Pakistan is experiencing an unprecedented rise in the stray dog population with cases of dog bites, animal abuse, and rabies making headlines every other day. Although the exact number is unknown, it is estimated that there are at least 3 million stray dogs in the country (Malik, 2021). More than one million dog bite cases are reported across Pakistan annually (Ahmed, 2020) and around 2,000- 5,000 people die of rabies every year (Jamal, 2021).
Among all the provinces, Sindh has the highest number of stray dogs but the province has failed to come up with a unified policy for countering the stray dog population for years now, causing an exponential rise in dog bite and rabies cases. This calls for the attention of policymakers to formulate an effective stray dog population control management strategy in the province.
Karachi, the largest city in Sindh, has the highest number of dog bite cases in the country. The Indus Hospital Karachi reports that most of these dog bite victims are less than 15 years of age (Ilyas & Qazilbash, 2021). The state of Sindh reports around 600 dog bites per day. Furthermore, stray life is very hard for these dogs as they are constantly subjected to public hatred, abuse, and malnutrition (Salgirli et al., 2019). Thus, considering all these factors, the control of stray dogs is vital in the province.
In 2020, the Sindh government announced that it would undertake a mass vaccination campaign instead of mass culling to control stray populations; however, to date, there is nothing to show. Furthermore, the dogs that were vaccinated and collared were culled by the government in February 2021, making all efforts by private shelters and NGOs futile (Abbasi, 2021).
What can be done?
Around the globe, the most common strategies to control stray dog populations include mass culling, sheltering and the Catch, neuter, vaccinate and release (CNVR) policy. For years, Pakistan has tried to control the stray dog population through mass killings but has failed to keep it from rising. This in itself is proof of the policy’s ineffectiveness. Similarly, the sheltering policy is not culturally or economically feasible in Pakistan due to the lack of animal shelters and religious beliefs which reduce adoption rates. The only policy that seems to fit perfectly with the country’s socio-cultural context is the CNVR strategy. The policy has proven to be cost-effective, sustainable, ethical, and feasible in other Muslim developing countries like Turkey.
- The mass culling of stray dogs
Mass culling of stray dogs entails an inhuman process by which free-roaming dogs are shot or poisoned in large numbers, mostly by government authorities. Many countries have banned mass culling for its brutal nature and ineffectiveness in eradicating rabies and other diseases (Ilyas & Qazilbash, 2021; Høgåsen et al., 2013; OIPA, 2021; Costa, 2011). Furthermore, according to the OIE guidelines, mass culling of stray animals to control the stray population is deemed ineffective and inhumane (Ilyas & Qazilbash, 2021).
However, in some developing countries including Pakistan, mass culling is still a common practice used to manage the ever-growing population of stray dogs. Although killing stray animals is illegal as per the Pakistan Prevention of Cruelty of Animals Act 1890, the local governments have resorted to killing stray dogs for decades.
Mass culling as a policy to reduce the stray dog population has proven ineffective in most developing countries. According to Tasker (2007), in Albania, Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine mass culling was used to control stray dog population, however, not only did the policy fail but it also proved counterproductive as the number of stray dogs increased over time.
Furthermore, in terms of ethical consideration and feasibility, mass culling is a cruel practice prohibited by Islam and the Constitution of Pakistan. Most people in Pakistan do not support mass culling, deeming it immoral and barbaric. Moreover, culling practices are carried out publicly and bodies of dead dogs are left on the street for a considerable time before collection. This practice, therefore, poses a high risk of increasing violence in the society by desensitizing people to animal abuse (Jefferson & Lovsin, 2020).
Another method to control the stray dog population is the sheltering method. The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals (1987) recommends “the catch-removal method” which takes free-ranging dogs from their environment and places them in a shelter (Salgirli et al., 2019). This method is often accompanied by the adoption method whereby captured stray dogs are put up for adoption after vaccination and training. This method has shown favourable results in countries with high pet ownership rates and strong laws against pet abandonment (Smith et al., 2019).
However, this method is most effective in high-income countries with considerable interest in pet-ownership (Smith, et. al. 2019). This method has other issues within the context of Pakistan. Primarily, there is limited interest in Pakistan in the adoption of dogs as companion animals based on religious customs. Further, few shelters exist in Pakistan, all of which are privately managed.
- Collect, neuter, vaccinate, return
The CNVR approach, also known as ABC (Animal Birth Control) encompasses capturing, neutering, vaccinating and then releasing dogs back into their natural habitat. This policy is now being widely accepted as the most effective and humane way of controlling the stray dog population in all countries, regardless of religious or economic context. According to WHO and OIE guidelines, CNVR is recommended as the most effective method of dog population control (Abbasi, 2021).
This model has been used successfully in several countries. From the perspective of Pakistan, however, perhaps the success of the policy in Turkey is most helpful. Turkey’s Animal Protection Law, which was published in 2004, legitimized the CNVR program. As per this law, Turkey has adopted a “Never Kill Policy” for stray dogs (Salgirli et al., 2019). Instead, stray dogs are captured, neutered, vaccinated, tagged and released. The city administration is responsible for feeding and taking care of strays.
However, one thing missing in the Turkey model is the implementation of strong penalties for pet abandonment which negatively impacts the population control strategy (Amaku et al., 2010). Hence, both good implementation of the CNVR program and strong animal protection laws are important to deal with the free-ranging dog problem. Other countries with similar socio-economic and cultural contexts as Pakistan where CNVR has proven effective include, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (Ilyas & Qazilbash, 2021).
Not only can CNVR help in reducing the stray population but it also can prevent rabies through vaccination (Taylor et al., 2017). The Rabies vaccination program by WHO caused rabies rates to drop by 93 percent (Frerking, 2018). CNVR has successfully controlled stray populations and rabies in much of the developed world but is often perceived as too costly or insufficiently effective for resource-constrained regions with an abundance of stray dogs.
However, this perception is perhaps missing context. For example, in Bangladesh, the average cost for vaccinating dogs is around $3 per dog while the treatment cost for human rabies is $32 to $92 per person (Jefferson & Lovsin, 2020). Since 2011, Bangladesh has replaced mass culling with large-scale vaccination programs. Within the first three years of implementing the vaccination policy, human deaths due to rabies fell by 50% (WHO, 2014).
Implementing an effective CNVR policy will require a great deal of coordination between the provincial government and local stakeholders, like veterinarians, shelters, and NGOs. The government will further need to commit both to ending dog culling practices and setting high penalties for animal abuse, as CNVR has shown more favorable results in countries with strong animal protection laws (Salgirli et al., 2019).
Keeping in mind the complex nature of the stray dog problem, it is important to tackle it from various dimensions. Good implementation of CNVR with enforcement of animal protection legislation, public awareness, registration, and identification of the free-ranging dogs is vital to reducing the stray dog population, ensuring animal welfare and protecting citizens from dog bites and rabies risks. If the Sindh government does not undertake CNVR with full commitment, dog bites, and rabies cases will keep rising, and the resultant culling will not only increase the stray population over time but also bring negative publicity and backlash from animal activists and the international community. Hence, CNVR should be adopted as an effective and humane policy for controlling the stray dog population in Sindh.
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