Editorial: Vaccination and Count Dracula
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2001:
Fast losing support in a city afflicted by corruption,
inflation, unemployment, fuel and food shortages, ethnic strife,
and no quick remedies, Bucharest mayor Traian Basescu on April 18
ordered “the killing of all dogs in city shelters,” e-mailed
activist Liviu Gaita to ANIMAL PEOPLE. Associated Press confirmed
In August 2000 Basescu made a similar show of force by
bulldozing street vendors’ kiosks. Students and labor unions got the
message. This time, however, Basescu sparked “street protests
attended by Parliament members and hundreds of citizens,” Gaita
said. “The President of the Republic and the Prime Minister asked
Basescu to switch to more humane methods. In response, Basescu
threatened on April 21 to use riot police to disband any further
protest. ‘A few sticks’ on the backs of the ‘the ladies from the
protection organizations’ would be quite appropriate, he said, as a
lesson on authority and public order.”
Soon thereafter, Gaita reported, “Several unidentified
people forcibly entered an apartment in Bucharest, beat an old lady
and her three dogs with sticks, and then cast the dogs over the
balcony. All the dogs are dead and the woman is in the hospital.
The incident was documented by PrimaTV,” in an April 26 broadcast,
which also included “horrific images from inside the shelters,”
where more than 1,000 dogs were said to have been either strangled or
injected with magnesium phosphate–methods not even Basescu pretended
were humane euthanasia. Basescu reportedly called the killing
“liquidation,” plain and simple.
“All of the dogs had been neutered. Most already had an
option for adoption,” Gaita added. “Basescu barred animal
protection organizations and the press from the shelters –armed
guards were in place–and stopped adoptions” when the killing began.
“He refused to say how many dogs were killed. ‘You can get numbers
from the protein powder factory,’ he said, and announced that from
now on all dogs captured on the streets will be killed immediately.
Through the efforts of animal protection organizations, local and
international, and with the support of the mass media, at least
1,500 dogs were neutered, vaccinated and adopted in the last two
months in Bucharest,” Liviu Gaita continued, “but the Mayor did
everything to annihilate any alternative to killing.”
The Fondation Brigitte Bardot, of France, had donated
$150,000 toward saving the dogs. Animals Without Frontiers, of
Belgium, sent an animal ambulance and helped fund a mobile
sterilization clinic. The Austrian group Vier Pfoten sent money and
skilled personnel. The rescuers hoped to sterilize 100,000 dogs over
the next two years–an unprecedented pace, but not impossible had
Basescu committed to it the $17 million that he spent instead to
double the dogcatching and killing force, in a quick act of
patronage job creation.
Instead Basescu followed the example of his ancient
countryman Vlad the Impaler, the original Count Dracula, who
handled social problems in the 15th century by inviting all outcasts
and beggars to a feast, then burning them alive in a pyre seen
Bucharest has had no canine rabies in decades, but Basescu
rationalized killing dogs by citing the alleged risk of rabies from
20,000 dog bites per year purportedly suffered by residents–a figure
which would require that the residents of Bucharest, 10% of the
Romanian population, suffer 87% of all the reported bites.
Fear of rabies remains as intense in Romania as anywhere.
Indeed, vampire and werewolf legends in their familiar form began
amid a rabies epidemic that hit eastern Europe from 1721 to 1728,
according to Spanish medical historian Juan Gomez-Alonso, M.D.
Fear of rabies remains the pretext for dog massacres
unleashed by purported guardians of civil order worldwide, as well
as the apparent source of cultural prejudice against dogs in most
nations where rabies remains endemic.
Rabies is a cruel and terrifying disease, killing up to
40,000 humans and countless animals per year. Even more cruelty and
terror is unleashed in the name of rabies prevention. Corrupt police
reportedly conduct door-to-door dog pogroms in China, demanding
bribes to let dogs live, and eating the dogs they take; dogs and
cats are poisoned with strychnine in the Middle East; and troops at
times machine-gun dogs in Indonesia and parts of Latin America.
