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September 27, 2009

Slum Dogs by the Millions: Part I

All Animals magazine, Sept/Oct 2009

by Julie Falconer

When Rahul Sehgal traveled to the Philippines last year, his original purpose was to teach animal shelter workers a better way of killing dogs removed from city streets—by helping them replace electrocution methods with lethal injection. But in a country with an estimated 10 million stray dogs, Sehgal knew a more radical approach was needed.

“I told them that while humane euthanasia was a worthy goal, it would be an endless process,” Sehgal says.“All they’d be doing is killing a lot more animals but doing it more humanely.” And he presented an alternative: high-volume sterilization modeled after successful programs recently launched in India.

His words had an impact, and in March, the first municipal spay/neuter clinic in the Philippines opened in Taguig City.

As director of Humane Society International/India, Sehgal is a recognized leader in Asia’s animal protection movement, able to influence animal care and control strategies in rural areas, large cities, and even entire countries.

But just nine years ago, he was in the same position as most of his students: an unseasoned advocate in a country where large numbers of free-roaming dogs fend for themselves on the fringes of urban and rural communities.

Emaciated dogs sleeping on rubbish piles, injured dogs limping across market squares, and dogs so afflicted with mange they’re basically scratching themselves to death—these are commonplace sights in India’s Ahmedabad, where Sehgal has lived for nearly two decades.

These images were once a shock to Sehgal, who’d grown up in the nation’s military housing compounds, insulated from the civilian world and surrounded by pets, green spaces, and wildlife. Only after his father retired from the army and moved the family to Ahmedabad did Sehgal start to witness the suffering of his country’s unwanted canines.

“The situation was really bad. I was a part of it; I was in the middle of it. Though I had no experience, I wanted to make a difference,” he says.

It’s a goal he shares with compassionate people throughout the developing world, where animal protection groups are gaining in strength and number. Many were founded on behalf of their communities’ most visible victims: the dogs who live, breed, and die on the streets. By learning from one another and their Western allies, dedicated activists are overcoming barriers to humane dog control in even the poorest and most tumultuous nations—and making inroads in a problem long considered too huge to tackle.

Taking it to the streets

In most developing nations, only about 5 percent of dogs have owners in the Western sense, compared to 95 percent in the U.S., says Andrew Rowan, president and CEO of HSI.

The rest can be loosely classified as community dogs, who typically hang out in human-populated areas and rely on handouts; strays, who have no fixed neighborhood ties; and true ferals, who feed at landfills, vacant lots, or slaughterhouse waste piles and seldom interact with people.

Local governments typically resort to poisoning, drowning, clubbing, or other inhumane methods to control their free-roaming dog populations, but even in places where the animals are tolerated, their lives are often short and plagued with parasites, disease, and constant breeding. And while many of the puppies die young, enough survive to bring more animals into a dangerous and fickle environment.

When HSI began addressing the problem in the 1990s, it was obvious that U.S.-style animal care and control—where homeless dogs and cats are housed in shelters for potential adoption—wasn’t a realistic solution. It was equally clear that mass cullings weren’t effective in reducing populations over time or protecting people from disease.

A growing consensus developed among animal protection and public health organizations that a nonlethal approach—based on the trap-neuter-return model used for managing feral cat colonies in industrialized nations—held the most promise for effectively addressing the global street dog problem. Known as “catch-neuter-return” or “animal birth control,” these programs involve removing dogs from the street, sterilizing them and vaccinating them for rabies, and returning them to the place of capture. Some of the earliest programs to apply this method—including HSI-funded efforts in Indonesia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and the Bahamas—soon began proving their worth.

“Each project produced information that we were able to build on and add to, so we could finally say, ‘This is how you do it,’” says Rowan.

But having the blueprint is just part of the answer; the larger challenge is creating environments where spay/neuter programs can be sustained. To that end, HSI partners with animal care organizations in other nations, working with local advocates to help them tackle the barriers to successful street dog management in their own communities.

Overcoming obstacles

One of these barriers has been the shortage of veterinarians trained in small animal medicine.

Vet schools in developing countries tend to focus on agricultural animals, so finding someone who can perform a simple neuter operation isn’t as easy as it may sound, says Jessica Higgins, HSI program manager. Most new graduates, she says, have never performed surgery or touched a dog or cat. Some are even taught that a sterilization procedure is too dangerous and takes hours to perform.

In the past, Western animal organizations have typically brought in their own people, but the benefits are temporary, says veterinarian Barry Kellogg, an HSI consultant.

“It does no good to swoop in with a crew of vets and techs and spay every dog you can get your hands on and then leave,” he says. “Even though it makes us feel great to spay or neuter a couple hundred dogs, it doesn’t take long to wipe out the progress you’ve made.”

Because of HSI’s training of local vets in spay/neuter operations and surgical hygiene, a growing cadre of skilled companion animal vets is helping to alleviate the suffering of street dogs throughout the developing world. Not all vets can perform high-volume sterilizations right away, says Kellogg, “but even if you’ve simply enabled them to perform six surgeries a day rather than three, you’ve already doubled their capacity.”

Gaining official support is also critical. As the leader of the first stand-alone animal protection organization in India to get government funding for street dog sterilizations, Sehgal is uniquely suited to teach advocates how to approach their municipal officials and avoid some common missteps.

“What most people do is go to the government and on an emotional note they’ll say, ‘You’re killing dogs and they’re so sweet and they’re man’s best friend,’ and they’ll shed a few tears and they’ll talk about a protest march and they’ll antagonize,” he says.

Sehgal instructs them to put aside the melodrama, research all aspects of the situation, and present the hard facts. “There’s no reason why the government won’t work with you if you have a sensible thing going for them,” he says.

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