Animal rights dispute in Delhi is a sign that normality is returning

As coronavirus cases started going down in New Delhi, the residents of my neighbourhood resumed their war over how to handle the animals in our midst.

The battle has been raging in the two years since I moved to Nizamuddin East, a leafy enclave that sits in the shadows of Humayun’s Tomb, the grand Mughal mausoleum. In July, the conflict hit a new level of intensity with no sign of resolution.

On one side are the animal lovers who feed, vaccinate and sterilise the animals, and who think they should stay.

On the other side are residents fed up with being bitten, having their gardens trashed by monkeys and being woken up by the howling dogs. They believe offenders should go.

The dispute has forced me to confront uncomfortable questions: what are my thoughts on animal rights? Are bites the price we pay for coexistence? Should we feed strays even if they annoy us? And do monkeys carry rabies? (The answer is yes.)

The monkeys scavenge food from rubbish, while the over 20 street dogs have a handful of feeding spots where they are provided with food. On walks to the market, seeing Madala and Amber — my names for two particularly friendly dogs — often makes my day.

But both species are guilty of biting people, and they can be destructive. The monkeys plunder gardens and defecate on porches, and the dogs can get territorial. Once, the monkeys threw down bricks from the top of an apartment, smashing through the windshield of a parked car.

Many residents of Nizamuddin East take a stick on their evening walk as protection against the dogs. Others complain that they are terrified to walk outside at night when the dogs are at their most active, engaged in various turf wars.

One dog has bitten three of my friends in the neighbourhood. “It chased me a few other times before it got chained,” says one.

Yet the solution to the monkey and dog “menace”, as it’s called on the neighbourhood WhatsApp group, is more complicated than it first appears. In comparison with my home province of Ontario, Canada, where a dangerous dog may be “destroyed”, the laws in India afford animals far more rights.

To remove monkeys in the past, residents could call in the langurs — bigger monkeys trained by a human handler to scare away the monkey pests. However, the environment ministry ruled against that in 2013, decreeing that the use of langurs was prohibited because they are a protected species.

“It is not allowed to kill dogs in any way, our policy is to sterilise the dog population so that the numbers eventually fall,” says an official from the Animal Welfare Board of India, a statutory advisory body that promotes animal welfare.

In the last month, the battle has escalated, with one resident allegedly shooting a dog three times. Separately, an attempt to bring in a professional monkey-catcher was thwarted, apparently by animal lovers who called the police.

The dispute plays out across the country. “The population of dogs is quite high in India, that needs to be controlled and that’s a long process,” says a lawyer who works with animal welfare organisations. “There are many dog lovers and dog haters, they are equally balanced.”

In June, a judge ruled on a dispute in New Delhi involving a doctor who wanted to stop someone from feeding dogs outside her property. (The matter was settled amicably.)

In his pro-dog judgment, the Honourable Justice JR Midha said “feeding of animals has from times immemorial been considered as a good deed”, citing dogs in the Vedas, sacred Hindu texts.

He went on to say that dogs “have the right to food and citizens have the right to feed community dogs, but in exercising this right, care and caution should be taken to ensure that it does not impinge upon the rights of others or cause any harm”.

The judgment was cheered by the animal lovers across the country, but it’s unlikely to help clarify the situation on the ground.

I don’t blame the neighbourhood for failing to reach a consensus on cohabitation with other species. Humanity has a terrible record when it comes to protecting wildlife.

The WhatsApp bickering over the dogs and monkeys seems futile, but I’ll take that any day over the SOS calls for hospital beds, oxygen and medication that we have lived through during the pandemic. I can’t help but see it as a sign of healing in Nizamuddin East.

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