Around the time that the BBMP was deciding to include the menace of stray dogs in its agenda, on August 31st, 10-year-old Sameer was waiting for an injection in the series he has had to take, after being bitten badly by a dog outside his home in Jayanagar 4th T block.
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In the days since hearing about his injury, I have been counting dogs on our city streets, and am horrified that in a metropolis boasting about reaching for "world class status" we have 1.4 lakh strays (at last count – 2009) and 21,900 dog bite cases (officially registered) in just eight months of 2009. That’s 90 cases per day. A three-year-old child bitten by a dog died at Hunsur last week. It makes news if the child dies, but what about the trauma in the remaining, non-fatal cases?
Sameer’s thigh wound was so deep that while he was being stitched up at the hospital his mother fainted. The boy says he is now scared about encountering dogs on the streets when he goes to school.
But wait for the important bit – Sameer was not bitten by a stray dog, it was a pet on a leash, being taken for a walk by a domestic help who used to pass by that road in front of Sameer’s house every day. After the dog dug into his thigh and calf muscles, she has disappeared (probably taking a different route, to avoid confronting the boy’s parents). The maid saw the boy being carried indoors by a street vendor who happened to be around. The dog owner has not bothered to visit Sameer’s parents, much less apologised or offered to bear the expenses of his medical treatment.
Perhaps the maid did not inform the owner, for fear of being pulled up for not restraining the animal. Eye-witnesses say she quickly rushed away.
Animal rights groups oppose any moves to clear the streets of stray dogs, but can a pet owner – there are an estimated 1.4 lakhs pet dogs in Bengaluru – get away with not taking responsibility for serious injuries to a child that necessitated several visits to a hospital, over three weeks ? If the city administration is responsible for ensuring that strays do not cause harm, don’t owners have an even greater responsibility?
Animal lovers exist all over the world. How is it that one never encounters a stray dog rummaging a garbage bin, or biting passersby, in Paris, Singapore, or London? England and France are famous for dog lovers, how come we do not hear of a case where a pet dog bit a schoolchild and the owner did not even bother to visit the victim or apologise ?
I remember an incident when my daughter was five years old. We were living in Princeton, New Jersey and the family next door had a huge dog which used to snarl at my daughter when she got off the school bus and returned home in the afternoon. She used to be terrified, though our neighbour insisted the dog was "harmless".
One day I saw my daughter standing outside our gate, petrified and mumbling to herself, "I am not scared, I am not scared" (but of course she was!) When I mentioned this to my neighbour, the woman was so worried and upset that she not only came over to soothe my daughter but ensured that the dog would be tied up indoors when the school bus dropped the children, at 2 pm. We still have the painted wooden horse that the neighbour brought as a peace offering, to my daughter.
Animal rights is not the point here. Civic responsibility is. If you own a dog you have a moral responsibility and obligation to ensure that the animal does not cause annoyance or injury to residents. If the dog barks in the night, the neighbourhood has the right to complain. If it bites, of course the owner has to accept full responsibility.
The union ministry of environment drafted rules in May 2010 for a law requiring license for keeping pets. Some citizens have reacted angrily, saying that this would be the return of the license raj. If owners will not take responsibility, how many Sameers will be bitten and traumatised, in the name of freedom to keep a pet?
The Madras High Court gave a ruling last year, saying that owning a pet cannot be claimed as a matter of right (neighbours of an owner had complained about his dogs). In Bengaluru, I see owners in posh areas like Dollars Colony letting their pets defecate on the footpaths. Abroad, owners have to remove droppings from public places. Causing nuisance or danger is a civil offence, and the police can seize the pet, and impose a fine or even imprisonment if injuries are caused. Fear of the law can be a potent inducement for responsible behaviour, but we need to focus not so much on the law as on owners’ obligations, which can come only through moral-ethical sensitisation. That is now woefully absent.