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Sharing the urban space – Scientific study helps unfold the often misunderstood human-stray dog conflict

Photo: Siddharth Kankaria / Research Matters

 

“Bow…wow…woof” – haven’t we heard these sounds in the middle of the night followed by long, shrill howls that perturb our sleep? These are the calls of those that we share our cities with – the stray dogs. While some of us curse them for their callous and rowdy behaviour, others admire the cuteness in these mongrels. The stray dogs and their ‘menace’ have grabbed many headlines – their brutal killing of infants or them being mercilessly butchered by people. But who is to blame in this human - dog conflict?

Dogs are regarded as man’s ‘best friend’. Being the descendants of wolves, they are primarily carnivorous and scavenge for their food. They are intelligent and have a superior sense of smell, hearing and vision than us – making them capable of helping the blind, guarding the house, rescuing hikers on mountains or detecting a bomb in a suitcase. They are also one of the most preferred pets around the world, some even trained to detect seizures and diabetes!

But when and how did this furry friend end up with a lot of fury? How did they become a menace in our cities? As the saying goes --‘you can’t solve a problem until you’re asking the right question’; here we delve on some pertinent questions regarding this challenge. And who can answer them better than Prof. Anindita Bhadra from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata. She and her team have done extensive field research on stray dogs, studying their role in an urban setting, their mating and parental behaviour, and the reasons behind the increasing human-dog conflicts. “Though I work on dogs, I am neither loved by the dog lovers nor the dog haters”, she quips.

Stray dogs – A case study for behavioural ecology

Studying stray dogs might sound unusual to many, so what made the researchers pick them as the subjects of their study? “Dogs are a good model system for addressing many basic questions in behavioural ecology. In India, they are easily available, easy to work with and inexpensive”, says Prof. Bhadra.

Dogs were the first of the animals to be domesticated by our early ancestors, sometime around 15,000 and 32,100 years ago. Since then, they have lived with us, sharing our habitats. “The process of evolution from wolf-like ancestors to the modern day dogs through domestication is not understood clearly, though there are several hypotheses”, she points out. “That’s what makes studying free-ranging populations interesting. It can provide insights into this mystery and the adaptations that they have acquired to live with us”, opines Prof. Bhadra.

There are extensive studies on pet dogs and their social interaction with humans. And these results are extrapolated to the entire dog population, which is not quite correct”, remarks Prof. Bhadra.  “As pets, these dogs are habituated to humans intimately since birth, and do not have to undergo the ‘struggle for survival’. In order to understand the biology of a species, one needs to study them in their natural habitat, where they exist as freely breeding populations”, she explains. India, like many other developing countries, provides that perfect opportunity.

Stray dogs are often regarded as carriers of various diseases including rabies. But they play a very important role in the ecology of our cities, clearing up the organic waste in our garbage dumps. “They feed selectively on animal proteins, and thus are good scavengers”, says Prof. Bhadra. “Though they typically don’t hunt in urban settings, we have occasionally seen them kill rats and frogs. Perhaps if there were to be no dogs, populations of other scavengers like rats, cats and crows would increase rapidly”, she says, explaining the crucial role they play.

Dogs are highly territorial and protective about their territory. They help keep intruders in our neighbourhoods away, especially at night, thus keeping our streets safe. In rural areas, there are instances of dogs that help keep away jackals and other predators. 

Living in harmony with the strays

The territorial behaviour of dogs is what puts them at odds with us – chasing vehicles and attacking humans. “They mark out the boundaries of their territories using urine and recognize each other’s territories by these markings”, says Prof. Bhadra. “If dogs are chasing your vehicle, they are doing so because they are smelling the scent mark of other dogs on your vehicle”, she adds. And what do you do to stay out of trouble? “Don’t hit back or chase them away, just drive through, and you will be fine”, she advises.

Territorial fights are also common among dogs, owing to their behaviour. “When dogs are engaged in a territorial fight, or are mating, it’s best to let them be. Getting in the midst of them might lead to one getting attacked unnecessarily”, cautions Prof. Bhadra, adding - “There are times when we see dogs attacking without reason. But don’t we do the same? We can have bad days, and so can the dogs!”

A common reason why people get in trouble with dogs is when they have puppies, as mothers are very protective of their pups. “If there are new-born pups, try not to disturb them. Some bitches are more protective than others, and one can get bitten if he/she is too close to a den”, she says, recollecting an incident when someone was bitten by such a protective mother while taking photos of the puppies in the den.

Often there are instances where people feed strays or jump to adopt young pups, just for fun. Prof. Bhadra and her team have reasoned out why such unnecessary human interventions in a dog society can spell doom. “Dogs are social, and the pups learn important lessons of survival from their mothers and other adults in the group. Adopting pups when they are very small and abandoning them later will put their life at risk. Since they would have remained protected at a young age, they are likely to face a lot of problems when they are left to fend for themselves – without being accepted in established groups, knowing how to forage, and unable to hold their own in fights”, explains Dr. Bhadra.

“Interference of any kind, good or bad, can affect dogs – a fact that most dog lovers don’t understand”, points out Dr. Bhadra. “The bottom line is to leave the dogs by themselves and not to interfere too much in their private lives unless one adopts them for life”, she adds.

Controlling stray populations – a stop to the ‘menace’?

Most city corporations believe controlling stray dog population can help resolve human-dog conflicts. According to Prof Bhadra’s research and a 5 year long census in West Bengal, only 19% of the pups that are born actually reach sexual maturity due to human influence. Pups and adult dogs are often poisoned, beaten or taken away. Hence increasing dog population may not be the real problem. The problem arises when male pups are selectively adopted and later abandoned giving them a low chance of survival. This means there are more female dogs reaching sexual maturity and giving more births. And this skewed ratio influenced by human interference results in more growth in the population.

Animal Birth Control (ABC) programmes that neuter or sterilize stray dogs, are widely implemented in cities, but have not really accomplished any positive results. Why? “We don’t have effective animal birth control programmes that span the whole country, and given the size of our country, that is difficult to achieve. Often, dogs in pockets are neutered by the locals, but this does not work in the long run,” reasons Prof. Bhadra. “It is important to know the breeding cycle of the dogs in order to understand which time of the year should be targeted for neutering. Moreover, we need to carry out long term studies to understand how neutering affects the behaviour of the dogs in the context of their social lives”, she adds.

So what can cities do to make programmes like ABC successful? “If local municipalities have to implement ABC programmes, they need to put in concerted effort, so that neighbouring areas do not have breeding populations, and this is easier said than done. Also, we need to understand the health hazards that the dogs might face if they are neutered too early or too late”, she points out.

A stray-free future - The big question

Dog free streets or controlled population of stray dogs - it’s a hard decision to make. But scientifically, with the current data available, both these do not look to be a promising future. On the one hand, we need more studies to chalk out a proper population control that is sustainable and works, but on the other, we do not yet know the ramifications of a stray dog free city. Will that turn into a garbage dump? Or would it mean more rats instead? But what might work is to learn to live in harmony with these strays that share the cities with us, and if possible, perhaps share lives.