"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I Hate Dogs

Actually, I love dogs and was very attached to the two I have had over my lifetime.  One was a Poodle and the other an Australian Shepherd and both were smart, affectionate, loyal, and fun to be around.  At the same time, I am afraid of dogs because of the snarling packs of strays that roamed the streets of Latin America, India, and especially Romania.  Many if not most of these dogs were rabid, the treatment for presumed rabies was a series of injections in the stomach which offered some and not complete protection, and my image of ‘dog’ changed from sweet little pooch into a fanged, salivating, snarling, mangy, and threatening Cujo. 

In Bucharest, a city which seemed to have the highest concentration of stray dogs of any large metropolitan area, the packs of roaming dogs were a menace.  Most Romanians I knew had been bitten, and rabies was a real concern.  Whenever I walked I carried a big stick and loaded my pockets with rocks.  Every trip took twice as long as it should have because of the evasive routes I was forced to take because of the dogs. One year while I was there, the municipal government decided to crack down and fleets of dog-catchers were deployed to round them up and incinerate them. 

Protests came from two quarters.  One was the residents of apartment blocks – the high-rise cement, uniformly forbidding and soulless places that were common throughout the Soviet bloc – who had adopted their own packs of dogs as crime-fighters.  In the early 90s when Romania was being totally restructured after decades of Communism and Ceausescu, the police were a scattered, underpaid, and demoralized lot, poverty was increasing, and crime more and more of a fact of urban life.  Residents of the apartment blocs fed and otherwise cared for the dogs and in gracious return, they fended off intruders.  Somehow dogs and residents got to know each other and their contract was a good and inviolable one.

The second quarter of opposition came from Brigitte Bardot, a well-known and now aging sex symbol of French films of the Sixties who had undertaken a crusade for animal rights, especially dogs.  She got wind of Bucharest’s intention to round up strays and offered to set up a dog sterilization program.  Sterilize enough dogs, she said, and eventually the population would be reduced and the problem would go away.  Few Romanians wanted to wait for the ‘herd effect’ to take hold, and applauded government’s attempts to rid the public areas of the city at least of this menace.  Bardot was very generous, however, and the government agreed to a pilot program; but humane capture was not in the dog-catcher guidebook.  The modus operandi was to poison or shoot them, then scrape them off the streets and take them to the incinerator.  The municipal authorities floated the idea of privatizing the process – i.e. paying so much a head for each dead dog – but the idea of private enterprise was still an alien concept, and so it would be up to government to eliminate the dogs.

The pilot program began, but Bardot had no idea of how many dogs there were in Bucharest, how fast they bred, and how hard they were to catch.  Everything was possible from tranquilizer darts to old-fashioned nets but the enormity of the task was daunting and very expensive.  Most of all, the residents of the city didn’t have their hearts in it.  They either wanted the dogs dead and burned to ash or allowed to roam and protect.

According to an article in today’s New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/07/world/asia/india-stray-dogs-are-a-menace.html?hp the stray dog population is worse in India than in any other country in the world:

No country has as many stray dogs as India, and no country suffers as much from them. Free-roaming dogs number in the tens of millions and bite millions of people annually, including vast numbers of children. An estimated 20,000 people die every year from rabies infections — more than a third of the global rabies toll.

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.

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The thought is terrifying; but India being a land where every living thing is respected and life not cavalierly taken, eliminating the menace is complicated.

Indeed, tackling rabies on the subcontinent is challenging because the relationships that Indian dogs maintain with humans are ancient. India’s pariah dog, the dominant street breed, is probably a descendant of an early Chinese immigrant, said Peter Savolainen, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. With pointed ears, a wedge-shaped head and a tail that curls over its back, the pariah is similar in appearance to other prehistoric dogs like the Australian dingo.

For thousands of years, dogs’ relationship with humans was similar to that of pilot fish with sharks, said John Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in Britain.

“Dogs essentially started out as scavengers,” Dr. Bradshaw said. “They evolved to hang around people rather than to be useful to them.”

While that relationship has largely disappeared in the developed world, it remains the dominant one in India, where strays survive on the ubiquitous mounds of garbage. Some are fed and collared by residents who value them as guards and as companions, albeit distant ones. Hindus oppose the killing of many kinds of animals.

The situation is, therefore, not that much different from Romania.  Although the scale of the problem is different, the stray dogs in both places are both menace and public servant.  But scale matters, and unless some action is taken, dogs could take over the cities.  Some measures have been taken – reducing the size and number of garbage dumps where the dogs feed; aggressive spaying and neutering of pet dogs so that when they are released (pet ownership is a new concept in India, and when new middle class Indians get tired of the novelty, they let their dogs loose) they will not breed; and, like the Brigitte Bardot idea, a contraceptive vaccine still in the laboratories.  

None of these ideas seem very practical.  ‘Euthanasia’ is obviously the only way, but the Hindu interdiction against the killing of animals is still very strong.  Eventually, however, some cleric will find away around the proscription - e.g. killing a presumably rabid dog should not be considered killing the dog but killing the rabies, an act no different than killing the bacteria that cause infections – the Indian and American Centers for Disease Control will be engaged, and the dogs will be eliminated.

Not in my lifetime, however, so if I ever return to India where I spent five happy, dog-free years in the late Sixties, I will watch my ankles.

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