The battered residents of the Edhi Animal Home, just outside Karachi along Pakistan’s gleaming new Super Highway, are a pitiful sight. Paralyzed cats that have been crushed beneath speeding vehicles, sit alongside exhausted donkeys too weak to carry another burden, and dozens of wounded or abandoned dogs.
Most face a return to the streets once they recover. Yet these canines are the lucky ones—escapees from the most recent wave of mass poisonings by authorities working under 19th century municipal laws that allow them to cull feral dogs in Pakistan’s biggest city.
Animal rights are at their nadir in Karachi, but a handful of activists and veterinarians are fighting to find a middle ground between stray dogs and a population that, often for religious reasons, finds them “putrid.”
Last month the carcasses of dozens of dogs lay in the sweltering heat at one of the city’s biggest roundabouts waiting to be coldly disposed of by bulldozer, poisoned in yet another culling campaign. “We have got numerous complaints of dog bite cases in the city where the children were the worst victims,” said Maqsood Memon, a senior health officer at the southern District Municipal Corporation. In at least one case reported in the nearby city of Hyderabad, he claimed, dogs “tore a child apart.”
Conservative figures estimate the feral dog population of Karachi could number up to 35,000. The city sees as many as 15,000 dog bite cases every year, says Dr. Isma Gheewala, head of the Animal Care Center in Karachi’s posh Defense neighborhood. “This is our psyche, that when we see a dog we throw a stone at it or children chase it,” she says. “When you would treat [a dog] with aggression, so its reaction could be aggressive, and this aggression could cost you much.”
Religious sentiment may be partly to blame. “The clerics say that the dog is a putrid animal and their killing doesn’t matter at all,” says animal rescuer Syed Mustafa Ahmed. “It’s a totally wrong interpretation as Islam just does not allow [dogs] to be at a place of worship as they are impure,” he argues.
Municipal laws allow authorities to either poison or shoot stray dogs. But poisoning is hardly targeted and, as Dr. Gheewala pointed out, shooting is not always effective. “Quite often animals do not die after the shooting so they bring such animals to us as well,” she says.
Even if it were 100 percent effective, culling is not a “proper solution,” says veterinarian Dr. Khalid Memon, who works with the Edhi Foundation. “If you want to control the population, you just bring them to be castrated and neutered,” he says.
Last year three organizations came together to do just that, launching a service that Pakistanis familiar with the sight of ambulances from the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s biggest welfare organization, racing to disaster would recognize.
The non-profit SOS Animal Pakistan (SAP), in collaboration with Home for Paws and Claws, a Karachi-based pets outlet, joined hands with Edhi to organize three-member teams that act on information from the public to rescue animals in the streets. “We basically work on humane animal control,” said Ahmed, who is head of rescue operations for the venture. “The main objective … is to catch the street animals, vaccinate and neuter them and release them after a six-day period,” he said.
An abandoned dog with deep wounds around its furry neck was rescued by Ahmed’s team recently and brought to Dr. Gheewala’s Animal Care Center, where vets cleaned and bandaged the injury. She says they receive anywhere from six to 12 animals a day this way. They treat injuries, then spay or neuter the animals before handing them back to the SOS-Edhi team to be taken to the Edhi Animal Home.
Adoption rates are negligible, and Dr. Gheewala said even if people do adopt, the animals are often abandoned once more at the first signs of disease or problems. Spaying and neutering will help, but the biggest challenge will be in changing perceptions, Ahmed says.
“Allah created dogs, and He did not create them to be killed,” he told AFP.
Dr. Memon says activists are “raising their voice” against culling. The dogs can’t speak for themselves, he says, “but after all, they are living beings.”