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To Catch A Stray

Is anything being done to control the stray dog population in Goa? Actually, yes.


We emerged from the two vehicles like some kind of Canine Swat Team. The afternoon’s intended assets were a couple of caramel stray dogs lying lazily on Candolim’s main road. Raju Neagaraj was the first out. He grabbed one seven-­foot blue net from the accompanying International Animal Rescue (IAR) ambulance, caught the unsuspecting animal in one fell swoop, dropped the net and quickly moved on. The street erupted in sympathy barks as the stray yelped and wriggled helplessly in the twisted net and motorists rubbernecked to see what all the commotion was about.

The Worldwide Veterinary Services (WVS) trainer from Tamil Nadu used the diversion to his advantage. As three of his IAR ‘students’ rushed over to cage the apprehended dog for eventual vaccination and sterilisation back at their Assagao headquarters, Neagaraj grabbed a second net and jogged toward the second target. The dog, fully alert but still mesmerized by events unfolding some thirty feet before her, barely noticed the man in the checkered shirt. He walked straight past her, made a sharp right and bore down on her from behind.

The entire operation took less than thirty seconds, but celebrations were short-­lived. There were five more strays by some park benches up ahead. “Too many dogs,” declared the veteran dog catcher with a shy smile. “Too, too many dogs.”

Too many strays, too many dog bites and still too many cases of rabies in Goa. Figuring out more cost-­effective and humane ways to solve this conundrum was what today’s sortie was all about.

The WVS has partnered with IAR and fellow Goan animal welfare organisations in anticipation of Mission Rabies, a campaign that will aim to vaccinate 50,000 pet and stray dogs across ten Indian ‘rabies hotspots’ in September.

According to WVS, a dog bites someone every two seconds in India and not one hour goes by without a child dying from rabies. More people die of the disease here than anywhere else in the world with West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh accounting for more than half of the 253 reported rabies deaths in 2011.

Despite numerous requests from government officials, no specific stats on incidents of rabies and dog bites could be provided for Goa specifically. Dr Sunanda Amankar, Medical Superintendent for the Goa Medical College, maintained they “were still getting quite a few cases.”

According to figures compiled by the Animal Welfare Board of India, Goa’s shelters brought in a combined 16,254 strays last year. More than a third of these were sterilised and vaccinated under the Animal Birth Control programme, a national initiative that grants shelters Rs 445 per treated stray. Because these strays are released back onto the streets, more than half of the total were caught simply for revaccination. The remaining eight percent – those with wounds or afflictions requiring expensive long-­term care – were euthanised.

The World Health Organisation claims mass vaccination programmes are the most cost­-effective way to control the spread of rabies, citing success stories in now rabies­-free countries in Central and South America. Far more effective, it insists, than the indiscriminate extermination of strays which states like Goa were once known for.

Looking to make Goa the most ‘animal­-friendly’ in all of India, the state government has earmarked Rs 2 crore in this year’s budget for animal welfare organisations carrying out such programmes. These groups calculate the cost of sterilising a single stray at double what the birth control programme currently provides and have consequently applied for Rs 950 per stray. No funds have been disbursed as of yet.

But dog-­owner Tony Asquith, who has lived in Goa on and off since 2003, isn’t convinced such programmes are having the desired effect. “The numbers of strays have increased massively,” he explains over a chat with his partner Kamal Patel and their soon-­to-­be-­eight-­year-­old Weimaraner.

The British expats have also noticed new strays among the unleashed regulars near their Saligao home. “The other day we were the only two on the beach … and a group of fifteen wild dogs were there barking for this one spot of territory. There was no sign of any ownership. It’s as if they were just dumped there.”

Volunteer Sophia Yasmin agrees the situation has deteriorated. “And the problem only seems to get highlighted when someone is bitten or attacked but falls by the wayside at all other times.” Having worked closely with shelters and stray populations in the North, she believes the Goan government lacks long­-term vision on the issue. She’d like to see a statewide mass vaccination push which, she insists, could go a long way in making the state the true shining example it claims to want to be.

The problem is that official stats on stray populations in Goa are hard to come by. Animal Welfare Board of India board member Norma Alvares points out the most problematic areas remain the more urbanised municipalities where food markets, overflowing garbage bins and tourists abound. She lays at least part of the blame on the tourist industry. “Many of the dogs found on the streets are owned by someone. That or people are feeding them. Shack­-owners feed at least two to three dogs with all the bones and leftovers. It saves them the bother of disposing the waste.”

Still, she believes the situation is improving. Puppies no longer litter the streets in areas with long-running birth control programmes and large groups of dogs no longer haunt the main thoroughfares at night. “So yes, I still believe the programme is the most humane way to control the stray dog population and bring down incidents of rabies over time.” While she disputes Goa’s designation as a rabies hotspot, Alvares does believe the upcoming Mission Rabies campaign is necessary to help protect both the Indian and international tourists that flock to the state every year.

But then even the WVS has realised that infected stray dogs are only half the problem. Making local dog-­owners responsible for their own pets is a whole other ball game. “The problem with owners, I feel, is that once their dog is vaccinated they think it’s vaccinated for life,” explains Yogeeta Gad, administrative director at IAR. “They don’t realise they have to do it every year.”

The problem extends beyond just vaccinations. Most owners don’t even have collars for their dogs. Leashes are very rare. In fact, the shelter’s mobile crews often end up picking up pets that are mistaken for strays – sometimes to the owner’s discontent. Sterilisation also remains a tough sell for those worried their male dogs will become lazier and purposeless. While Gad believes owners are slowly coming around, International Animal Rescue still carries out only 15­-20 sterilisations per month on pet dogs. The shelter may sterilise up to 200 strays in that same time frame.

Bottom line: Goa has too many unwanted dogs. Unless you’re a breeder with the means to find good homes for all puppies, sterilising dogs, both male and female, is the right thing to do.