Dogs, disaster, and ABC

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2001:

AHMEDABAD, CHENNAI, THIRUVALLUR, VISAKHAPATNAM, India–Rocky the pet Pomeranian of Bhachau bank employee Narsinhbhai Bhati was among the first heroes of the January 26 earthquake that killed as many as 30,000 people in Kutch district, Gujarat state, India.

Away at a Republic Day celebration, Bhati ran back toward his home, but could not identify it among more than 500 rubble heaps where 600 houses had stood. Then he heard Rocky bark. Digging toward the barking, Bhati pulled his wife and two sons out of the debris, unconscious but expected to live. A daughter was dead.

Though he could have escaped at any time, and was injured himself, Rocky waited until all of his humans were freed before pulling himself out. Then he escorted Bhati’s wife and sons to the Mehsana civil hospital, remaining with them through their recovery.

“My dog sleeps with my cook. That morning the dog kept pawing him, pulling his clothes and barking him out of bed. Just then the tremors came,” World Wildlife Fund-India conservator Shivang Patel told Purba Kality of The Times of India.

Kality and other reporters described dogs, cats, the elephants at the Kamala Nehru Zoological Park in Ahmedabad, and even the Asiatic lions, leopards, chitals, deer and snakes of the Gir forest doing what ever they could before the quake, not only to save themselves but to give warning.

The street dogs of Kutch went uncelebrated by name, and mostly unfed in the shortages that followed the quake, but were everywhere in the background of photos and video, sniffing and pawing rubble. Perhaps they only wanted food, or to find lost puppies and pack-mates.

But the reason rescuers soon arrived from around the world with trained sniffing dogs is that rescue experts have learned from past disasters that even un-trained dogs tend to be the first to find buried survivors, the last to stop looking, and the most depressed when they only find the dead.

Amid the many collections begun to help human earthquake victims, Animal Help Foundation coordinator Rahul Sehgal is accepting aid for the animals c/o The Retreat, Opposite Underbridge, Shahibag, Ahmedabad 380004, India; telephone 91-79-2867698; mobile 9824034241; e-mail <>.

Also aiding the animals of Kutch are Bonny and Ratilal Shah, c/o Ahimsa of Texas, 1875 Ottinger Road, Roanoke, TX 76262; phone 817-379-0969; fax 817-379-0969.; <>.

Ratilal Shah, an art dealer originally from Kutch, returned in late February to help rebuild the homes, lives, and businesses of about 60 craftspeople whose work he has long imported for sale in the U.S. He explained to ANIMAL PEOPLE that this will be done with his personal funds. Two separate accounts will handle aid for animals and aid for orphaned children.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals announced that it would send personnel to the disaster area–but ANIMAL PEOPLE is in receipt of information indicating that as little as 1.5% of funds WSPA has raised in connection with other projects in India has actually been spent there.
The Animal Welfare Board of India estimated that as many as 17,000 cattle died in the earthquake itself, while another 13,000 were at risk from starvation and dehydration. “There is practically nobody left to attend to the animals, as their owners are themselves piecing together their lives. Often animals have lost their owners,” said Gujarat SPCA representative Snehal Bhatt.

Maneka Gandhi, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, sent $7,500 to buy fodder, but even finding means of hauling hay into the worst-hit parts of Kutch was reportedly difficult.


As all eyes were on Kutch, city officials in Thiruvallur, near Chennai in the south of India, killed more than 1,200 street dogs and about 50 pigs in alleged direct violation of Indian law. The pigs were shot. The dogs were snared and injected with cyanide.

