Slim pickings for strays and pets during COVID-19 lockdown

  • As India is well into week two of a 21-day lockdown to curb the spread of novel coronavirus disease, animal activists continue highlighting the impact of the lockdown on stray animals.
  • Researchers and animal welfare activists apprehend that in the wake of misinformation linking the disease to pets and local community animals, the animals may be deprived of food and essential veterinary care which could trigger aggressive behaviour.
  • Government advisories and statements have helped ease restrictions to some extent on animal lovers to resume feeding the strays and carry out rescue actions but the advisories need to be implemented by local authorities to ensure sustained animal welfare action.

As India is well into week two of a 21-day lockdown to curb the spread of novel coronavirus disease, animal rights activists continue highlighting the impact of the lockdown on stray animals. While the availability of food remains difficult, the animals are also further ostracised because of rumours linking them to be carriers of the coronavirus.

Delhi-based animal rights activist Raina Kapoor said, “The lockdown has affected all of us but has a very big impact on the stray animals and birds, specifically near the markets and near corporate setups. The strays have no means of feeding themselves as all offices, restaurants, roadside eateries (where they had easy accessibility to food) are closed. The strays and birds are starving. They will die in such a scenario,” Kapoor told Mongabay-India.

Another animal rights activist Gauri Maulekhi said, “Usually street animals depend on roadside eateries and volunteers who regularly look after them. The lockdown prevented this. However, the AWBI has come up with circulars to ensure feed during the lockdown and evacuation of animals from pet shops. This crisis has basically highlighted the need to regulate pet trade in the country and neuter street animals to prevent their suffering during such disasters.” Maulekhi told Mongabay-India, adding that animals are the worst victims of disasters and “even though the disease may not kill animals but the apathy of people will.”

According to India’s Livestock Census-2012, there are about 17.13 million stray dogs and 5.28 million cattle in India. The current number, however, could be higher. According to another estimate as of 2018, the population of stray dogs in India is around 3035 million.

Rumours impact safety of pet and stray animals

As the coronavirus disease spread around the globe, misinformation linking dogs and local community animals with the COVID-19 took root and reports on abandonment of companion animals, ill-treatment of healthy strays, harassment of those who feed strays and shelter animals, came to the fore.

Sashanka Sekhar Dutta, a Guwahati-based veterinarian has been fielding queries about rumours that have been flying around on coronavirus vaccinations and dogs.

“We vaccinate dogs against coronaviruses so people are concerned whether this ongoing virus is the same that affects dogs. So we had to tell them it’s a novel virus. Then, there are people who question whether the strays in their locality pose any danger to human health. When you answer one question, you are asked even more,” Dutta, chief functionary of NGO Just Be Friendly told Mongabay-India.

Alokparna Sengupta, who is the Interim Managing Director for Humane Society International India, stressed that ever since the COVID-19 broke out in India, there has been mixed messaging on animals.

“Despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) clarifying that pet animals cannot spread or get COVID-19 (they do get other strains of corona and are vaccinated against the same for years), many state governments had put out advisories cautioning against being close to animals. There’s a difference between maintaining hygiene and creating panic. While some of the state governments took back their word and the animal welfare board of India (AWBI) issues an advisory, a panic was created,” Sengupta told Mongabay-India.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some coronaviruses cause cold-like illnesses in people, while others cause illness in certain types of animals, such as cattle, camels, and bats. Some coronaviruses, such as canine and feline coronaviruses, only infect animals and do not infect humans, states the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anand Siva, animal rights activist and former member of Animal Welfare Board of India, had expressed concern about certain billboards in Mumbai, which displaying misleading information on coronavirus disease and animals and carried the brand signage of the global organisation.

Drawing attention to the issue, in a letter to the WHO, Siva demanded the billboards be pulled down, sought clarification and said many NGOs working on animal welfare have started getting calls from people who want to abandon their pets. “Communication is critical at this juncture because misleading information leads to hatred towards animals,” Siva said. Following protests by animal welfare activists and civic action, most of the hoardings were pulled down, media reports said.

To dispel myths and help animals during the lockdown, the Animal Welfare Board of India, country’s top body for animals, has issued several urgent circulars. On March 11, 2020, it wrote to all states and union territories stating that it was being brought to the board’s notice that animal owners were “leaving their animals to stray without proper food, water or shelter” due to the spread of COVID-19.

“In this regard, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has clarified that dogs and cats are not involved in spreading infection in the current episode of coronavirus infection,” the circular said.

Subsequently, on March 23, the Board issued an advisory to allot time to animal feeders to provide food and water for street animals and birds. In another advisory, the board also stressed on the urgent evacuation of animals from shut pet shops by state authorities. The Union Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fishery Ministry also wrote to the states asking them to consider veterinary services under the list of essential services following which it was included in the list by the homes ministry.

Will stray animals behave differently in the absence of food?

