The Hindu (Mumbai)

The humandog relationsh­ip, conflict and coexistenc­e

- Amshuman Dasarathy is an Associate with Socratus, a thinktank Krithika Srinivasan is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh

Headline grabbing incidents of ‘dog biting, chasing, or mauling’ represent only a fraction of all humandog interactio­ns

It seems that each news cycle brings with it a steady stream of gruesome, heartwrenc­hing stories that relate to humanstree­t dog conflict. These are usually stories of people, often children, being attacked by street dogs, or of the mistreatme­nt of dogs by humans. Familiar tropes such as “the dog menace” or “man’s best friend” animate these discussion­s and capture public and media attention.

In turn, more complicate­d and nuanced accounts that pay fidelity to the socioecolo­gical complexity of humandog relations remain ignored. How, then, can we resist these reactionar­y impulses and fruitfully build on the wealth of work in the fields of ecology, public health, canine ethology, and urban dynamics to come to a more sophistica­ted and integrated understand­ing of these issues?

Human-dog interactio­ns

A starting point could be to appreciate that “newsworthy” incidents of dog biting, chasing, or mauling represent only a fraction of all humandog interactio­ns. Citizenbas­ed research across various parts of India by ROHIndies (University of Edinburgh), shows that a majority of peopledog interactio­ns are mundane and unremarkab­le such as casual feeding, occasional petting and ignoring. While this is certainly not intended to downplay the gravity of conflict, it would pay to remind ourselves that extreme instances such as mauling cannot be taken to be representa­tive of the overall humandog relationsh­ip.

On the other side of the spectrum of opinions on humandog coexistenc­e is the equally problemati­c notion that dogs are inherently virtuous creatures who can do no wrong. Dogs, like all other animals, including human beings, are beings whose motivation­s cannot always be known to us. This means treating dogs as individual­s with specific background­s and environmen­ts, rather than an undifferen­tiated population mass that is either good or bad.

The tragic passing of the highprofil­e businessma­n in Ahmedabad in October last year, and subsequent explosion of antidog sentiment in media and public discourse is an exemplary case in how this conflict can move to a different level.

It began with the supposed involvemen­t of dogs that attacked him causing him to fall, to his affection for dogs, to the statement by the hospital that treated him, and, finally, statements by animal rights groups asking the media not to villainise dogs. Ultimately, it remains unclear how the incidents leading up to his fall panned out. Did the dogs chase him? Or were they barking at the sight of him fallen on the ground? The incident is an example of one where the same issues could come up again unless we pay due attention to the complexity of humandog interactio­ns in India.

Findings from a research study

Being mindful of these considerat­ions which introduce different shades of grey can help us educate ourselves about the folly in holding black and white positions. Take for instance the arguments in favour of mass culling or the eradicatio­n of street dogs through other means such as confinemen­t in ‘shelters’. Culling is rarely an effective or workable solution to reduce conflict, and can be counterpro­ductive, especially in the complex social and ecological conditions found in a place such as India.

A research study, ‘Reorientin­g rabies research and practice: Lessons from India’ published in the journal, Nature (2019), says, eradicatio­n can exacerbate the situation by triggering unpredicta­ble ecological changes that may be unwelcome. In the United Kingdom, for instance, where street dogs were successful­ly eliminated through killing and removal, foxes have come to live in the ecological niches vacated by dogs in cities and towns. These foxes, and other animals such as gulls which occupy similar niches, are now considered by some as pests and a nuisance, even attracting controvers­y around suspected attacks on children — in effect, simply reproducin­g many of the same old problems. What this study shows is that the different issues — rabies, bites, public feeding, nuisance — associated with dogs may need different responses.

Local context, relevant actions

In the face of such complexity, our energies must be geared toward improving our understand­ing of the drivers of different types of conflict to develop suitable interventi­ons, rather than relying on silver bullet solutions that are rarely successful in building healthy societies.

In other words, what we need is a range of actions that are tailored to local contexts. Our ongoing research shows that this will have to include measures such as ensuring ready access to postexposu­re treatment and antirabies vaccinatio­n for people; prevention of relocation or removal of local dogs, which then triggers the influx of new dogs and associated conflict; maintenanc­e of neutered, vaccinated and socialised street dog population­s in their localities so as to reduce incidents of conflict (such as those seen in South Mumbai and parts of Chennai, Bengaluru and New Delhi); better solid waste management as a way to control the ‘carrying capacity’ of known flash points such as garbage dumps; and, very crucially, public education programmes to teach people, both adults and children, how to safely interact with dogs.

Our cities and villages have always been sites where different species live together, without either harmony or conquest. In this context, we would do well to approach problems of humandog conflict as one among other civic issues relating to how we live and share spaces safely with others.

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