To Kill or Not to Kill? Negotiating Life, Death, and One Health in the Context of Dog-Mediated Rabies Control in Colonial and Independent India
The link between rabies, one of the oldest infectious diseases known to humankind and certainly the most lethal one, and India, which currently accounts for one-third of all human deaths by the disease, has always been tight and shifting at the same time. Today, as in the past, dogs are the main carriers of rabies in that part of the Global South. While this scientific certainty has generally been accepted, what has often been discussed—especially in the last two centuries of the Indian history—is the identikit of the canine culprit, and above all, its treatment in the public sphere. While the image of dogs has generally been ambivalent (when not openly negative) within the Hindu and Muslim cultural milieus, stray dogs—with the term ‘stray’ being scientifically improper, yet still largely used in the official language about rabies—have been suffering from the most blatant disregard and rabies-related blaming. By contrast, pets—with the term ‘pet’ being of little use in a country where people let their dogs roam around and fend for themselves but feed dogs they don’t assert any ownership right on—are generally considered only inculpable victims of rabies. In the last decades, the legally meaningful expression ‘street dog’ has started to bring some (apparent) order into this chaotic human–dog relationship, but it has also led to the renewed exacerbation of the century-long discussion about rabies-control theories and practices. This mainly revolves around one question: Should dogs be allowed to live on the streets, after sterilisation and/or vaccination, or should they be removed (relocated or killed)? In other words, why should dogs live free and undisturbed on the streets when people are too afraid of them (and rabies) to enjoy the public places of their cities? Animal welfarism and the recent One Health approach—which looks at rabies as a problem of both people and dogs—have involuntarily added further complexity. Nowadays people in India ask themselves: Why do we have to care for dogs to eventually care for ourselves? How is it possible that our health—and life—really depends on that of street dogs? This chapter looks at how these questions have been framed and what responses they have elicited in India from the colonial period to the present day.