“The killing focussed attention on the failure of the Animal Birth Control program ordered by the state government of Tamil Nadu in the wake of mass killings of dogs in Porur [another city] two years ago,” wrote P. Oppoli of The Hindu. “No municipality has created infrastructure for the ABC program, which is to be done with the help of nonprofit animal welfare organizations.”
The nonprofits are, however, doing their share, led by the Blue Cross of India in Chennai. People for Animals and the Animal Welfare & Protection Trust also operate active ABC programs in Chennai and the Chennai suburb of Santhoshapuram. The ABC approach, pioneered by the Blue Cross of India beginning in 1964, is essentially free or heavily subsidized neuter/return: sterilized and vaccinated dogs and cats go back to their neighborhoods to remain on duty as India’s first line of defense against vermin, and sometimes as community pets or guard animals. Because ABC works, and has proven cost-effective in the long run, it was adopted as Indian national policy in December 1997, and has spread under various names and auspices throughout the world, as an increasingly popular alternative to killing street dogs–and to North American and European-style animal control impoundment.
As Gerardo Vicente, DVM, explained of the Costa Rica-based McKee Project at the 2000 No Kill Conference in Tucson, Arizona, “We in the underdeveloped world cannot afford to build huge shelters. That would be a waste of our resources and would not lead to solving our street dog problems. We can, however, afford to sterilize and vaccinate the dogs, so that we do not need big shelters and do not have too many dogs.”

The McKee Project is essentially an ABC program, reinvented in Latin America. So are the Mascotas de La Paz weekend neutering clinics, held in La Paz, Mexico, as often as patrons Gary and Sharon Worthington can rally the resources. So are the city dog-neutering programs repeatedly started by Bangkok, Thailand, the latest incarnation of which uses mobile veterinary units staffed by Buddhist monks. Setting up at temples, each unit expects to sterilize and vaccinate about 20 dogs per day, building on the success of a similarly structured vaccination-only program run by the Thai Department of Livestock Development. Since 1980 the vaccination program has reduced the annual human toll from rabies in Thailand from about 370 per year to under 50.

Previous Bangkok ABC efforts have faltered due to short funds, especially after the 1997 collapse of the Thai stock market, but Thai officials are reportedly convinced of their value. Monks have been brought into the current six-million-baht ($160,000) project in the belief that they will provide more public service per baht than government employees.

The 70% solution

Around the world, the overwhelming weight of evidence affirms that aggressive neuter/return is the fastest way to lastingly reduce street dog and cat populations–but the reduction does not become evident until after more than 70% of the dogs or cats in a particular neighborhood have been sterilized, because to that point the reduction in births to some animals makes more food available to others who are pregnant or nursing. Thus the reduction is offset by greater survival of offspring born to the unsterilized mothers. At the 70%-neutered threshhold, which is coincidentally the same as the percentage of animals who must be vaccinated to stop the spread of rabies, street dogs and cats are no longer collectively fecund enough that births race ahead of normal mortality.

Accordingly, a successful ABC program must aim to fix 70% as rapidly as possible. If the program does not sterilize 70% within the time span of one breeding cycle, it may actually contribute to population growth. As few programs are capable of neutering 70% of the animals in a whole city within one breeding cycle, a block-by-block and neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach tends to be most effective, and tends to produce visible results soon enough to maintain public faith in the concept.

Otherwise, the appearance of growing numbers of adult dogs and/or cats may increase public demands for killing–even if no new puppies and kittens are being born. Most of the public is not afraid of puppies and kittens; many are afraid of larger animals, and especially of dogs, no matter how well-behaved, who loiter in packs.
That happened recently in Bucharest, Romania, where the most ambitious ABC program in Europe, described in the November 1999 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE by guest columnist Chuck Todaro, failed to prevent Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase and Bucharest mayor Traian Basescu from decreeing a street dog purge, to begin on March 1.

An estimated 300,000 dogs roam Bucharest, a city of 2.2 million people. They bite about 23,000 people per year, say officials. Early reports indicated that Nastase and Basescu wanted to kill all the free-roaming dogs. The purge is now to kill only the 10% who seem to be unowned, uncared for, diseased, and/or vicious, Basescu told Agence France Presse and Washington Post correspondent Peter Finn. Impounded dogs are to be held for 10 days before being killed, on the chance that someone may claim them.

Observers including former film star turned animal defender Brigitte Bardot are skeptical. Capturing, holding, and killing even 30,000 dogs will require setting up a substantial bureaucracy–and a convenient source of political patronage jobs. The “temporary” animal control program is accordingly likely to become permanent. As self-perpetuation will require a self-perpetuating street dog population, at least some participants in the ABC program are not optimistic about receiving continued official cooperation.

