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.
(See Pit bull attack death streak reaches nine in nine days.)
A. s. Mathew says
Dogs are super domestic animals, they are not street animals. Streets and cities are for human beings to travel in peace.
judy watson says
Not realistic in a country like India=*
Jamaka Petzak says
Agreeing with A.s. Mathew on the second of his sentences. People and other animals should not have to be accosted by dogs on the streets, wherever they live.
Irene Muschel says
Do people in India adopt these street dogs and take them into their homes so that they live primarily inside? I recall years ago that many people in India were adopting pure bred dogs but not so much dogs forced to live such hard and punishing lives on the streets.
Are the systemic causes of this overpopulation of street dogs being addressed beyond the crucial spay/neuter programs? For example, is there an improved sanitation system for food garbage collection?
Are people’s perceptions of who these dogs are — including their transformation from fear-based aggressive behavior to loving creatures when nurtured by Indian rescue groups — addressed in ways that would promote understanding and adoption?
What is the strength of legal punishments for people who abuse these animals trying to survive the harsh conditions they face? It is heartbreaking to read about the cruelty many of these dogs experience on the streets without anyone to protect them in an ongoing and effective way.
Although some neighborhoods may have so called designated “caretakers,” it seems that no one is really there for these dogs in a way that guarantees protection. If there were, there would not be so many rescues trying to come to the aid of yet another hurt animal.
It is very difficult to read of groups helping an animal brought to its shelter because of severe injury/trauma and then — after providing medical care and nurturance — returning the animal to the street where he/she was traumatized. I will leave my thoughts on that action out of this comment.
Merritt Clifton says
Broad general questions can of course only be answered in broad general terms, recognizing that there will be many exceptions to every general answer. With that much acknowledged, a considerable body of data amassed in recent decades suggests the following answers:
Do people in India adopt these street dogs and take them into their homes so that they live primarily inside? Some people in India do adopt street dogs in the western sense of “taking them into their homes so that they live primarily inside,” but these are mostly people affluent enough to have western-style homes, housing a single family or extended family.
The majority of urban people in India live in multi-family apartment blocks, within which dogs often share a courtyard or alley, but keeping a dog indoors would involve routinely taking the dog in and out of shared indoor spaces. Court decisions have upheld the right of individual families to keep a dog indoors within shared buildings, but reality is that keeping a dog indoors where a dog is not welcome among close neighbors tends to be socially unacceptable behavior.
Poor people in India, especially in rural areas, tend to live in huts so small that many carry their beds outdoors during the day, in order to have more room indoors for housekeeping, childcare, and work done at home. Hardly anyone has a fenced yard. Dogs favored by a particular family may wander in and out at will, but the notion of keeping a dog indoors is scarcely practical.
Is there an improved sanitation system for food garbage collection? Sanitation in India has markedly improved in many of the most affluent cities. This has in turn reduced the urban habitat niche for street dogs, macaques, and rodents, but little or nothing has changed in the slums, as was discussed by the Supreme Court of India in rendering their verdicts of October 10, 2022.
That street dogs undergo a “transformation from fear-based aggressive behavior” when taken into care either by rescue groups or individuals and families is unfortunately for the most part a pernicious myth. Traditionally and historically street dogs have mostly avoided close contact with humans. Far from displaying “fear-based aggressive behavior,” street dogs mind their own business, scavenging in gutters and garbage piles, crossing streets to avoid the approach of strangers. “Fear-based aggressive behavior” begins when a street dog acquires a regular feeder and feeding location. The dog then becomes territorial, defending that food source –– and, having learned that a person with a bag may be carrying food, may join with other dogs to rush any passer-by with a bag. This is when street dogs become dangerous, in India or anywhere else. Some dogs, if adopted into a western-style home, unlearn this behavior, but many do not, and this is precisely why many people prefer to acquire a properly socialized dog from a breeder instead of taking a chance on a half-socialized street dog.
What is the strength of legal punishments for people who abuse these animals trying to survive the harsh conditions they face? As People for Animals founder Maneka Gandhi, longtime Blue Cross of India chair Chinny Krishna, and many others have long pointed out, India has some of the strongest humane laws in the world. Unfortunately, enforcing those humane laws receives a low priority from law enforcement –– as does enforcing the laws that protect the least affluent and least educated people. The chronically overwhelmed Indian judiciary tends to favor animals when cruelty cases reach the courts; the bottleneck is in getting cases to the courts in the first place.
It is very difficult to read of groups helping an animal brought to its shelter because of severe injury/trauma and then — after providing medical care and nurturance — returning the animal to the street where he/she was traumatized. In the U.S., where this is increasingly the practice of “rescue” organizations seeking to avoid ever euthanizing an animal, “returning” an animal to the street is often simple abandonment. In India, however, as in much of the rest of the developing world, this is returning the animal to the only home the animal has ever known, and that all of the animal’s ancestors have known for generations, even millennia. The streets are where everything good that ever happened to the animal has occurred, as well as the one traumatic experience, and most street dogs returned to the streets rush back with wagging tails and never a look backward.
It is also critical to realize that Indian street dogs continue to fill a very necessary ecological role, not only in consuming rodents and refuse, but in keeping urbanized macaques up in the trees and away from accosting humans in the streets. A troop of macaques is to humans far more dangerous than even a whole pack of typical street dogs, and macaques are much more likely to be killed or injured in conflict with humans if street dogs are not on the job, barking the macaques back to where they pose no threat.
Irene Muschel says
Depending on the study one reads, the average life span of an Indian street dog
is about 3 years, give or take. That stat says a lot about the misery of trying to survive on the streets
and it is heartbreaking to imagine what these animals go through and feel. It does not make it any better that this situation has existed for a very long time.
The well-known fact that India has strong laws on the books that protect animals does not help animals if the laws are not enforced. The animals do not experience the effects of those laws. The reality that these laws are not enforced says much about the lack of psychological internalization of the values of these laws
by many parts of society. The same could of course also be said about animal protection laws in the United States including the obscene elimination of farm animals — who are not seen as sentient beings–
from many animal protection laws.