KOCHI, INDIA — The dogcatcher tiptoes into a narrow lane carrying a metal wire noose. Someone had spotted a stray dog amid rows of coconut trees a few minutes ago.
“Finish that dog today,” one woman calls out from her porch. Another says the dog killed half the ducks in his farm. A third complains the dog has been growling at his 10-year-old son all week.
When he corners the skinny brown dog and tightens the wire around its neck, residents cheer and turn on their cellphone cameras. A few minutes later, he pulls out five puppies from under a log pile and stuffs them into a tight plastic bag. All the animals will eventually be killed.
In recent months, people in the southern Indian state of Kerala have declared a war on dogs.
Hundreds of street dogs have been killed in the past year across a state that calls itself “God’s own country,” and is a tourist magnet. Mobs routinely beat dogs to death or hire professional catchers to do the job. Recently a group of men killed several dogs and paraded through the streets with carcasses strung on a pole, dumping them in front of a public building.
The bitter man-canine conflict here has alarmed animal lovers across India and drawn sharp criticism from the country’s Supreme Court, which said this month that although dogs cannot become a “menace to society,” widespread killing was unacceptable.
“We want Kerala’s streets to be free of stray dogs,” said Jose Maveli, who runs a home for street children and is founder of the Stray Dogs Eradication Society in the state. A key patron of the anti-street dog drive here, he pays for 10 dog catchers in the city, who killed 300 dogs last year. He thinks that the roaming strays — about 250,000 in the state, according to estimates — endanger public safety and hurt the economy.
“Look at the Western countries, are there dogs roaming so freely on the street?” he said. “Every day, young children and elderly people are getting bitten.”
Street dogs are a common nuisance all over India, with many who feed them but do not adopt them as pets. Public sterilization programs exist, but many are underfunded, and India’s laws do not allow for humane euthanasia for dogs. India has about 30 million stray dogs, and reported about 20,000 human deaths from rabies — mostly of poor people and children — in 2014.
In Kerala, more than 100,000 incidents of dog bites were reported last year, up from 88,000 the previous year. The state reported less than a dozen rabies deaths, and it does not have more street dogs than other Indian states. But this is lost in the emotionally charged atmosphere.
Giant billboards around the city paid for by anti-dog activists show snarling canines and gruesome images of people with bite wounds. Local newspapers chronicle seemingly every dog bite, and run alarmist cartoons depicting blood dripping from the mouths of dogs. In the municipal elections this year in Kerala, voters were urged to elect candidates who promised to kill street dogs. Last week, some schoolchildren in Kochi took a pledge to eradicate stray dogs.
The killing drive in Kerala intensified two months ago when an elderly woman died in a coastal town after being attacked by a pack of stray dogs on the beach.
“The politicians, the media and the vigilante groups — they have all got Kerala into a panic mode,” said Latha Indira, an activist with People For Animals in the state. “There is no room for reason or restraint. Animal lovers are on the defensive right now.”
One activist, Aishwarya Prem, said she was pushed to the ground and kicked by an angry mob when she was trying to rescue street dogs late last year.
“When I hear that people are killing a dog, I rush there and take the dog in my arms and ask, ‘Does this really look like an aggressive dog to you?’ ” Prem said.
Unlike other Indian states, Kerala did not implement neutering programs for street dogs with much conviction after 2001, when a national law mandating sterilization was passed. The government sets aside an average of $11 per dog on neutering, which officials in other states say is inadequate. Experts say that poor collection of garbage in the cities is the main reason that India has a street dog problem.
In recent years, more and more middle-class Indian families are acquiring pet dogs, but many prefer foreign pedigree dogs instead of Indian street dogs. Residents routinely complain to their municipal corporations about street dogs in their neighborhoods. In a recent video that went viral, a medical student flings a stray puppy off the roof; in another, men are shown burning dogs.
“Dogs in Kerala are in an absolute state of fright because of the killings,” said Sumitha Suseelan, who runs a weekly adoption drive for stray dogs. “They have developed a suspicion of human beings.”
In a Kochi suburb, 7-year old Ayoos Sajimon is slowly recovering from multiple surgeries after a dog bite. Two months ago, a street dog pounced on him, pressed its paws on his chest and bit his face and eye. The dog was killed by neighbors the week after.
“My son is so traumatized that he now runs inside the house every time he hears a dog bark somewhere,” his mother, Bismi, said.
The Supreme Court ordered Kerala to sterilize the street dogs. Kerala residents say they do not have the patience for that.
“People are shouting, ‘Kill them, kill them, kill them,’ but even if you keep killing daily, you can never achieve the zero number,” said Kishore Janardhanan, a veterinary surgeon at a government-run dog birth control hospital in Kochi. “There is no easy, magic solution to the dog menace. The only scientific thing to do is sterilization. But in all this paranoia, our work has been discredited as a soft measure.”