Biting, fighting

The problems of India may or may not be more difficult than those of Romania, which has no comparable 3,000-year-old tradition of kindness toward animals to temper response, but India is about 50 times larger, and the Bucharest experience is often echoed. Hue-and-cry that ABC programs are failing and that dogs should be killed has risen recently in Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Ludhiana, Mumbai, Mysore, Patna, Pune, Rajkot, and Visakhapatnam, among other cities, usually after an outbreak of rabies or a fatal dog attack.
Often the ABC programs are demonstrably successful in statistical terms, despite low budgets, poorly trained veterinarians who can only fix animals at about 10% of the usual pace at U.S. clinics, severe sanitation problems, and an acute lack of antibiotics. They “fail” in the views of public, politicians, and often unsympathetic media when they fail to employ at least as many people as the municipal dog-catching programs they replace, fail to pay kickbacks to local power brokers, fail to visibly reduce the dog population even though the dogs may all be fixed, and fail to prevent all severe biting incidents, some of which are inevitable when an officially estimated 25 million unowned dogs (and countless owned but wandering dogs) share the streets with a billion people.

Indian street dogs actually bite remarkably seldom, inflicting only about 1.5 million reported injuries per year–barely twice the U.S. total. But canine rabies, rare in the U.S., kills 60,000 Indian people per year, two-thirds of them children, plus countless dogs. Post-exposure vaccination for human victims is supposed to be free, but the victims often do not report bites until too late–or may not get treatment without paying bribes.

Chiefly for economic reasons, India still relies upon the immunoglobin vaccine developed by Louis Pasteur, instead of the more easily administered and more effective vaccine developed by the late Charles Meriaux [see obituaries, page 22]. Further, India produces only 120 litres of the vaccine per year, compared to annual demand of 1,500 litres, Association for Prevention and Control of Rabies in India president M.K. Sudarshan, M.D. charged at a national conference held in Delhi on World Rabies Day 2000. Competition among humane groups for scarce resources, familiar in the U.S. as well as India, helps kill-the-dogs factions to divide-and-conquer.
Finally, India and Romania may both have become surrogate battlefields in the conventional animal control versus no-kill philosophical and political struggle underway in the U.S., Canada, and western Europe. The Humane Society of the U.S. and PETA, the largest U.S. advocates of animal population control killing by lethal injection, have both begun to make their weight felt abroad in places where no-kill is struggling to replace high-volume killing by cruder methods.

The no-kill approach prevailed in Bucharest, for example, from the first involvement by the Fondation Brigitte Bardot in 1996 until the Humane Society of the U.S./Humane Society International sent advisors–with the chance to test the experimental injectible sterilants Neutrosol and Spay-Safe as a lure–in November 1999. Nastase and Basescu first announced mass killing almost exactly one year later.

In India, the Visakha SPCA, profiled in the January/February 2001 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE, replaced high-volume dog electrocutions by Visakhapatnam municipal employees with an ABC program in November 1998. Starting with almost nothing, founder Pradeep Kumar Nath within two years had the Visakha SPCA performing sterilization surgery at one of the highest volumes in India.

Taking help wherever offered, Nath in September 2000 accepted the loan of veterinary assistant Teresa Gibbs from PETA. Nath was unaware at the time that PETA opposes no-kill sheltering and neuter/return programs, and that Gibbs had apparently served PETA mostly as a euthanasia technician.
Within two weeks Gibbs accused Nath in an e-mail to a French donor of cruelly keeping a crippled dog named Tiger alive. A month later ANIMAL PEOPLE saw first-hand that Tiger, a remarkably boisterous and happy dog, could move faster on two good legs than most dogs run on four.
Many more clashes followed. On Christmas Eve 2000, irate villagers apparently roused by the former dog electrocutioner stormed the Visakha SPCA’s ABC clinic. Gibbs appeared heroic, taking a punch in the face while defending a caged dog–but in late January, Visakha SPCA trustee Sarada Buddhiraju caught Gibbs advising the villagers about tactics for evicting the ABC program from the community.

Dismissing Gibbs, Nath soon thereafter learned that someone was somehow covertly attaching pornography and obscene messages in American slang to his outbound e-mails. Whether or not there was any link, the e-mail sabotage seemed symbolic of cultures which will inevitably conflict.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.