In a move that would not only help our animal friends but us humans too, the animal welfare group in Kandy presents a Spay/Neuter programme aimed at humane dog control islandwide
I have often felt that no one could equal the welcome I get from my dogs. Even after the shortest of absences, there they are - tails wagging frantically, unable to stand still in their excitement, barking and crooning in an ecstasy of love. But as cases of rabies rise all over the island, this is the very relationship that is coming under threat. As the government's No-Kill policy comes into action, the number of stray dogs are once more threatening to swell, and with them the incidence of a dreaded disease. Rabies – so agonizingly fatal for both man and animal – cannot be allowed to continue unchecked. But what are the options?
A pragmatic approach is our only hope, says Champa Fernando, Secretary of the Kandy Association for Community Protection Through Animal Welfare (better known simply as KACPAW). Mrs. Fernando and her colleagues have just presented a groundbreaking report to the Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Welfare. The report which summarises the Spay/Neuter Programme Series is, in essence, a project on humane dog control in Sri Lanka.
|One of the many children who brought their dogs for spaying at Piligalla West
Conducted in the Udunuwara area, the programmes objective was to identify a practical, cost effective and perhaps most importantly, sustainable spay/neuter programme that could be carried out islandwide. The result would not only mean dwindling numbers of stray dogs but perhaps even the ultimate eradication of rabies. As you can imagine, achieving this is much easier said than done, involving as it does not only a widespread effort on the part of government agencies in coperation with animal welfare organisations but also great care on the part of dog owners across the island.
Stabilising and then reducing the dog population is one of the first steps that needs to be taken. Spaying/neutering has gone from being an unpopular option to one that the majority of pet owners would choose for their dogs, says Mrs. Fernando. This is a good thing – fewer unwanted puppies, invariably means fewer abandoned dogs and consequently fewer street animals. However, the procedure is still expensive, and far beyond the reach of many poor families. This is where she hopes the government will step up to the challenge.
In this case, because of the direct connection between the animals' and humans' health, part of successfully implementing the project will lie in increasing the number of veterinary surgeons employed by the Ministry of Health. While it would be nice to take care of all the animals, the initial focus must be on spaying/neutering the females, emphasises Mrs. Fernando, the reason being that males tend to far outnumber females, with an average ratio of 70:30. This is in fact a surprisingly attainable goal – Mrs. Fernando calculates that the number of female dogs with owners in one Ministry of Health Area (MOH Area) is about 1,500. And while there are around 240 MOH areas in the country, slow and steady may yet win the race. If the government were to take on the domestic animals, those remaining, dogs belonging to no particular household – community-owned dogs – will have to be the province of animal welfare organisations.
Why not stop with spaying/neutering the females? Won't that be enough to reduce the numbers of animals? That is not the only concern, says Mrs. Fernando. Spaying the males will make them less aggressive and more manageable, thereby reducing the number of attacks in the home itself.
Mrs. Fernando reveals that a majority of cases involve a dog biting a woman or child. Left alone in the house with the animal, individuals are unsure of how to discipline or even approach their animals, and a child, who for instance, tries to pull a animal's food bowl away may suddenly be attacked.
Preventing such attacks may have more than just the obvious benefit of saving lives. Currently, rabies vaccination is still hard on the purse – costing approximately anywhere between Rs.600 to 3,000 for each person treated. However, there can be no thought of cutting back on its availability. Already, reveals Dr. P.A.L. Harischandra, Director of Public Health Veterinary Services, cases of humans contracting rabies is up from 55 in 2005 to 73 in 2006 – all this despite increased dog vaccinations and animal birth control procedures.
Currently, the government is relying heavily on the use of contraceptive Depo -provera injections for female dogs. In fact, between 2005 and 2006, the number of injections administered has jumped from 5651 to 49, 968. And while simply injecting dogs may seem the lesser of two evils (the other choice being exterminating them), animal activists have voiced serious concerns over the use of the injection, believing it to be seriously detrimental to the dog's health, possibly responsible for malignant mammary tumours in the animals.
However, "the current focus is on reducing the population vulnerable to disease for the collective wellbeing of the public," says Dr. Harischandra adding that Sri Lanka is currently home to approximately 2.5 million dogs, the majority of which do run wild a lot even if they have legitimate owners. Dr. Harischandra also points out the need for better garbage management, one which is echoed in KACPAW report which shows that the percentage of community owned dogs rises as one nears urban areas. The reason is simple: more garbage dumps.
Food is to be found with much greater ease nearer the cities, with the garbage dumps serving as a prime feeding ground. In villages, where people are far less likely to waste food, stray dog numbers are almost negligible, whereas in the city, owners abandoning their dogs very considerately drop them off at the nearest dump. It is becoming obvious that we have more than one reason to learn how to better manage our waste disposal.
The only solution it seems is to do more. Mrs. Fernando says that key to winning the struggle will be ensuring that domestic dogs are not only neutered but also regularly vaccinated for rabies – first at 6 weeks of age, then at 6 months of age and thereafter once in every one or two years. Also key is educating and mobilising the public, so that more owners take responsibility for their charges. It becomes obvious that our animal friends are as vulnerable as we are, perhaps even more so; and in this case, helping them, will only be helping ourselves.