SARAH is saving dogs — and the rest of us

(Here is a piece I did for this past Sunday’s paper. Stay tuned tomorrow for a photoset of local dogs that I have been collecting for a while now.)

You see them everywhere. Trotting down dirt paths, napping in MG Marg, picking through trash, playing with kids. You hear them too. What would the night be without the rhythms of their far off barking? Dogs, both strays and pets, are an inextricable part of life in Sikkim.

But as development pushes forward in the state, the government has in recent years taken a new approach to Sikkim’s dogs with the creation of the Sikkim Anti-Rabies and Animal Health Programme, better known as SARAH. This week NOW! sat down to get the scoop from SARAH project coordinator Dr. Thinlay N. Bhutia, who works at SARAH’s facilities at the State Veterinary Hospital in Deorali, Gangtok.

SARAH was established in 2006 as a joint program of the Department of Animal Husbandry, the Sikkim Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Vets Beyond Borders, and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation. SARAH’s mission is to control the street dog population and deal with the spread of rabies and other zoonotic diseases — that is, diseases that can be passed from animals to humans, over 300 of which are emerging health dangers in the world today. SARAH also provides Vets Beyond Borders training to doctors and volunteers.

Working under the mantra of “small, manageable, and disease free,” SARAH workers bring in stray dogs, vaccinate them against rabies and other diseases, spade or neuter them, and hopefully find families or communities to adopt them. To date SARAH has desexed over 19,000 dogs in Sikkim, vaccinated 32,000, and performed hundreds and hundreds of often lifesaving veterinary treatments of dogs and wildlife as well. Workers catch stray dogs all over the state every day, bringing in an average of ten to twelve dogs per day in Gangtok alone.

Rural communities are increasingly coming to SARAH to adopt dogs as protection for their village from dangerous wildlife — an issue that has troubled Sikkim for the past year with an outbreak of bear encounters. According to Dr. Bhutia, however, despite this trend the rates of both active adoption (by individual homes) and passive adoption (by general communities) are sadly low, and after stray dogs recover from surgery, disease and injury SARAH often has to simply return them to the streets.

SARAH has expanded its operations throughout Sikkim, and now also has a large feral dog programme for the more remote areas of the state. In the North District feral dogs can be dangerous to travellers that encounter them and are causing a food shortage for Sikkim’s prized and endangered snow leopards. Wildlife conservation is one of SARAH’s main objectives. Since border security forces are sometimes the only people working in these areas, SARAH operatives use trash from army bases as bait and wear military fatigues to lure whole packs of feral dogs into large cages. Once captured, they are brought back to SARAH facilities to be domesticated. According to Dr. Bhutia, the programme will have the feral dog population under control in three to four years.

SARAH is also working hard on awareness programmes, especially for children, to educate people how to non-violently deal with dogs and teach against the moral evil of animal cruelty. Dr. Bhutia says that there has been a “sea change” against cruelty to dogs over the last five years. Dog torture is still the occasional pastime of bored children, and you still see plenty of dogs limping from beatings or being struck by careless drivers. But things are getting better.

So just how many dogs are there in Sikkim? It is impossible to know for sure, since animal censuses are notoriously difficult to get accurate, but Dr. Bhutia estimates that there are 60,000-70,000, including around 27,000 pets. Of course, the difference between a pet dog (which is often allowed to roam free outside the owner’s house) and a street dog (which is often haphazardly fed by people in the community) is a fuzzy one at best. No particular breed dominates — stray dogs are almost universally mutts — though there is a minor fad for mongrel Tibetan Mastiffs.

The effects of SARAH’s efforts go far beyond just helping animals, however. Since SARAH was established there has been a dramatic decrease in human rabies and a drop in dog bite cases. Dr. Bhutia describes the pyramid theory of public health. At the top of the pyramid, of course, is human health, and this should be our biggest priority. But human health is connected to and supported by ecological and animal health in the lower half of the pyramid. The most effective approach to public health is a holistic one that works in all three areas.

Furthermore, eliminating zoonotic diseases and keeping dogs healthy helps the state develop a reputation as being safe and wholesome, and such a reputation is very good for tourism.

“We contribute to the state GDP!” Dr. Bhutia says. “It’s tremendous!”

But if sick dogs are so bad for society, one could ask, why not just kill them, get rid of them, make the state dog free? Indeed, for many years before SARAH was established the government tried to deal with street dog population with culls, sending the police to shoot strays en masse. Dr. Bhutia argues that while this might work on a small island, in Sikkim it would only create a biological vacuum which would be filled by something less pleasant. Street dogs aren’t pests; in fact they are a vital part of the ecosystem of cities and human civilisation. They have long helped control the rat population, and therefore the myriad diseases that rats carry. Street dogs also greatly help reduce the state’s trash problem by picking through garbage for leftover food. If they didn’t, rodents, bugs and bacteria surely would.

Dogs can also act as guards and, obviously, watchdogs, protecting individual homes against intruders and communities against intrusion by dangerous wildlife. Those remote communities adopting dogs to ward away bears and monkeys have the right idea.

“We should encourage people to keep dogs,” Dr. Bhutia says. However, many people are getting dogs as symbols of fashion and status without properly caring for them. “In Sikkim many people don’t take care of their dogs. Don’t keep a dog if you can’t take care of it.”

Dr. Bhutia recommends that pets and community dogs be de-wormed every three months and brought in annually for vaccinations and a check up. He also advocates feeding them a more balanced and nutritionally varied diet. Most people only feed their dogs meat and rice, but like humans dogs need vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. If owners can’t afford scientifically created dog food, they should give their dogs a helping of vegetables along with the meat and rice.

If we can be good to them, dogs can be a great part of our lives, providing company and comfort along with more those more practical benefits of pest control and protection. And they should be a part of our lives, if only to add a little species diversity to our civilisation. Thankfully SARAH is out there working tirelessly every week to keep the dog population “small, manageable and disease-free,” and thus keep both populations, homo sapien and canine, happy.

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