let it happen. We can still stop the growth of dogs,” he says.

Leaving their mark a pack of strays in Srinagar
A pack of strays in Srinagar

The SMC has signed an MOU with the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Agricultural Sciences and Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), thanks to which some land in Ganderbal, located 18 km east of Srinagar, has been earmarked to build a sterilisation camp where dogs will be neutered and then ferried back to their localities. “The cost of sterilising each dog will be Rs 800,” says Bala, adding that Rs 400 will be borne by the state and the rest by the AWBI.

The SMC’s latest plan involves catching canines in the early morning and late evening using nets, sacks and Y-poles. After ovario hysterectomia of bitches and neutering of male dogs, the animals will be marked with ear studs to avoid confusion. A canine will spend only five days in the camp before being ferried back to its locality.

While the SMC is confident that the new plan will halt the explosive growth in the dog population, the government doesn’t have an answer to the question posed by Chief Justice FM Ibraheem Kalif Ullah: “Will a dog stop biting after sterilisation?”

Another question that remains unanswered is, will the SMC’s sterilisation efforts match the pace at which the canine population is growing? Dr Salim Khan of the GMC estimates that on an average, 500 dogs have to be sterilised every day.

As the authorities grapple with the menace, the relatives of Wangnoo, who have been pacing the hospital corridor for days, are convinced that people must cull the dogs or else the canines will continue to hunt down children and adults alike. They allege that activists will always protect the rights of animals instead of caring about the human toll. This is something that most of the government officials deny on record but acknowledge in private.

Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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