Dogs, zoologically known as Canis familiaris, are carnivorous mammals that share a number of habits with wolves, jackals and foxes. Like many other flesh-eating mammals, dogs have canine teeth that they use quite efficiently while hunting, feeding and defending themselves. They are social and prone to living in packs like wolves. But the species does not exist in the wild. The Australian dingo is merely a ‘feral’ dog – one that has run wild after some early human colonizer had introduced the domesticated dog on the continent. Where did the dog come from? No one is really sure.
As early as in the 1850s, Charles Darwin had a number of ideas about the origin of dogs. In his ‘Origin of Species’ – the classical 1859 treatise of the theory of evolution through natural selection, Darwin had dealt with the subject at some length. He firmly believed that the many different breeds of modern dogs had their ancestors amongst wolves, jackals and probably other wild canine mammals like foxes and coyotes.
Modern biologists did agree with Darwin in their theories and speculations about the probable ancestors of the now fully domestic dog. As the dog mostly shares the traits of wolves and jackals (eg wagging tail, smiling, turning in circles before resting), it was widely believed that the wolf and jackal had primarily contributed to the rise of the hundreds of breeds of dogs that we see today. Amongst the domestic breeds that are popular in the world, those in the north like the Siberian Huskies and German Shepherds were considered to have descended from wolves. The more warm-adapted less hairy breeds of the tropics were thought to be more likely akin the jackals and selective breeding and transport of the dog across the globe, beginning with the early voyages of European explorers like Christopher Columbus, had resulted in crossing and hybridization that it is presently impossible to draw a clear line between breeds that descended from the wolves and those that belong to the jackal clan.
Most recent research on the dog genome (the complete genetic make-up) has shed better light on the origin and history of domestic dogs. The complete genetic make-up of the dog has more or less confirmed that the domestic breeds are all descendants of the wolf. The process that led to the transformation of the domestic dog from the wolf has taken not less than 15,000 years; could have been even longer as the latest scientific findings tend to suggest.
It may take a while before the latest discoveries of the lineage of domestic dogs get to be widely known. What is nevertheless of interest is the process that led to the rather unique and time-tested human-dog relationship. Between 15,000 and 100,000 years of symbiosis has woven the two species together into a bondage that surpasses all other forms of comradeship that the dog, the first animal to have been domesticated, continues to be man’s ‘best’ friend.
It is not an ecological accident that brought man and the dog together. There are a number of speculations about the process that led to the symbiosis. Some believe that the wild ancestors of the dog stayed around the temporary shelters of early hunter-gatherer human societies and scavenged the left over food (especially meat and bones) and over time these early dogs moved across diverse landscapes following the nomadic people and adapted well to the ‘human’ ways of living. Dogs barked and warned the humans of intruders and kept the surroundings clean of refuse and decaying carcasses. The human species that was generally in conflict with most other species of carnivorous mammals accepted the dog as an ideal companion (and guardian) and started nurturing it. Thus began the long standing human-dog bondage that has made the dog an integral part of every human culture.
The dog is easily the most adorable of animals. Much was said about a Labrador retriever that saved its owner during the September 11, 2001 twin tower fiasco in New York. There was at least one report of how a free-ranging dog saved a child during the December 26, 2004 tsunami in India. Hundreds of fables and folk-tales (throughout the world) have acknowledged the commitment and faithfulness of dogs to their owners. The human-like moods and expressions of the dog have inspired songs and religious cults. Latin Americans take dogs to church on the day of St Lazarus. In Tamil Nadu, guardian and hunting dogs have for long adorned temples and village sign posts.
Sadly, the dog is the most abused of animals in modern human societies. To start with, even the phrases ‘dog’ and ‘bitch’ (including their equivalents in many regional languages) are used in the most derogatory sense that demeans both man and beast. Free-ranging dogs are called pie dogs, mongrel, stray dogs, street dogs and community dogs. Few of these ‘titles’ are meant to protect the dignity of this faithful animal. Further demeaning is it when a free-ranging dog gets crushed under the wheels on the streets and the corpse is just left to decay. Is it not pathetic to see the bloated corpse lying neglected on the road? Worse still is the sight of a dead dog getting shredded and minced under the wheels of the passing vehicles on our ever busy roads!
