Gardiner Harris, the South Asia Correspondent for the New York Times, recently offended many Indian Animal activists with his story ” Where the Streets are Thronged with Strays Bearing Fangs.” A multimedia slideshow “A Snarling Menace in India,” accompanies the piece with portraits of seemingly threatening and vicious stray dogs in India
I subscribe to a listserv of Indian Animal Protection groups, and this week, my inbox was filled with comments of criticism and dissapointment in Harris’ article. The consensus was that the reporting was sloppy and the language sensational. Many wondered the source for Harris’s estimates of bites per year. (“Free-roaming dogs number in the tens of millions and bite millions of people annually, including vast numbers of children.”). The overall tone of the piece was one that instilled fear:
“Packs of strays lurk in public parks, guard alleyways and street corners and howl nightly in neighborhoods and villages. Joggers carry bamboo rods to beat them away, and bicyclists fill their pockets with stones to throw at chasers. Walking a pet dog here can be akin to swimming with sharks.”
Many of the Indian Animal advocates who have been in the trenches working on this issue, felt the threatening portrayal of the dogs to be a gross exaggeration. The article was perhaps also a missed opportunity to acknowledge the progress that has been made with Animal Birth Control (ABC), Animal Rabies Vaccination (ARV), and spay/neuter return programs. Cities all over the country are exploring humane methods of population control and peaceful coexistence.
The piece made me reflect on my own experiences with the street dogs of India. Outside my grandmother’s home in Bangalore, a sweet brown and white dog took comfort in finding a spot in the shade to rest and was grateful for the plates of rice neighbors often fed him. On his ear was a U-shapep notch, indicating that he had been neutered. I had the chance to visit Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, the local shelter, which also ran a program for sterilizing and vaccinating such street dogs.
Any newcomer to India will take notice of the street dogs–they are everywhere. (Here’s a slideshow of some of the street dogs I’ve encountered, in Bangalore, Varanasi, Gaya, Delhi and Solapur.)
You can find them sleeping on the steps of train stations, curled up under a flower walla’s table, or waiting for prasadam outside a temple. Their street smarts are sharp and they can weave in and out of traffic and have learned to cross the street. What I had noticed,was that while they were in close proximity, most never directly approached humans, but rather found a way to subsist and survive among them.
The high population of strays, many sick and undernourished, is one of great concern, but human factors are largely responsible. Harris does briefly acknowledge these human elements and ways to better manage the population:
“Nonetheless, India’s burgeoning middle class has begun to adopt Western notions of pet ownership, buying pedigreed dogs and bringing animals into their homes. But many pedigreed dogs end up on the street, the castoffs of unsuccessful breeders or owners who tire of the experiment.
…The first thing you need to start doing to reduce the stray population is manage your garbage better,” said Arpan Sharma, chief executive of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations. “And the second thing is very aggressive spaying, neutering and vaccinating of animals.”
When confronted with the outpouring of comments on this piece, Harris responded via email to one of his critics, with this reply:
“Millions of Indians — including untold numbers of children — are mauled every year by stray dogs. I guess I worry more about children than dogs. But that could be an American thing.”
His response only worsened the original offense, leaving the critic to wonder if Harris meant to imply “that Americans love their children more than Indians.”
Harris is a new foreign correspondent for the New York Times. His post in India began in May, and that was the first time he set foot in the subcontinent. In a blog post on India Ink, the NYT India Blog, Harris indicated that his “fresh eyes” could be an asset for the job. But perhaps his vantage point and perspective limited his reportage on this subject.
The email exchange on this piece continued, and Harris defended his piece citing sources for his bite statistics and made sure to mention his ten years of experience as a public health reporter. He then went on to frame the issue simply, by pitting street dogs against children:
“I have been surprised by the outrage the story has generated. Why is it acceptable that children are terrorised by stray dogs? Why is your sympathy with dogs and not children? Every major international animal rights group accepts the necessity of euthanasia to control strays but it is not even part of the discussion in India. I’m sorry I was flip in my response earlier, but I believe you and others are focusing on the wrong population. We should try our best to protect children. That should be the first duty of every state. And as long as there is a major population of strays in India — vaccinated or not, neutered or not — that is an exceedingly difficult proposition.”
In further correspondance with his critics, Harris wrote:
“Am I being over-protective? As the father of young children, that’s certainly possible. And mine is clearly a western perspective. Is it racist to say so? I don’t think so. The tolerance of strays in India and the dangers associated with them is hard to fathom from a western perspective, so I think that saying that my perspective differs in how I balance the rights of dogs and children is an acknowledgment of the obvious.”
Those who work in animal advocacy are often confronted with this false logic, that we must choose between humans and the other animals. (Here in NYC, for the past four summers, USDA has rounded up and killed geese in the name of airplane safety, although the necessity and efficacy of this has been challenged).
The work Indian animal advocates do is to make the streets safer for both children and dogs. There is no quota on compassion. Their work is not without its challenges. Contrary to Harris’ understanding, India is not euthanasia-free and eradication of strays does enter the debate with any incident of a dog bite. See this piece here on various programs throughout the country. The history of euthanasia and its (lack of ) effectiveness in India is summarized below:
“The British were the first to adopt mass killing of dogs as a solution to control their population in the 19th Century. As a measure to eradicate human rabies deaths and curb dog population, up to 50,000 dogs were killed every year even after Independence by the municipal authorities all over India.
According to The Welfare of Stray Dogs (WSD), by 1993, the programme was admitted to be a complete failure as human rabies deaths had actually increased, and the dog population was also growing. Studies by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Animal Welfare Board of India (Ministry of Environment & Forests) show that dog population control measures which work in developed countries are unsuccessful in third world developing countries, since urban conditions are very different. The urban environment here encourages breeding of stray dogs, so no matter how many dogs were killed, they were quickly replaced by more. That’s why in January 1994, the killing programme was replaced by mass sterilisation of stray dogs.”
Working toward humane solutions to curb populations and coexist coincides with Gandhi’s belief that “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
In my last trip to India, an animal advocate friend of mine, gave me a copy of a short booklet, “Chutki’s Experiences” by A. Shamalatha. It is a children’s play about a small puppy named Chutki and her experiences trying to survive on the streets. The book also includes a lists of Do’s and Don’ts and an FAQ section, which provide advice to concerned residents about animal care. Rather than pitting children against dogs, it strives to make children their advocates.