Street dogs have become one of the very few animals that us humans could watch and access from our locked-in houses in cities. As humans limited their movement and remained mostly within premises of their homes, commuting in vehicles- a typical urban activity came to a standstill. City roads became unusually quiet and more distinct. From anyone’s lived experience in India, one can testify to the fact that roads in India don’t just belong to vehicles and people. Non-humans like dogs and cattle are persistent users as well. Most parts of their lives seem to be spent on these tarmac surfaces, negotiating the vehicular traffic and space. The seemingly unremarkable characteristic of non-humans’ ability to assess, navigate, forage in, and survive busy roads just might be a trait of the past. Since the COVID-19 pandemic and the following lockdown, ordinary animal behaviours, specifically, that of dogs have undergone apparent changes. As the city dog attempts to adapt to a novel world where roads are empty and food is scarce, new patterns of behaviour emerge. This change of behaviour is not limited to dogs alone, but also in people, and their relationship with street dogs. First, the most evident impact of the lockdown on dogs has been the scarcity of scrap food leading to change in foraging strategies and the emergent agency of humans as food providers. Second, conditioning of street dogs to reimagined spaces, viz. spatial expansion of dwelling on city roads; access and mobility of stray dogs from pavements to roads.
An atypical spate of collisions (three in a week) between vehicles and stray dogs post-lockdown(I) in front of my house in Guwahati, prompted me to explore other similar occurrences and reports in the news. This writeup draws on personal observations of street dogs in the advent of the lockdown, where I have attempted to find connections between the (a) increase in road accidents of dogs post-lockdown, (b) possible effects of a perceived change in the dog-human relationship during the lockdown, and (c) altered urban settings brought upon by the reinstitution of ‘unlock’.
Humans have acted as the source of food for street dogs, directly or indirectly, even before the lockdown and that is not the ‘new’ relationship I am referring to. The peculiar conditions of the lockdown had specific and severe stress on street dogs – drastically diminished availability of waste/scrap food had reportedly led many street dogs to starve and succumb to death during the lockdown1. The closure of restaurants, road-side tea stalls and kiosks, disrupted supply chains coupled with a cap on petrol sale which restricted people who would have normally fed the street dogs in their areas had made their survivability very difficult.
Our observations of stray dogs struggling to find food had brought out a certain kind of samaritanism. The government even issued a ‘feeder pass’2 permitting people to leave their houses and feed stray animals during the strict lockdown. NGOs, charitable trusts, welfare workers, activists, and concerned individuals across the country rallied for the cause and encouraged volunteers to join them in the endeavour. In some states, even on-duty police had stepped up and fed stray dogs3. As many people left extra food and water outside for stray dogs and birds, it created a sense of general awareness as people paid increased attention to the (now vulnerable) nonhumans around. Affirmative action undertaken to help dogs who do not have a voice of their own is a commendable act. However, in post hoc assessment, behavioural changes in street dogs brought upon by the likely change in food source (foraging for scrap food found in garbage dumps to being fed regularly by humans) during the lockdown, seem to have an unforeseen and unfortunate impact on street dogs. A spike in road accidents injuring and killing an increased number of stray dogs after the lockdown is perhaps indicative of the importance of being mindful of behavioral changes and effects it would have on dogs once the conditions ‘normalize’ post lockdown. The result of the change in the relationship between dogs and humans during the lockdown (from humans as co-inhabitants to non-threatening primary food providers) seem to have a systemic impact on a stray dog’s foraging behaviour. Without a doubt, the dependency of dogs on humans for survival grew heavily. In a lot of instances, people with ‘feeder passes’ travelled in their vehicles with food and distributed it across the neighbourhood or on a certain route for packs of dogs. In effect, to the street dogs, an approaching human on foot or in a vehicle meant it was going to get fed.
With a drastic decline in the number of plying vehicles for over 2-3 months, for the first time roads became desolated for a considerable stretch of time. To the dogs, the difference between dwelling on pavements and dwelling on roads became negligible. Packs extended their resting, feeding areas to the middle of roads, without the threat of a crash in the absence of traffic or very low vehicular traffic (which they could easily manoeuvre). They increasingly became conditioned to the newly gained space. Their association with vehicles ‘as threat’ gradually changed to be identified as the new ‘source of food’.
Case study/Personal observation:
From lockdown to unlocking: A pack of four stray dogs live near our house. In the day, they roam around and go into lanes and galis where they socialise with more dogs and people who have been feeding them. At night, the pack mostly slept in front of our house. However, on some days (after feeding), a few of them have been spotted occupying the road for resting. Sleeping in the middle of the road/outside the pavement had started to become a regular night occurrence. During the lockdown (25th March to 4th May 2020), stray dogs were routinely fed by the neighbourhood and by the ‘feeder pass’ holders from across Guwahati City. It became typical for the dogs to see approaching cars, driving up to them with food, water and sometimes treats. Honestly, it had almost become an event that was awaited, as people would wait to watch from their balconies.
Eventually, as the lockdown was lifted and the city had become active again, the vehicles were back on the road. Unfortunately, the dogs (as expected) carried on with their newly conditioned behaviour and spatial imagination. In the process of which, I had witnessed a sudden escalation of road accidents where the dogs were the victims. I recorded three collisions in a span of a week (16th, 17th and 18th June) that occurred right in front of my residence. Luckily the dogs have survived all the three events.
Brief description of the collisions: In the first accident, a female dog who was sleeping in the middle of the road at night was run over by a truck at around (1:30 AM). She was able to survive the collision but suffered head trauma and a fractured leg. The second accident occurred in the evening (at around 6:00 pm), on a rainy day. The rain had just stopped when a dog walked over to the pavement to rest. An incoming motorbike seemed to have slowed down but lost balance after slipping on a puddle of rainwater. The motorbike along with the rider fell over on the dog who was resting by the pavement. Luckily, neither party suffered any serious injuries. The third accident occurred at around 8:30 pm, where a car screeched to a halt in front of a dog who was on the road and a head-on collision was thwarted, the dog was saved by inches.
The bizarre series of accidents prompted me to check for similar occurrences elsewhere on the news. Sure enough, it wasn’t by fluke that these incidences were happening just around my house. News updates from Gurugram and Chennai reports of the same. Activists and veterinarians who have spoken about this issue have reported a surge in accidents where dogs have been brought in with mostly head, pelvic and crust injuries. Moreover, there are descriptions of puppies that were born during the lockdown and had grown up without a sense of vehicular traffic. Unfortunately, these new-borns have been reported to be often run over, as they run towards cars thinking they’ll be fed4.
Now that road traffic is back, we could only wait for the stray dogs to ‘auto-recondition’ – mentioned by Amritika Phool, a Gurugram resident who is involved in animal welfare work – where they will re-familiarise themselves to navigate and survive on roads as they did before the lockdown. However, it is unlikely that it will happen overnight. Meanwhile, animal welfare workers suggest that the stray dog population be controlled with mass sterilisation before the mating season.
With some states in India currently reinforcing lockdowns again after a period of “unlocking”, roads are once again sans-vehicles. Here, we are left to wonder what could be the long term effect of this short-term behavioural change. Will the dogs go back to older methods of navigation and survival in the urban or is there going to be a new pattern of behaviour that will emerge?
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