As food becomes scarce for stray animals, will they behave differently? To find out, researchers at IISER-Kolkata have launched a citizen science project to study how they fare amid the pandemic.

“With the lockdown, stray animals that typically feed on garbage generated by eateries (that are now shut) would suddenly face a huge scarcity of food. We don’t know if this will induce major behaviour changes in them. Will dogs become more aggressive and start hunting? Will they survive or die? How will they react to humans,” wonders IISER-Kolkata scientist Anindita Bhadra.

“The citizen science initiative is aimed at collecting data on the behaviour of strays during the lockdown,” Bhadra who leads the Dog Lab at IISER-Kolkata told Mongabay-India.

Citizens are requested to take a video of at least 10 minutes of strays, especially scavengers (dogs, cats, crows, cows, jackals, monkeys, etc), around them and use the hashtag ‘bonkerscavengers’ to post the video on YouTube.

While speaking of her research with dogs, Bhadra stated that in the current crisis, in neighbourhoods where dogs typically are not fed but they find food, it would not matter so much but in urban areas where they rely on food waste and leftovers from eateries and garbage dumps, they will have a dearth of food.

“In those cases, they might become aggressive and that may be a problem. When life gets back to normal we don’t know if in case they do become aggressive whether they return to normal behaviour,” said Bhadra while stressing that during the crisis like this feeding strays could potentially stave off aggression in local community animals.

Other than dogs, stray cattle on India’s roads is another major issue. Photo by McKay Savage/Flickr.

Stressful times for pets

Ganesh Nayak, founder of  Mumbai-based NGO Animals Matter to Me dubbed the rumours around pets/local community animals and coronavirus disease transmission as a “big curse” that has elicited insensitive comments from certain sections of people.

“Wrong messages are being sent which is not helping anyone’s case, especially the animals,” said Nayak, adding that animal lovers initially faced difficulty in feeding stray animals but government advisories, statements and moves such as animal feeder passes, have eased restrictions to some extent for organisations and individuals.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has advised that “to date, there is no evidence that companion animals can spread the disease. Further studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19 virus.”

Noting on Twitter that, “there are growing interrogations on the potential transmission of #COVID19 between humans and pets,” OIE said, “however, because animals and people can sometimes share diseases (known as zoonotic diseases), it is still recommended that people who are sick with COVID-19 limit contact with a companion and other animals until more information is known about the virus.”

Authorities have advised people to take care of their pets and strays during the lockdown. Photo by Akshay.petfed/Wikimedia Commons.

However, despite clarifications, the people are fearful of police action while they go out during the lockdown to keep food for the stray. Siva said wrong police action may discourage animal feeders from putting food out for the stray animals, especially women.

“In select cases, Maharashtra police have been extremely accommodating but in other stretches, people have been restricted by the police to feed or take sick dogs to vets. In one instance, for example, a person was stopped by the police and beaten up for taking a sick dog to the vet,” he said.

In Kolkata, two-three member teams of police fanned out across the city to feed stray dogs. In several Indian states, forest department staff are also doing their bit to feed stray animals.

However, Guwahati-based Sashanka Sekhar Dutta, argues that advisories need to be translated into orders by district authorities to resume veterinary services.

“We are still waiting for orders from the district collectorate. Our team is ready to provide veterinary care to the strays that may have been impacted by food scarcity in the last 10 days of the lockdown. They would also need care because of the soaring temperatures,” Dutta added.

Read more: Who’s looking after the animals of India?

Protecting animals in pet shops and aquariums

As part of an impromptu Mumbai-originated task force formed by animal lovers, Anand Siva has also appealed to people to check if shops selling live animals are opening up to clean and feed the animals.

Following the directions issued by the AWBI and the Union Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying regarding animals in pet shops during the lockdown, the authorities in Delhi have been pet shops in the state and rescuing animals wherever they are found in pet shops and aquariums.

It is estimated that there are more than 300 pet shops in Delhi, which were to be registered with the State Animal Welfare Board after the 2019 notification of Pet Shop Rules, but they continued to operate without registering and during lockdown shut the shops leaving the animals to die slowly.

During coronavirus lockdown, pet shops are also under scanner. Photo by David Brossard/Flickr.

Raina Kapoor and Alokparna Sengupta too expressed concern for the pets. While Kapoor talked about pets being confined to homes impacting their mental state, Sengupta discussed stories of abandonment of pet animals.

“It is sad that the pet shop owners locked down their shops leaving all the animals and birds starving. It is a difficult time for these innocent beings who can’t even express their pain or protest,” said Kapoor.

A statement from People for Animals said that in several pet shops in south Delhi, birds, cats, rabbits, hamsters have been rescued in near-death conditions. Similar drives are also on-going in Gurgaon, Ghaziabad and Noida.


Banner Image: High population of stray dogs is a controversial issue in India’s urban cities. Photo by AVasanth (WMF)/Wikimedia Commons.

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