Editorial: A passage to India
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1998:
Faced with a choice between a rare chance for three representatives of ANIMAL
PEOPLE to visit India for the price of one, or a better chance to erase a budget deficit
before year’s end, we prioritized by considering which would be most valuable to our role
as an investigative newspaper.
Though sustaining solvency is self-evidently critical, we found we had no real
choice but to find out what was happening in India. Almost directly opposite to us on the
earth, scarcely anywhere could have proved more relevant or enlightening relative to the
state of humane work and wildlife conservation in North America.
We knew already that India has the oldest recorded humane tradition, is the only
nation which constitutionally recognizes a human obligation to treat animals kindly, has
more than half the world’s vegetarians, has more native mammals and birds than any other,
and is deeply involved in the struggle to protect endangered species.
With due respect to the economic clout of Japan and sheer size of China, we recognized
as well that India may be pivotal in determining the cultural, social, and moral
direction of all Asia. India has accomplished a perhaps unparalleled synthesis of westernstyle
democratic government and technological transition, still underway, with social stability,
lifting a growing percentage of her people out of dire poverty and illiteracy despite
rapid population growth that has only just begun to slow.
A big part of the Indian success may be the strength of the indigenous humane tradition,
encapsulated in the Jain notion of ahimsa, meaning “doing no harm.”
We wanted to see how philosophical and political lip service to ahimsa translates
into real-life animal control work, in a nation of ubiquitous need. We wanted to see how
the Indian tiger poaching problem compares to the killing of North American predators by
poachers, sport hunters, and USDA Wildlife Services, formerly Animal Damage Control.
We accordingly spent two hectic weeks inspecting nature reserves, humane societies,
and gaushalas (cow shelters) from Bombay to Delhi and back, speaking at schools,
meeting with Jain religious groups, meeting privately with Indian humane movement leaders,
and attending and addressing the Animal Welfare Board of India’s National Seminar as
the sole representatives from outside India.
Our primary host among many, pediatrician and Jain vegetarian activist Dr.
Pramod Mehta, saw to it that we had little or no “down time.” If there was an open
moment during the days he traveled with us, no matter how early or late, he arranged discussions
and briefings. Even time waiting for trains was never idle, as we studied the dogs,
monkeys, birds, bats, and even cattle and goats who inhabit Indian train station environs.
…and through the looking glass
We expected to see starving dogs and cats, communities struggling with rabies
control, overloaded beasts of burden scarred by flogging and ill-fitting harnesses, and
butcher shops killing animals in the street. Indeed we did see all of that in various places.
But we also saw that none of this was the unchallenged rule. We saw plentiful
stray dogs even in cities with active and successful Animal Birth Control programs, yet
few in those cities were puppies, pregnant, or nursing, and looked as well-fed and happy
as most North American pet dogs––far more so than the millions of North American dogs
who spend their lives tethered and neglected.
We saw only six cats outside of shelters in over 2,000 miles of ground travel, four
of the cats in just one Bombay neighborhood, which has no stray dogs to outcompete them
for dumpster rations.
We saw that many roving cattle and work animals who at first glance appear to be
“starving,” because their ribs show, are actually far older than cows, horses, and burros
usually get before being sold to slaughter in North America, and that one must look twice,
closely, to distinguish actual suffering from the normal ravages of age.
We saw much abuse of the water buffalo used to draw carts, whose status is
markedly less than that of cows and oxen, yet we also saw water buffalo dairy herds led
through city streets to spend their afternoon recreationally bathing in a river––a consideration
with little or no parallel in modern U.S. or Canadian agriculture.
For every person we saw who acted harshly toward animals, we met someone
who had dedicated significant personal resources to preventing animal suffering––like
Ratanlal Bafna, our host in Jalgaon, who funds a gaushala from his own pocket and hires
teachers to discourage animal sacrifice in remote villages.
Most impressive was the growing success of the ABC programs, which fight dog
overpopulation through neuter/release, much as progressive humane organizations here use
neuter/release to reduce homeless cat numbers. Practiced on a significant scale in the U.S.
for barely five years, for cats only, neuter/release has been used widely in India with
increasingly evident good results for nearly 30 years.
The American animal care-and-control community is still incredulous that San
Francisco in April 1994 was able to go to no-kill animal control via the Adoption Pact inked
by the San Francisco SPCA and the San Francisco Animal Care and Control department.
Many national animal advocacy organizations still insist that the San Francisco achievement
is a fluke enabled only by community wealth, an impossibility for other cities, even a hoax,
because irrecoverably diseased and injured animals as well as animals who have bitten
someone are still killed. Yet Bombay, with 12 times the human population of San
Francisco and barely a 30th the per capita income, formalized a similar agreement to handle
dog control on a no-kill basis nearly four months before San Francisco did. Chennai, formerly
called Madras, seven times the size of San Francisco, and no more wealthy than
Bombay, adopted no-kill dog control in April 1995.
Instead of railing against the transition to no-kill, the Indian animal care-and-control
community has embraced it. On November 28, 1997, the Animal Welfare Board of
India formally committed itself to achieving no-kill animal control nationwide within seven
years. The resolution was nonbinding, and carried no funding commitment. But it did
carry moral force. The Indian government soon afterward accepted it as official policy.
Most major organizations representing the U.S. and Canadian humane communities
conspicuously lack the moral resolve to drive national policy in an equivalent manner.
So devoted are many to defending prevailing practice that they dare not even fairly assess
alternatives. When the American Humane Association joined Doing Things for Animals in
cohosting the 1996 No-Kill Conference, for instance, conventional shelter management
recoiled in such alarm that the board-level aftershocks are still reverberating. When the Best
Friends Animal Sanctuary at the 1997 No-Kill Conference invited animal care-and-control
people to ratify a commitment to merely begin a phase-out of population control killing by
2000, representives of major conventional organizations complained from the audience
microphone that no-kill people were maligning them.
The North American animal care-and-control community typically blames shelter
killing on a lack of resources and an ignorant public. We know as much about public ignorance
and lack of resources as anyone in the humane field: our main job is education, and
few fulltime animal protection workers are as often paid late or draw lower salaries to begin
with. But when we saw first-hand what institutions such as the Bombay SPCA are doing on
budgets of less than the personal salaries of many U.S. humane group executives, it was
clear that the real problem here is not the public nor tight resources, but rather a lack of
heartfelt moral commitment at the leadership level, infecting the whole animal care-andcontrol
infrastructure with attitudes of learned helplessness and abject confusion.
Gandhi was willing to go half-naked, if necessary, to inspire a more kindly India.
No one here needs go half-naked. The North American humane community already has
adequate access to resources to catch up––yes, catch up––with the progress already made in
India, where half the people can’t read or write. What we need here is Gandhian courage.