Should we let Delhi go to the dogs?

An architect from Jamia Millia Islamia has figured out how to minimize conflict between species

Justin Podur
March 3, 2013
First Published on Viewpoint Online (Pakistan)

India’s urban dogs are an unfamiliar sight to a visitor. Their behavior is mysterious. Why do we hear them barking at night, and not during the day? What kinds of territorial disputes are going on between them? Why are some so friendly to humans, while others shy away? Which dogs are responsible for aggression against humans, and why? Do India’s cities have a ‘dog problem’?

Every North American city has an infrastructure dedicated to taking dogs off of the street. There is 1 dog for every two humans in North America, compared to 1 dog for every 50 humans in India. Virtually all of the North American dogs are pets. To a North American, this – bringing the dogs into homes as pets – could be the solution to any conflict that might arise between dogs and humans in the city.

But to Rishi Dev, architect and instructor at Jamia Millia Islamia, this is the nightmare scenario to be avoided at all costs. This is not because Rishi Dev dislikes dogs – on the contrary, he is a true dog lover who has spent the last 13 years studying the animals. But the basis of his philosophy is a scientific understanding of dogs as a species adapted to the outdoors, a species that has a special relationship with humans, and a species that “values freedom more than food.”

“Dogs are a keystone species,” Rishi Dev says. “They keep rats away, they exclude other animals. By bringing them into homes as pets and off of the street, you are creating a vacuum.”

That vacuum is filled first by other dogs – feral dogs from outside the city. This was exactly what occurred after the famous Bangalore cull of 2007, in which 3000 dogs were killed in 3 months. Feral dogs came into the city, bringing rabies, which had not been a problem in the urban dog population. Dog haters didn’t benefit, as feral dogs filled the void. “The ones who did benefit were the pharmaceutical companies, who sold more rabies vaccines than ever, after the cull.” If dogs continue to be excluded, other animals take over – cats, and rats, neither of whom have the kind of special affinity for humans that dogs have.

Rishi Dev, a champion of the Indian-evolved street dog, is quick to remind people not only that these dogs are perfectly adapted to the Indian environment, but also that 79% of bites in Delhi are caused primarily by pet dogs, not street dogs. The street dog is misunderstood in other ways as well. The population of street dogs is not limited by food, but by high mortality, so feeding dogs will not cause an increase in their population. Dogs are hardier than humans, can travel much farther on foot, and can survive much longer with very little food and water. And their hardiness makes them more friendly to humans, not less. “Compare dogs and monkeys,” he says. “Urban monkeys are more aggressive than dogs – partly because they are less hardy species.” On the other hand, he writes in his thesis, their hardiness means that “if pushed to extinction, they are capable of taking measures that would prove absolutely fatal to humans.”

His analysis is based on a multi-year study conducted as part of his master’s degree in ekistics from Jamia Millia Islamia. Based on years of field observation and questionnaires, Rishi Dev classified Delhi into zones where the relationship between humans and dogs was desirable, sensitive, or undesirable. In the undesirable zones, humans and dogs met one another with hostility and aggression. In sensitive zones, dogs lacked the ability to freely enter or exit.

Most interesting was the desirable zone, which included areas like around Metro stations or certain residential areas with specific spatial patterns. Here, there were fewer dogs for each human than in other zones, and the relationship works because humans take advantage of the special behaviors of dogs. As social animals, dogs form packs with defined hierarchies. But – and this is unique to dogs – the minute the dogs are fed by humans, the pack is dissolved and the dogs become loyal to the humans that feed them. Feeding is not to be confused with throwing scraps, however. “Feeding creates a relationship with the human feeding the dog, whereas if you throw waste at the dog, they become protective of the food, including from you.”

By feeding them, dogs in the desirable zones were adopted, classified in Rishi’s study as ‘community dogs’, and regularly fed by the humans. These community dogs, with their territorial instincts, drive off dogs from outside the community. “Dogs respect territory, so that two dogs can drive off twenty.” Weaker dogs, dogs without relationships to humans, also defer to the healthier, better fed dogs that are associated with the community, which also enables a small number of community dogs to exclude larger numbers of feral dogs from the outside.

The adoption of community dogs is the first step to a stable, desirable relationship between people and dogs. After the dogs are domesticated, they can be spayed or neutered to control the population. Without domestication, Rishi Dev argues, animal birth control efforts are futile – some dogs will always escape, and dogs are fecund enough to repopulate the streets unless tremendous effort and expense is put into constantly killing them – which, if done, would bring its own problems, including, as mentioned above, species that have no such special liking for humans. Following a similar logic, the Delhi High Court gave an order that dogs could be fed at defined feeding stations in the city, in order to create these desirable zones.

“This approach,” Rishi says, “is in accord with our customs. In Hinduism, in Islam, we keep dogs, but not in the home. But really it’s a completely scientific approach. I am not looking at this as a dog lover, I am just looking at how we can minimize the conflict.”

Rishi’s vision is of a city of community dogs, with a stable, low population, relating to humans as friends, without fear. The biggest threat to this vision is, surprisingly, the pet industry itself. 67% of the population increase of dogs is from abandoned pets, breeds poorly adapted to urban India that have introduced new health problems and more aggression into the street dog population. The pet industry sees a growing market in urban India: “Communities are breaking down, families are breaking down, people in the cities are alienated, and they turn to pets for companionship. But this eventually leads to greater conflict between the species.”

Rishi started on this path through an intraspecies encounter of his own. “In 1994 I got bitten by a dog. This dog used to sit outside my house every day, and one day I accidentally stepped on him. He bit me on the leg, and I was enraged. I called the municipal corporation. They came and caught him, and I remember the way he looked at me, as if he was asking what did I do? So I asked them to let him go. I thought, maybe it wasn’t his fault. The most amazing thing was, after about five days, he came back. He had some apprehension towards me, but he came back, and I realized, despite the danger to him, he would keep coming. He was kind of confident that he could coexist with me. He was cautious, but confident. And I started to think about how this was all about space, and not about the animal, and that we could design spaces to have a better relationship.”

Justin Podur is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. This winter, he is a Visiting Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi.

Author: Justin Podur

Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.