by Merritt Clifton
Part 3 of a four-part series. See also: What to call cats, & why it matters: evolving terms; “Vagrant” or “feral” cats; and “Community cats” vs. community health.
The arrival of “feral”
From 1920 through 1991, according to NewspaperArchive.com, “feral cats” had been mentioned in U.S. daily newspapers just 134 times.
From 1992 to date, according to NewsLibrary.com, which provides more complete data for the online era, “feral cats” have been mentioned more than 50,450 times.
Over the past several decades, about 70% of the cats killed in U.S. shelters have been said to be “feral.”
Nonetheless, the advent of high-volume neuter/return has held the toll of cats killed in shelters during the first 15 years of the 21st century to about two million per year. This is approximately 25% of the toll in 1990 and less than 10% of the peak reached in the early 1970s.
Anything but miserable & helpless waifs
Neuter/return was and remains the tool used to effect this dramatic drop in shelter killing. The concept encouraging the humane community to accept neuter/return was that a substantial part of the “stray” cat population are in truth ferals, as capable of looking out for themselves as any other wildlife.
Animal advocates may not want them to be at large, for reasons including preventing predation on wildlife and avoiding the risk that the cats will be cruelly treated. Yet feral cats are now widely appreciated as anything but the miserable helpless waifs depicted in earlier humane literature, who must be killed for their own good because they cannot survive outside of a kind human home without unnatural suffering.
What dogs have to do with it
While this transition in perception of feral cats was underway, the rest of the world was approaching through a process of parallel evolution a whole new approach to rabies control and coping with street dogs––which would in turn influence a transition in how feral cats are treated.
Historically, street dogs have usually been tolerated as a constant if occasionally problematic presence, between rabies outbreaks.
In response to rabies outbreaks, dogs were and often still are killed in great numbers, but street dog populations inevitably rebound from massacres within a matter of months–like feral cats–and have usually been ignored after rebounding until the next rabies episode.
Three developments are gradually changing the paradigm for street dogs, decades after each was introduced.
Animal Birth Control
First, longtime Blue Cross of India chief executive Chinny Krishna in 1966 began demonstrating neuter/return of street dogs. Krishna was so far ahead of his time that even the U.S. then had only one low-cost dog and cat sterilization program.
Thirty years elapsed before Krishna’s approach became the official policy of the city of Chennai, but within another year his Animal Birth Control program became the national policy of India. Krishna’s original ABC program, augmented by others, had by 2006 eradicated rabies from Chennai. Parallel programs eradicated rabies from Jaipur and Visakhapatnam. Federally subsidized ABC projects are now underway throughout India.
ABC meanwhile became national policy in Costa Rica in 2001, and in Turkey in 2003. Similar programs are underway in many other parts of the world.
Before sterilizing and vaccinating street dogs could become accepted, animal control officials had to learn––and accept––that traditional high-volume killing had never really quelled rabies outbreaks, and that a new method was necessary. As animal control agencies worldwide mostly work under public health departments, the impetus to change directions had to come from public health directors.
A breakthrough came in 1983 from William G. Winkler M.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wrote Winkler in the National Academy of Sciences’ handbook Control of Rabies: “Persistent trapping or poisoning campaigns as a means to rabies control should be abolished. There is no evidence that these costly and politically attractive programs reduce either wildlife reservoirs or rabies incidence.”
Winkler referred to botched efforts to control the mid-Atlantic states raccoon rabies pandemic of 1976-1996. Triggered by trappers and coonhunters who translocated several thousand raccoons from a rabies area in Florida to the Great Smokey Mountains of West Virginia, the pandemic advanced for 15 years at the rate of about 50 miles per year, while wildlife agencies in state after state tried to stop it by urging trappers and coonhunters to kill more raccoons.
The pandemic was at last stopped by deploying oral rabies vaccine pellets, bio-engineered to attract raccoons and be activated only by raccoons’ digestive systems.
A decade of controversy after Winkler wrote, the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians conceded in the 1994 edition of their annual Compendium of Animal Rabies Control that “Continuous and persistent government-funded programs for trapping or poisoning wildlife are not cost effective in reducing wildlife rabies reservoirs on a statewide basis.”
Similar passages have appeared in each subsequent update of the Compendium of Animal Rabies Control.
Street dogs as wildlife
The conceptual leap to recognizing street dogs as wildlife was accomplished in the mid-1980s by Oscar Pedro Larghi, M.D., of Argentina. First Larghi eradicated rabies in the cities of Buenos Aires, Lima, and Sao Paolo by vaccinating from 60% to 80% of their estimated dog populations during a series of three-month neighborhood blitzes. Then his vaccination teams eradicated canine rabies entirely from Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay by vaccinating more than a million dogs.
As the Larghi project was not followed up, and not accompanied by a vigorous dog sterilization program, all three nations again have vulnerable dog populations. Canine rabies has reappeared in two remote corners of Argentina. In addition, since routine animal control dog-killing continued where Larghi worked, his results are not unequivocal proof of the efficacy of mass vaccination in lieu of killing.
Nonetheless, Larghi showed that vaccinating street dogs under developing world conditions can be done with great success.
Among the first to notice were Calum N.L. MacPherson, Francois X. Meslin, and Alexander I. Wandeler, who in 1990 co-authored Dogs, Zoonoses, & Public Health. Updated several times, this is still a much-used standard reference.
Before writing the book, recalls Meslin, who heads the rabies control division of the World Health Organization, “We defined through a WHO consultation held in the late 1980s the terms and categories of animals, mostly dogs, in relation to rabies control or elimination, along a continuum from ‘fully owned’ to ‘strictly feral,’ acknowledging that all states in between might exist under certain circumstances.”
The purpose of the consultation was twofold. One purpose was to establish priorities for response. The other was to harmonize the terminology that might be used by anyone working to control any disease carried by street animals––dogs, cats, monkeys, pigs, whatever.
Dogs of most concern
The animals of most concern to the public health sector are those who both have frequent contact with humans and roam at large, able to contract and spread disease from a variety of sources. Strictly feral animals are of concern if they have contact with animals who associate with people, but are considered to represent a much lower order of risk than animals who themselves seek––or accept––human contact.
The WHO Steering Committee for Rabies Control in Asia in 2003 did not even mention feral dogs in defining the three categories of dog who are of most concern:
Community dog: A dog without a single owner and cared for by the community.
Pet dog: A dog owned by a household.
Stray dog: An ownerless dog, free roaming and not cared for by any household in a community.
“Community” vs. “stray”
The main distinction between a “community” dog and a “stray” is that the “community” dog is fed by people who do not otherwise take responsibility for the dog’s well-being. A pet dog might be vaccinated, de-wormed, and kept away from contact with diseased animals. A stray dog may welcome human contact, but not receive much. The “community” dog represents the top priority of concern because this dog is neither protected from disease as much as a pet might be, nor likely to avoid humans if ill.
Since 2003, “community” animals, primarily dogs, have been the subject of nearly four times more international public health alerts and peer-reviewed papers about zoonotic disease control than “feral” animals.
But the humane sector and the public health sector communicate surprisingly little, even though both are integrally involved in both animal control and disease control.
Except in India, where Meslin coordinates activity with the Animal Welfare Board of India, WHO works chiefly in nations with underdeveloped humane networks––or none.