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Feeding strays – India’s love for dogs

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By Maneka Gandhi
In the last two months, three people, two working in a newspaper and one in a magazine, have savagely attacked the lakhs of animal feeders who have risked their own health to keep animals alive, and claimed that their feeding has alienated the whole of India. All three have stopped short of asking for them to be killed because they know that, while their ranting is harmless, any suggestion of violence will alienate most of the country. All three have this in common: they keep foreign pedigreed dogs.

They should read the paper published in Harvard by Steven L Herman on the relationship between people and dogs in contemporary India. I am going to quote from it extensively.

“The canine appears to have been thriving in India since the beginning of recorded time. Recent DNA testing has determined that all Indian dogs, as well as dog breeds from the rest of the world, are from the lineage of Canis lupus chanco, the ancient and unique Himalayan wolf of northwestern India.”

The Indian human’s relationship with dogs in India goes back to mythical times. They are the envoys of Yama. Yudhishtra of the Mahabharata refused to enter heaven without his dog and it turned out that the gods were testing him on his compassion quotient – and he passed with flying colours. “Early Vedic literature show the dog had a far more intimate position in the household than beasts of burden or worshipped animals. The rock carvings at Bhimbetka, near Bhopal, show a man walking a curly-tailed male dog on a leash.”

“An interesting contemporary study is the Indian Pariah Dog (aka Indian Native Dog). For some cynologists a true Pariah, like wolves, must scavenge with a pack. In India, during the past eleven months of observation of hundreds of dogs referred to by locals as strays or Pariahs I have not seen any that congregate in packs and thus cannot be considered feral. Instead, these dogs exhibit strong territorial behavior rarely tolerating more than one other dog on their turf. These dogs will “belong” to a village and are parasitic off scraps of food from the human population.” Which means that street dogs are not feral but very much part of the large Indian human community.

“The majority of Indian city dwellers do not find the stray dog a nuisance. Among the poorest, bonding between children and stray puppies, both surviving on the streets, may partly explain a higher than average level of tolerance between scavengers of the human and canine varieties in India. While stray dogs are ignored in many places and suffer from a lack of proper veterinary treatment, it is heartening in a country with so much poverty and so many pressing social issues, there is a remarkable amount of volunteerism devoted to animal welfare among the middle and upper classes. In Jaipur, a concerted effort by animal welfare organisations in recent years to sterilise, vaccinate and protect stray dogs had resulted in no further cases of canine-to-human rabies transmission.”

“The level of tolerance (for strays) is amazing and could be related to Hinduism,” says Dr AJT Johnsingh, retired dean of the Faculty of Wildlife Sciences of the Wildlife Institute of India. Dr Johnsingh, presently a scientific advisor to WWF India, explains that because stray dogs have access to an enormous quantity of garbage in the cities, as long as this food supply is not reduced the number of dogs will not decrease.

“The attitude of humans in India regarding dogs is something to which Dr Amita Singh has given considerable thought. She is the Chairperson of the Centre for Study of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Professor Singh states that there are three types of people in India when it comes to attitudes towards dogs.

The first category is those who value dogs for companionship. They are especially evident among the elderly and the poor. “Even if they have hardly any food, they will share it with the dog,” she says.

The second type is those who have affinity for dogs based on religious beliefs. The number of people in this category has expanded significantly in contemporary times with the growth of the Sai Baba religious movement, which has millions of followers. The influential guru preached protection of dogs and that, if people feed dogs, their sins will be transferred to the animal. The group’s iconography of Sai Baba shows him in the company of dogs, likely appropriated from the centuries-old iconography of Dattatreya, an incarnation of the divine trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, still highly revered in western India.

“There is a story told in the movement of one devotee who was preparing food for Sai Baba and hits a dog with a stick who tries to eat the food intended for the guru,” recounts Dr Singh. The guru does not appear for his meal and, later, when the man asks why Sai Baba missed his meal the leader replies that he came to eat but “you hit me with a stick”.

The third type of dog lover is those trying to emulate India’s former colonial masters, the British, whose military leaders “always kept dogs”. But some observers, such as Dr Singh, consider these modern-day emulators of the Raj, who exclusively prefer pedigreed dogs, to be “selfish because while they are nice to pet dogs, they are awful to dogs on the road and even advocate killing of strays.”

“There are remarkable attitudes concerning dogs among other elements of Indian society. The country is likely one of the few countries where “weddings” between humans and dogs takes place. These so-called marriages usually occur to reverse supposed curses placed on the human spouse. Recently, a farm labourer in Tamil Nadu married Sevi, a four-year-old stray bitch, on the advice of his astrologer, to reverse a curse he incurred for stoning to death two dogs and hanging their bodies from a tree. The canine killer had suffered physical ailments, including partial paralysis and loss of hearing, since committing his terrible act. There are also numerous cases of tribal girls in India being wed to dogs to cast off evil spells or prevent danger. The nature-worshipping Munda tribe marries off girls when their permanent teeth appear, to make them immune to animal attacks. A five-year-old girl of the tribe in Orissa was wed to a dog in 2005 to prevent her from being eaten by tigers. A nine-year-old girl from the pre-Aryan Santhal tribe near Calcutta was married in 2003 to a stray named Bacchan while 100 guests joyously danced and drank home-made liquor.”

“From the mythical to the seemingly supernatural the bond between dog and human in India has stretched across millennia.”

And nothing is going to change it. No matter how annoyed our pseudo western writers get and how keen they are to replace the Indian dog with the Irish Setter and the Pomeranian, this is not going to happen. And this lockdown has just shown that the movement to protect the Indian dog is increasing, not decreasing, in strength. Yes, there have been conflicts, there have been poisonings, some drunken men do beat animals when they cannot beat their wives. But, overall, it is a battle that the compassionate are winning.

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)