Rejects notion that local governments & High Courts have no jurisdiction over dog control, rejects claim of unconditional right to feed street dogs, & orders Animal Welfare Board to produce data showing programs are working to reduce dog bites
NEW DELHI––Advocates for no-kill animal control, feeding street dogs wherever and whenever, and defenders of dangerous dogs on October 12, 2022 lost a head-on collision with advocates for public safety before a two-judge panel representing the Supreme Court of India.
Further clarification of the ruling from the full Supreme Court is due in February 2023.
More nuanced approach to dog control coming
Before then, the two-judge panel ordered, the Animal Welfare Board of India is to file an affidavit including statistics on dog bites during the past seven years in a variety of states and major cities, and explaining what has been done to reduce dog bite frequency and severity.
The Supreme Court of India panel rejected the contentions of the Animal Welfare Board of India that the 20-year-old national Animal Birth Control program is the only street dog control method permitted by law, and that previous court decisions have established feeding street dogs as a right.
Instead, the court opened the door to more regionally nuanced and situation-specific interpretations of what is and is not legal under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 is in India the supreme law governing the treatment of animals, applicable in all cities and states.
“Supreme Court did not intend a standstill”
The Animal Birth Control program, subsidizing street dog sterilization and vaccination, exists through a series of edicts and regulations subordinate to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.
The Supreme Court of India did not allow cities and states to resume indiscriminate population control killing of dogs, nor to forbid feeding street dogs, but as LiveLaw put it, “clarified that that there is no bar on the High Courts,” meaning the equivalent of U.S. state courts, “to hear matters pertaining to the issue of stray dogs.”
Explained LiveLaw, “A bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and J.K. Maheshwari clarified that an earlier order of the Supreme Court on November 18, 2015,” widely heralded by animal advocates as establishing as sacrosanct a right to feed street dogs, “did not intend for all proceedings before High Courts to come to a standstill in cases pertaining to stray dogs.”
Cows, buffalo, & breed-specific precedent
The Supreme Court of India did, however, remind that future High Court decisions must keep in mind previous orders and precedents pertaining to dogs.
Thus, while a High Court may not authorize randomly culling street dogs, it might allow a city government to cull a dog pack of demonstrated dangerous behavior. A High Court may not ratify a local prohibition on feeding street dogs, but could ratify rules on where feeding street dogs could be done safely.
High Courts have not yet ruled on breed-specific legislation, but there is no national precedent for ruling against it, and is a strong precedent for allowing it, inasmuch as Indian law has for millennia recognized a breed distinction between “cows” and “buffalo,” which are both of the bovinae genus bos and are fully capable of interbreeding.
The Animal Welfare Board of India had appealed a variety of verdicts on dog matters recently issued by a variety of High Courts in different states.
In particular, a condominium complex in Mumbai complained that residents suffered from 10 to 15 dog bite cases resulting from other residents feeding street dogs on the grounds. The condominium management sought to restrict dog feeding to designated areas and to fine violators.
People for Animal Welfare and the Ahima Trust contended that the Mumbai High Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, based on the November 18, 2015 decision by the Supreme Court of India.
Agreeing with the condominium residents, one of the two judges on the Supreme Court of India panel told them, “You may have a genuine concern. If I were in your place, if my children have gone out to play, I would be scared. I will not like to go to a complex like this, where dog bites are reported. We will permit you to go to the High Court. If any adverse order is passed, you can come here.”
Kerala problem “seems to be quite peculiar”
The Supreme Court of India panel then reviewed recent public disturbances in Kerala state following dog attacks, rumors of dog attacks, and human deaths from rabies.
“In Kerala,” said one of the judges, “the problem seems to be quite peculiar. All of us are dog lovers, but if there is a problem, it has to be dealt with.”
Human rabies deaths around India since the Animal Birth Control program debuted nationally have declined to near the vanishing point: from 235 in 2003 to just 55 in 2020, according to Central Bureau of Health Intelligence data.
The national Animal Birth Control program is modeled after a program introduced experimentally by the Blue Cross of India in Chennai in 1966, expanded to the entire city and made city policy in 1996 after 30 years of demonstration projects.
Chennai currently has about 57,000 street dogs, according to city surveys, sterilizes more than 7,000 dogs per year, and is in the process of expanding from three Animal Birth Control clinics serving the community to five.
Chennai has not had a human rabies death since 2017.
The National Livestock Census reported in August 2022 that the Indian street dog population dropped from 17.1 million in 2012 to 15.3 million in 2019, indicating that the national Animal Birth Control program may now be effecting a population drop of approximately 3% per year.
Steep jump in rabies deaths
Of the 15.3 million street dogs, about 290,000 reside in Kerala, the only Indian state within which local governments pay compensation to the victims of dog bites.
That dog bite victims can collect compensation for their injuries may have something to do with why Kerala had almost 100,000 reported injurious bites in the first seven months of 2022, twice as many as in 2021.
On the other hand, Kerala has had at least 21 human rabies deaths thus far in 2022, up from just 28 in the preceding eight years.
Among the 2022 rabies victims was a 12-year-old girl who had received a three-shot post-exposure vaccination sequence that doctors believed should have saved her.
Post-exposure anti-rabies vaccination is provided to victims free of charge throughout India, but vaccine quality issues have plagued the program since inception in earliest form in 1911.
Apart from politically driven agitation to kill dogs, from factions which have historically hired goondas to do “animal control” between intimidating opponents, the Kerala Pravasi Association, a political party appealing to the educated middle class, in September 2022 asked the Supreme Court of India to direct that an independent expert committee be appointed to investigate “the number of deaths that have occurred despite timely administration of the vaccines.”
Can dog feeders be sued for cost of bites?
Street dog feeders howled meanwhile in response to rumors that the Supreme Court of India would require that anyone who feeds street dogs to bear the costs if the dogs injure people, including the expense of administering post-exposure vaccination.
Reality is that during a Supreme Court of India hearing on September 9, 2022, reviewing a case brought by animal advocates in opposition to a 2015 Kerala High Court verdict which allowed killing street dogs under specific circumstances, one of the justices wondered aloud whether dog feeders could be held responsible for the consequences of bites.
That remark was not at any time part of a ruling or proposed ruling.
Kanpur bans pit bulls & Rottweilers
While rabies remains the uppermost Indian public concern pertaining to dog bites, pit bull attacks appear to have become more frequent than human rabies deaths in much of the nation.
The city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh on September 28, 2022 became apparently the first in India to ban pit bulls and Rottweilers within city limits.
The ban came after an 11-year-old boy in Ghaziabad received 150 stitches after a pit bull attacked him in a city park, and three months after Sushila Tripathi, 82, of Lucknow, was killed by her son’s pit bull.