I met her at a ferry terminal. She was an old dog, worn out by giving yearly litters, infected with mange. Her fur was coarse and patchy. I was observing her. She came nearer and tried wiggling her broken tail. I offered her biscuits. She followed me the whole terminal area. The delayed ferry gave me a friend. While leaving, I had sensed an emptiness. The fleeting moments were exceptionally beautiful and equally sombre.
Then, there was another dog named Jack. He lived in a village near a protected area. He was loved by every bird-watcher visiting the park. Jack and I had a relation that lasted about half a decade. He had an amazing ability of recognising faces. On our last meet—it was a winter morning – he trailed me and walked up to the park watchtower which he didn't usually do with the outsiders. After a month, Jack was run over by a car.
I also remember that puppy I had met at Banani. It was cuddling another dog, trying to seek warmth not knowing its fellow had died. I met it in the evening after some tiring office hours. Yet, I felt compelled to rescue the furball of love.
These memories are warming up my neurons, as the city is scheming to get rid of its community dogs. In August this year, the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) had declared a strange campaign of capturing the strays and relocating them to neighbouring peri-urban areas. And the city -planners want to relocate about 30,000 stray dogs. The decision - brutal, unscientific, law-defying and somewhat crazy - has created an outcry alike among animal lovers and scientists, enthusiasts and biologists.
The long and sacred relationship
Dogs have descended from wolves that befriended men. This act was ancient, thousands of years old. A grave, about 14,000 years old, was discovered in Germany where a puppy had been found buried along with two adult humans. The dog remains from the Altai mountains indicated human-dog relationship could be as old as 33,000 years, nearly reaching the timeline of the beginning of men.
In all ancient anecdotes and Holy Books, dogs, as well as the compassion for animals, are placed with high regard. From "Odyssey," an 8th century BC epic by Homer, to Hindu and Buddist beliefs, dogs are cherished. In the Hindu epic "Mahabharata," a dog is allowed to enter the heaven.
The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, speak of the same. The Torah, the Bible and the Quran resonate that God takes care of every living being, and that they should be treated with kindness and compassion.
Mumbai's leopards, Dhaka's dogs
I was trying to gauge our attitude toward dogs. Then, Mumbai, the capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra, came into my thoughts. Mumbai is a crammed land, most populated in India, ranking seventh among the world's densest cities, immediately following Dhaka.
The financial and commercial capital of India is perhaps best known for Bollywood—the birthplace of Indian movies; and, then, comes its high crime rates. But, against all odds, Mumbai is faring exceptionally well in practising human-wildlife co-existence.
At the Mumbai outskirts—a distance similar to that of Dhaka and any of its peri-urban areas, there is a protected forest. And it has leopards, about 80 of them. These well-protected big cats often take a stroll into the city. In contrast – undoubtedly the starkest of all – the Mumbai residents know how to tolerate a predator prowling in their yard, often, literally.
During the pandemic, I came across some freakish instances of animal cruelty in Bangladesh. There was one dead fishing cat with gouged out eyes. There was a university student who decapitated a small palm-sized kingfisher and posted the photos on social media. There was an old man who killed a small civet from the homesteads, posing gleefully. There was a jackal pack, all brutally murdered as they tried to seek refuge amid flash floods. The list is endless, leading me to try to comprehend the psychological drive behind these heinous acts.
Then, it comes to me as broad daylight. We still don't have any knowledge on how to love and manage our community dogs.
I find the last vestiges of wildlife a miracle for Bangladesh.
Stray dog relocation: First in the world?
In the least developed and developing countries, and island nations where dogs pose risks to native wildlife, I have heard of dog-culling. Developed nations often pick free-roaming dogs and put them in shelters, only to be adopted later on. I looked into the search engines, browsed through pages after pages but didn't find a single instance of stray dogs being relocated from a city centre to a city outskirt. Are we introducing a new practice in community dog management to the whole world? It is said truth is stranger than fiction.
However, when some untested, apparently crazy attempts are being imposed on a nation, they incur heavy costs, always. In 1958, China initiated a country-wide Eliminate Sparrows Campaign – targeting the Eurasian tree sparrow, a species we can also see in northern and northeastern Bangladesh. The killing act to save grains resulted in a proverbial disaster. Many other birds were decimated, including 45-78 millions of sparrows. Harmful locust activity sky-rocketed as no bird was there to keep them at bay. The country then had to face a famine. About 15-45 million people died in the Great Chinese Famine.
Are we ready to bear the unknown consequences of this strange and sadistic dog relocation programme?
Unscientific, pointless, transgressing
It is said that responding to ignorance with science is the best action. The plan of DSCC to relocate 30,000 stray dogs includes a landfill. The less-than a square kilometre wide garbage dump in Matuail is apparently the new home for urban dogs. The landfill borders several areas of the metropolis, only 10-20 kilometers away from the city centre. In no time, these areas will be repopulated with new dogs. There is even a chance that relocated dogs will ultimately find their way back home. Matuail has no physical or ecological barrier that separates the city proper.
There is another big issue with dog relocation. There are multiple animal welfare organisations and clubs in the city which are devoted to vaccinating and neutering the community dogs. Filling up the residential areas with unvaccinated dogs can be disastrous, with a chance of a spike in rabies infection.
The DSCC plan directly conflicts with existing laws. The Animal Welfare Act 2019 has been enacted to prevent animal cruelty. The cruel act on community animals is now a punishable crime. There have been cases filed for cruelty against dogs—the first ever in the country, and the verdicts were just and timely. While the country is trying to move towards human-nature co-existence, the DSCC plan risks nipping the trend on its bud.
If the authorities provided these organisations with vaccines and other necessary tools, the management of stray dogs would have been easier, done with voluntary participation of citizens.
The residents of Matuail
Matuail is not simply a garbage dump. According to the Bangladesh Population Census 2011, the area was inhabited by more than 140,000 people back then. The population of this area had been 25,000 in 2001. The number has surely multiplied by now. At this point, the plan to introduce 30,000 dogs in Matuail sounds preposterous.
Just a wild thought, are the poverty-stricken Matuail people even considered as humans by the DSCC ?
Towards a casteist dystopia?
I can finish the article right away. But, another thought, darker and more profane, plagued my mind. This stirs up because of men's otherworldly desire to dictate and control nature. Imagine, by one or two decades, Dhaka eventually gets free of stray dogs. Would the city then remove its cats for beautification? What will be next? The crows? When the city environ is neatly organised, will we turn our eyes to the poor? Will they be removed from certain areas and kept within marked panes?
The pictures keep reeling on. I sense an eerie similarity to the caste systems of ultra-modern societies shown in "Divergent" and "The Hunger Games." What are we summoning by dislocating the community canines?