Gardiner Harris, the South Asia Correspondent for the New York Times, recently offended many Indian Animal activists with his story ” Where the Streets are Thronged with Strays Bearing Fangs.” A multimedia slideshow “A Snarling Menace in India,” accompanies the piece with portraits of seemingly threatening and vicious stray dogs in India
I subscribe to a listserv of Indian Animal Protection groups, and this week, my inbox was filled with comments of criticism and dissapointment in Harris’ article. The consensus was that the reporting was sloppy and the language sensational. Many wondered the source for Harris’s estimates of bites per year. (“Free-roaming dogs number in the tens of millions and bite millions of people annually, including vast numbers of children.”). The overall tone of the piece was one that instilled fear:
“Packs of strays lurk in public parks, guard alleyways and street corners and howl nightly in neighborhoods and villages. Joggers carry bamboo rods to beat them away, and bicyclists fill their pockets with stones to throw at chasers. Walking a pet dog here can be akin to swimming with sharks.”
Many of the Indian Animal advocates who have been in the trenches working on this issue, felt the threatening portrayal of the dogs to be a gross exaggeration. The article was perhaps also a missed opportunity to acknowledge the progress that has been made with Animal Birth Control (ABC), Animal Rabies Vaccination (ARV), and spay/neuter return programs. Cities all over the country are exploring humane methods of population control and peaceful coexistence.
The piece made me reflect on my own experiences with the street dogs of India. Outside my grandmother’s home in Bangalore, a sweet brown and white dog took comfort in finding a spot in the shade to rest and was grateful for the plates of rice neighbors often fed him. On his ear was a U-shapep notch, indicating that he had been neutered. I had the chance to visit Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, the local shelter, which also ran a program for sterilizing and vaccinating such street dogs.
Any newcomer to India will take notice of the street dogs–they are everywhere. (Here’s a slideshow of some of the street dogs I’ve encountered, in Bangalore, Varanasi, Gaya, Delhi and Solapur.)
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You can find them sleeping on the steps of train stations, curled up under a flower walla’s table, or waiting for prasadam outside a temple. Their street smarts are sharp and they can weave in and out of traffic and have learned to cross the street. What I had noticed,was that while they were in close proximity, most never directly approached humans, but rather found a way to subsist and survive among them.
The high population of strays, many sick and undernourished, is one of great concern, but human factors are largely responsible. Harris does briefly acknowledge these human elements and ways to better manage the population:
“Nonetheless, India’s burgeoning middle class has begun to adopt Western notions of pet ownership, buying pedigreed dogs and bringing animals into their homes. But many pedigreed dogs end up on the street, the castoffs of unsuccessful breeders or owners who tire of the experiment.
…The first thing you need to start doing to reduce the stray population is manage your garbage better,” said Arpan Sharma, chief executive of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations. “And the second thing is very aggressive spaying, neutering and vaccinating of animals.”
When confronted with the outpouring of comments on this piece, Harris responded via email to one of his critics, with this reply:
“Millions of Indians — including untold numbers of children — are mauled every year by stray dogs. I guess I worry more about children than dogs. But that could be an American thing.”
His response only worsened the original offense, leaving the critic to wonder if Harris meant to imply “that Americans love their children more than Indians.”
Harris is a new foreign correspondent for the New York Times. His post in India began in May, and that was the first time he set foot in the subcontinent. In a blog post on India Ink, the NYT India Blog, Harris indicated that his “fresh eyes” could be an asset for the job. But perhaps his vantage point and perspective limited his reportage on this subject.