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September 27, 2009

Slum Dogs by the Millions: Part II

All Animals magazine, Sept/Oct 2009

  • India alone is home to an estimated 30 million street dogs. Paul Prescott/IStock

  • Even though the people may be too poor to do anything about the street dogs, they do care. Silvia Jansen/IStock.

Continued from Part 1

Rahul Sehgal has come a long way from his days as an energetic but naïve animal lover who quit his job to found the Animal Help Foundation in Ahmedabad nearly a decade ago. Then 23 and not long out of college, he forged ahead despite his family’s misgivings. During the next three years, he would be arrested and falsely accused of kidnapping snake charmers, severely beaten for euthanizing monkeys infected with tuberculosis, and forced to dodge rocks and sticks hurled at him in the streets. He would also build a shelter, go bankrupt, and live off his wife’s income for several years.

These experiences didn’t shake his determination to help Ahmedabad’s animals, but they pushed him to focus his goals and change tactics. “I realized that if we can’t get the [dog] population under control, we can’t get to the point of actually carrying out welfare,” he says. Soon after, he met with HSI staff, who helped evaluate his program and provided veterinary training.

With $420,000 in local government funding, in 2006 the Animal Help Foundation sterilized and vaccinated 45,000 of Ahmedabad’s street dogs in just nine months. By comparison, all of India’s animal organizations at the time were averaging a combined 70,000 sterilizations a year.

The high sterilization numbers derive from the group’s pioneering protocols that allow dogs to be released the same day they are spayed and neutered—a method that could enable other countries to sterilize five to 10 times as many animals and finally bring their street dog problems under control, predicts Rowan.

Despite all the obstacles they face, animal advocates in developing nations have more reason than ever to be hopeful, says Sehgal, who’s been taking his street dog know-how to cities throughout Asia and Africa since joining the staff of HSI in 2007. Support for nonlethal animal control strategies is growing, encouraging more people to help out with the guidance of mentors like Sehgal.

For Western advocates, such programs are a way to improve countless animals’ lives with relatively small investments. In most developing countries, their money goes far. For example, $10,000 will pay the annual salary for a skilled vet in India, and $5,000 will do the same in Afghanistan, says Kelly O’Meara, director of international companion animals and engagement for HSI.

It’s also a chance to tackle a significant public health problem. Approximately 30,000 to 50,000 people die from rabies each year, the vast majority in developing nations and as a result of dog bites. Post exposure vaccination treatments are expensive, when they’re even available, and drain already overburdened health care systems.

Beyond protecting people from dog bites and transmissible diseases, sterilization programs can ease emotional suffering in the world’s poorest and most disenfranchised communities. Last year, Higgins coordinated a spay/neuter and training clinic in a remote island village in Patagonia, four hours by boat from the nearest vet. The local pet owners’ gratitude and relief were overwhelming, she says. One woman was moved to tears when she realized she’d no longer have to drown her dog’s puppies, her only option until then. “The puppies shouldn’t have to suffer,” she told Higgins, before joyfully spreading the word to all her neighbors that there would be no more litters.

“All the stories you hear about that people don’t care, that they’re too poor, aren’t true,” says Rowan. “They may be too poor to do anything, but they do care.”

In every street dog project he’s worked on, Rowan has seen how these programs can gradually awaken compassion for animals and respect for animal protection work. They can give hope to people who despair of the animal suffering around them and dispel their sense of isolation.

Later this year, Sehgal hopes to show an even closer link between animal protection and the alleviation of human suffering. India’s streets aren’t just home to millions of dogs; homeless children often scavenge right alongside the four-footed for survival. HSI envisions a program that will enlist the help of street children to monitor recently sterilized street dogs, while repaying them with education, food, and shelter.

The ambitious project isn’t Sehgal’s only agenda item this year. He’s working in seven other cities in the Philippines to establish spay/neuter clinics, and he’s helping to launch street dog sterilization programs in Ethiopia, Bhutan, and Nepal. At the same time, he’s looking at possible openings to introduce humane animal control concepts in other countries.

“It’s very empowering,” he says, “because I’m able to affect the lives of many more times the number of animals as before.”

And no matter where he is, Sehgal says he has no problem overcoming language and cultural differences to establish a rapport with his audience. “Even though I’m now the teacher, in some ways, I’m still them.”