The disregard for free-ranging dogs is more evident in cities where people fancy keeping only priced pure bred dogs with a pedigree as pets. There is nothing wrong or rude about such a choice. Pedigree dogs have been specifically selected and bred for their unique traits and naturally appeal to people in a number of different ways. While some breeds are merely pets, others are excellent watchdogs and work dogs. And as the body size and build of each breed have been carefully matched to suit the purpose for which it has been selectively bred, it is not surprising to see a greyhound outrun a German shepherd or a ‘mongrel’ during a chase.
Mongrel dogs (most of which are free-ranging), however, are in many respects hardier than the pure-bred pets. Like wild animals, free-ranging dogs are exposed to the laws of nature that they constantly adapt to the ever-changing local environmental conditions. Since they are out-crossed (and not inbred) free-ranging dogs are genetically more variable than the pure-bred. In fact they are known to be the best sources of parasite and disease resistant genes that dog-breeders turn to them from time to time to out-cross their pets and improve the breeding stock. Further, at a time when living plants and animals are increasingly seen as ‘bio-resources’ where breeders seek novel and heritable traits (characters) in land races, wild relatives and indigenous breeds, the genetic diversity in free-ranging dogs cannot be ignored.
Neglect and abuse of free-ranging dogs are largely the result of ignorance. Few really know that the dog – Canis familiaris cannot exist outside the domain of human societies. The more than 50,000 years of symbiotic coexistence has left the dog more dependent on human beings than the domestic cat or any other species of domesticated animal. Human selection has led to a total change in the food habits of the dog from being a carnivore to an omnivorous scavenger and of late even a vegetarian! It is not uncommon to find many dogs that do not accept uncooked food. Rarely has such a transformation been observed in any other species of domestic animal, for that matter even cattle. It is this human-induced transformation that has driven the free-ranging dogs to hang around human residences and canteens and beg for food, glean the bins and waste disposal sites for scraps of food despite the odds of having to fight with other dogs and getting stoned by people who resent them.
People see free-ranging dogs as a nuisance. Driven by instincts, especially during the breeding seasons, dogs can turn noisy and aggressive wherever they are. Free-ranging dogs do form packs and attempt to hunt down chicken, cats, cattle, sheep, goats and sometimes deer (as in Chennai and other wildlife habitats). They chase wheels and frighten cyclists and riders of two-wheeled vehicles at nights. Such behavior is however more an exception than the rule.
Free-ranging dogs are resented and harassed in human societies mainly due to a number of fears. Like most other animals, dogs carry and spread diseases. While not all of these diseases spread across dogs to infect human beings, rabies does. Rabies is no doubt a deadly disease induced by a virus. Rabies is however not unique to dogs. It is a disease that kills a large number of wild animals as well. And cats are as much prone to rabies as are dogs. Yet preventive vaccination of dogs and protective vaccination of human beings who have suffered a dog bite have over the years kept the disease under check. A rabid dog is more likely to bite and infect another dog than a human being. A rabid dog biting a human being is more accidental than purposeful. While it is not safe to ignore it when bitten by a dog, undue panic can be avoided through greater awareness of the way rabies spreads.
Statistics have suggested that around 30 lakh (3 million) people suffer dog bites each year in India. Against a human population of 100 crores (1 billion), this amounts to three in a thousand. In other words, the chance that an average Indian gets bitten by a dog is 1/300. Assuming that many domestic bites that people receive from pet dogs go unreported, one may conclude that 1/300 is an underestimate. Whatever be the number, from the fact that not all the reported dog bites in India have proved to be fatal, it is evident that the overall risk of contracting rabies is far lower than the risk of a road accident.
In the year 2002 alone the Country reported 80,000 deaths due to road accidents. This does not include the number of people permanently crippled and maimed by the accidents and others who have paid a huge sum of money as hospital charges in the event of a road accident. In India anyone on the road is more vulnerable to suffering an accident (that can even be fatal) than being attacked by a free-ranging dog! Surprisingly, however, while frenzied residents periodically attempt to rid their neighborhood of free-ranging dogs, everyone wants to possess more motorcycles, cars and larger automobiles. Despite the widely acknowledged fact that most fatalities on the roads have involved young riders of two-wheelers, how many parents have deprived their sons or daughters of a two-wheeled vehicle? Is this not an unfortunate mindset in people?
