BOOKS: Savage Humans & Stray Dogs

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2008:

Savage Humans & Stray Dogs
by Hiranmay Karlekar
Sage Publications (www.sagepublications.com), 2008.
275 pages, paperback.

Savage Humans & Stray Dogs author Hiranmay Karlekar has
reported about socio-political affairs and animal welfare for leading
Indian news media since 1963, writing in both English and Bengali.
As a columnist for The Pioneer, a nationally circulated newspaper,
Karlekar helped to curtail the dog pogroms that broke out in
Bangalore and elsewhere in Karnataka state after two children were
killed by dogs in early 2007. Karlekar is now a member of the Animal
Welfare Board of India.
Savage Humans & Stray Dogs opens with an attempt to provide a
definitive account of what actually happened in Bangalore. Karlekar
may not have seen the extensive ANIMAL PEOPLE coverage, but cites
many of the same sources, and appears to reach similar conclusions.


Both fatal maulings occurred in areas that were outside the
jurisdictions of the Animal Birth Control programs serving Bangalore.
Both occurred at sites where illegal butchering and disposal of meat
scraps caused dogs to congregate. Both fatalities were used by
political factions with a variety of motives, including affluent and
educated people who see street dogs as an affront to progress; poor
and illiterate people, who desperately fear rabies; ward bosses for
whom dog-catching is a traditional source of jobs to award as
patronage; and some Muslim leaders, since butchering in India is
work traditionally done mainly by Muslims.
First the fatalities were blamed on the persons governing and
administrating Bangalore. Those people sought to re-establish
primacy by killing dogs. Then competition to kill dogs spread–but
as it did, exposure of the mayhem brought a backlash. Killing dogs
did not prove to be so popular with most of the public as the initial
hue-and-cry had indicated it might be. The killing subsided, but
the Animal Birth Control programs in Bangalore had been crippled by
blame-throwing, remain underfunded, and have yet to recover lost
momentum.
Official attitudes remain ambivalent. The knowhow exists to
eradicate rabies and markedly reduce the dog populations of Bangalore
and Karnataka, but the will to allocate the needed resources is
lacking, amid all the other urgent needs of one of India’s
fastest-developing regions.
Karlekar uses the Bangalore crisis as entry into an
exploration of human attitudes toward animals generally. He reviews
the status of animals in Vedic literature, Indian tradition, and
western culture and philosophy. Much of the latter two-thirds of
Savage Humans & Stray Dogs consists of summaries of others’
conclusions. Readers who are already familiar with animal rights
philosophy and scientific discoveries about animal intelligence and
emotions will find little new here, but most of Karlekar’s audience
may not have previously encountered this material.
Karlekar’s last chapter parallels the struggles for animal
rights and human rights. Karlekar discusses Nazism and the abolition
of slavery in the U.S., but makes little use of Indian examples.
Judeo-Christian and Islamic cultures, as Karlekar explains,
have usually drawn a clear line between the moral status of humans
and that of animals. Cultural relegation of some humans to the
status of animals have tended to fail–after long struggles–against
the reality that a person without rights fundamentally differs from
other people only in not having rights.
Hindu cultural attitudes toward human and animal rights are
considerably more complex. The caste system and the elevated status
at least nominally accorded to some animals have created a matrix
within which some animals may have had more rights and freedoms than
most people for most of recorded history. The mere fact of
personhood has not by itself conferred much status at all.
A further complication is that the Hindu belief in
reincarnation includes the idea that all humans have had many animal
existences, and may return to animal form.
Instead of trying to raise the status of oppressed Indians by
differentiating humans from animals, many of the most prominent
leaders of the Indian human rights struggle have sought to raise the
status of animals and oppressed humans together–among them Mohandas
Gandhi, Jawaharal Nehru, and Maneka Gandhi. Others, notably the
Communist factions influential in parts of India, have taken the
western approach, with much less success.
Meanwhile, economic development appears to be raising the
status of the poorest Indians more than any brand of activism.
Whether economic development means a net reduction in animal
suffering remains to be seen, with Indian meat consumption rapidly
rising on the one hand, while animal advocacy proliferates on the
other. Perhaps western cultural influence will at last draw a hard
line between the status of humans and the status of animals in India.
But again, as Karlekar speculates, perhaps the backlash that
stopped the dog pogrom in Bangalore hinted that most Indians don’t
feel the need to draw such a line, especially if they see the
consequences.

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