So-called rabies control in the U.S. is not cruelty-free. Too
many U.S. shelters still dispatch dogs in gas chambers, with the
widespread pretense that it is “humane” because it is approved by the
American Veterinary Medical Association. Gassing is less cruel than
some methods it replaced, such as decompression–but the sheltering
community should not forget that gassing was introduced not to give
animals an easier death, but rather to enable humans to kill animals
with less risk of exposure to those who might be rabid.
Eradicating canine rabies would not eliminate the impulse of
tyrants–elected or not–to try to preserve misrule with a show of
force. Yet it would eliminate the most ubiquitous pretext for
killing even healthy and harmless dogs–and cats–en masse.
Eradicating canine rabies worldwide through high-volume
vaccination and sterilization should accordingly become the first
priority of companion animal crusaders.
By fortuitous coincidence, the percentage of an animal
population who must be vacinated to keep rabies from spreading and
the percentage of a dog or cat population who must be sterilized to
stop population growth are both about 70%. Thus the goals of ending
canine rabies and ending dog and cat overpopulation can be met
The effort must begin by dissuading animal control and public
health authorities of the notion that killing animals is less costly
than vaccination and sterilization–especially in developing nations,
where veterinarians–when available–work for a compative song.
Killing animals may enable the likes of Basescu to put more
thugs on the payroll, but the cost of rabies prevention must be
measured against the cost of failure. In the U.S., where human
rabies cases are rare, the cost of treating the victim and
vaccinating all other humans at possible risk routinely exceeds $1
million. That does not include the cost of the victim’s lost
education and wages. In developing nations the response to each case
is less elaborate, and the loss of education and earning power is a
fraction as high per victim, but even if each case costs the
national economy a hundredth as much as a case in the U.S., that
would be more than the typical cost of hiring a vet to vaccinate and
sterilize dogs for an entire year.
The real cost of rabies to India, which suffers half the
rabies deaths in the world, would equal the cost of hiring 20,000
vets fulltime to do street dog vaccination and sterilization. And
that is before adding in the cost of the usually futile programs that
too often pass for rabies control.
Mindless dog-killing is only one ubiquitous mistake. Another
mistake, reportedly common in India, is inadequately providing
post-exposure vaccine to free clinics–thereby encouraging goondas to
steal and hoard private stocks, which they sell to dogbite victims
at the highest price they can extract. This coerces the poor into
taking risks, who die in disproportionate numbers. As
schoolchildren and wage-earners who work in the streets are most
vulnerable, rabies hits the upwardly mobile poor the hardest.
Equally inexcusable are laws requiring public clinics to use
inferior and obsolete vaccines because–as they are no longer under
patent–they can be locally made. Locally monopolizing productions
is lucrative for the people who own the companies and the politicians
who kick trade their way. But it results in avoidable deaths from
vaccine failure, like that of a six-year-old boy whose plight was
recently described to a global conference on rabies by Naseem
Salhuddin, M.D., of Karachi, Pakistan.
“There needs to be aggressive dog control in Karachi in
particular and Pakistan in general,” responded another Pakistani
expert in a posting to ProMed, the electronic bulletin board on
emerging diseases. “Stray dogs have to be eliminated and pet dogs
vaccinated. In Pakistan, with its poor economy, debt servicing,
and heavy defense expenditure, this [killing street dogs] has to be
the main strategy for combating rabies,” he insisted.
The U.S. lesson unlearned
This is the usual argument, worldwide, for trying to
prevent rabies by reducing the population of animals at risk.
High-volume killing appears to be quick, cheap, simplc and
obvious. Thus it has been tried almost everywhere, against almost
every disease transmissible from animals to humans. But it does not
work, never has, never will, and nowhere did the theory behind it
prove more obviously false than in the U.S. during the past 50 years.
Vaccination of pets and post-exposure treatment of bitten
humans did virtually end human deaths from canine rabies in the U.S.