Thousands of free-ranging dogs throng Indian cities. In the rapidly growing city of Chennai there can be between 75,000 and 100,000 free ranging dogs. Unhygienic disposal of organic waste and locating major garbage dumps (with open access) in the immediate vicinity of the City has further aggravated the problem by locally nurturing a large concentration of free-ranging dogs. Such local concentrations serve as breeding grounds for the dogs as well as a number of contagious diseases, of which rabies is just one. While rabies a killer disease has been the greatest nightmare to people who share their habitats with free-ranging dogs, other contagious diseases like leptospirosis have emerged as a potential threat. Both dogs and human beings are vulnerable to the disease.
More than 30 years ago, air traffic in India was faced with a serious problem of bird-hits. Of the many reasons that were attributed to the birds coming in the way of airborne aircrafts, unplanned disposal of organic wastes in the vicinity of the runways that attracted scavenging birds emerged as the most significant one. The problem has since been scientifically addressed and today despite the much heavier air traffic there is hardly any bird-hit in the country. Can we not address the problem of free-ranging dogs in a similar scientific manner?
Veterinary and medical research has shown that rabies is more prevalent in certain localities and seasons (especially summer). Efforts should me made to first identify the localities and keep the surroundings clean of organic waste such that the free-ranging dog population is kept under control. The existing animal birth control (ABC) program of the Government of India (widely implemented through the Animal Welfare Board and animal rights activists/NGOs) and immunization programs should be more aggressively carried out in the identified high rabies-risk localities. It should be mandated (and periodically inspected) that medical shops and dispensaries in these localities be properly equipped to deal with dog bites by maintaining an adequate stock of anti-rabies vaccine. A greater awareness amongst the local people on the symptoms of the disease and the dangers of ignoring dog bites should be created by placing signboards (in local language) in all public places.
The spirit of tolerance is what has made the Indian culture a model for the rest of the world. At a time when the world is reeling under pressures of terrorism and natural catastrophes, more and more attention is being focused on India and the way it has sustained its culture of tolerance despite the booming human population and globalization. Further, the Government of India in ‘The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960’ reiterates the following in Chapter III Section 11 (1): “if any person beats, kicks, over-rides, over-drives, over-loads, tortures or otherwise treats any animal so as to subject it to unnecessary pain or suffering or causes, or being the owner permits, any animal to be so treated… without reasonable cause, abandons any animal in circumstances which tender it likely that it will suffer pain by reason of starvation, thirst…. he shall be punishable”.
Dogs have been a part of our culture and societies. They are not parasites but have a supportive role to play. Free-ranging dogs continue to serve humanity by keeping the surroundings clean and offer a lot of physical and mental comfort to people who are lonely and desolate in exchange for a morsel of food. Children who live in highly urbanized areas are able to learn about animal behavior (especially reproductive behavior) by observing free-ranging dogs and caring for them.
Free-ranging dogs have to be treated with kindness and sympathy. Feeding free-ranging dogs locally is not only a gesture of kindness but also a responsible action and hence it should not be seen as an ‘anti-social’ activity within the neighborhood. Well-fed dogs (unless specifically trained to attack) are generally docile. They are healthier than the ones that are starved and hungry and less prone to being infected with contagious diseases. Animal welfare organizations, volunteers and dedicated citizens who are providing laudable care for free-ranging dogs can make an additional effort to create greater awareness (especially about the dangers of rabies and ways of dealing with the spread of the disease) amongst local residents wherever dogs are seen as a ‘nuisance’.
Capturing and sending the dogs to animal shelters are not the solutions (although they apparently seem so) to the problem of dealing with free-ranging dogs. Most of the shelters, despite the best possible efforts, are over-crowded and teeming with contagious diseases taking a heavy toll of the resident dogs. A brief visit to such shelters would no doubt make it obvious for anyone to understand the trauma that the resident dogs undergo – especially those that have been abandoned by their owners. The ever-growing pressure on land and clean water will not permit the establishment of ‘ideal’ animal shelters where dogs can be kept free of stress. Free-ranging dogs are here to stay with us in the years to come. A world without dogs can be full of misery. Therefore, as responsible Indians we should all work together to spare the dogs and save the world.