Yet the numbers of free-roaming dogs and cats were still at
an all-time high. Even in New York City, where sterilizing pets
became common first, animal control pickups and shelter killing did
not begin to drop until after 1966, more than 130 years after
attempted extermination of free-roaming dogs began. Nationally,
canine rabies fell to the present level by 1970, but stray dog
pickups and killing did not peak until 1985.
Two ecological laws work against exterminating any mammal
breeding fast enough to become a “pest,” such as dogs, cats,
coyotes, deer, rabbits, pigs, rats or mice:
1) Nature abhors a void. Open habitat, and something will fill it.
2) The mammals in question all raise litters whose size and
survival rate varies with food availability. Reducing food
competition accelerates the fecundity of the survivors. Larger
litters are born; more survive.
Birds who might compete with mammals for food and habitat
simply cannot breed as fast to fill a void. Killing the mammals
therefore just brings more of the same species, plus more of their
prey, who breed up to the carrying capacity of the habitat while the
predator numbers are temporarily depressed.
As dogs and cats are also the most voracious mouse and rat
predators, purges of either street dogs or feral cats are often
followed by outbreaks of rodent-carried disease, including
arenaviruses (including hantaviruses), bubonic plague, and
leptospirosis. Only after the dog and cat populations recover do the
rodent-borne illnesses subside.
Street dog and feral cat populations can be limited-by
vaccinating and sterilizing them, and allowing them to hold their
habitat with reduced fecundity, while slower-breeding avian raptors
gradually take over the rodent prey base, and other food sources are
removed by improvements in public sanitation.
This is how both Britain and the U.S. all but eliminated our
once numerous street dog populations, albeit without much awareness
as we did it of just what we were doing by instituting refuse
pick-ups and underground sewers, while bringing our dogs and cats
First we cut the food supply so it no longer sustained
high-volume free-roaming dog reproduction, while reducing the
breeding pool by sterilizing pets. When puppies could no longer
survive at large, street dogs vanished. Then our feral cat
population exploded. The advent of neuter/return feral cat control
in the 1990s, however, brought the first documented decline of
feral cats in the U.S.–wherever neuter/return was well-accepted.
Unfortunately, the ecological lessons of the British and
U.S. experience seem lost on many public health and animal control
authorities who are trying to help the developing world.
During the ProMed discussion of defective vaccines, for
instance, one moderator posted word from The Times of India that 80
people died from rabies in Kabul, Afghanistan, during March 2001,
because no post-exposure vaccine could be had.
“In the absence of adequate vaccine supplies,” said the
moderator, “leashing or muzzling dogs would be a cost-effective
method of protecting both the dogs and the humans.”
Yet most dogs in the underdeveloped nations never had human
owners or lived indoors with people. They are quasi-wildlife,
living among people just like pigeons, rats, squirrels, monkeys,
and other species who have adapted to urban habitat.
As big dogs need larger prey than rats to sustain them, and
as hostile dogs are more likely to be killed, the street dogs of
Asia, Africa, and Latin America tend to be smaller, smarter, and
much better behaved than American dogs. They are an essential part
of the urban sanitation system, such as it is. Often they also
help to protect humans from more dangerous beasts, such as leopards,
baboons, hyenas, and even the rare marauding lion or tiger.
The street dogs of Asia, Africa, and Latin America tend to
become dangerous only when infected by rabies. Exclusive of rabies
cases, dogs in India inflict life-threatening or fatal bites at
about a tenth the per capita rate of U.S. dogs, for example, even
though most Indian dogs roam free while most American dogs are
confined most of the time.
Between now and the advent of modern sanitation throughout
the developing world, probably decades from now, well-treated and
healthy street dogs should continue to be the assets to human society
that they have been since the dawn of civilization. Feral cats
likewise contribute much to human well-being. Their numbers must be
controlled, for their own good–but gently, in a manner encouraging
their assimilation into homes as pets, as occurred in the west when
incomes and homes grew enough to make indoor petkeeping practical.