SRINAGAR, India — Officials in Indian-Kashmir have poisoned hundreds of dogs and aim to kill all 100,000 strays in the region's main city, saying the animals pose a risk to humans and make urban life unbearable.
With the world's highest rabies fatality rate, India has long struggled to control its millions of stray dogs, a problem exacerbated by rapidly growing cities and slums.
Animal rights activists vowed Thursday to go to court to stop the slaughter planned by Srinagar city, saying it is an illegal and cruel solution to a problem that could be addressed in other ways.
City officials, however, said they would press ahead.
"These dogs have become a big nuisance and they are threatening humans," said Dr. Riyaz Ahmad, the Srinagar city health officer who is organizing the killings.
"We have placed orders for the poison and then we will launch a large-scale drive. For the time being we are doing it with stocks we have," he told The Associated Press.
Ahmad said so far some 500 dogs have been killed. Asked whether officials plan to kill all the city's strays - estimated at more than 100,000 - he said, "that's the target."
While officials have touted the program as an anti-rabies drive, Ahmad acknowledged that with only two deaths from 1,341 dog bites reported in Srinagar last year, it was more about appeasing the public.
"They should have done it earlier; these dogs have made our lives hell," said Shabir Ahmad, a construction worker.
"My son often asks when will I get these dogs killed because he is afraid to leave the house," said Muhammad Hayat Jeelani, a government worker.
Animal activists said they would try to stop the killings.
"We are going to file a suit against the municipal corporation if they go ahead with this, because this poisoning drive will be against the prevention of cruelty act," said Javaid Iqbal Shah, the deputy head of the Srinagar Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals.
Shah said the poison used, strychnine, was particularly cruel, causing terrible suffering to the dogs.
"It cripples the nervous system and then chokes the animal. It is not a good sight to see these animals die by the roadside. I have seen children cry when they pass by these dying dogs," he said.
The poison, which is left in garbage dumps in pieces of offal, also inadvertently kills other animals like cows, Shah said.
Shah said he had proposed the city carry out a sterilization program instead but acknowledged that his organization had only managed to sterilize 400 dogs in the last two years.
India accounts for more than 60 per cent of the estimated 35,000 annual global rabies deaths, according to the World Health Organization, and stray dogs are often blamed.
In some areas, dogs form feral packs that have attacked people. However, other strays are "community pets," semi-tame animals who are cared for and fed by residents.
Other Indian cities have struggled unsuccessfully to curb the stray problem.
India's high-tech hub of Bangalore called off a drive to slaughter strays last year following allegations that untrained workers were stoning, strangling and beating the dogs to death.
In New Delhi, one city councillor suggested shipping the country's strays to Korea, where dog meat is considered a delicacy.
Other health officials in Srinagar said the city was exaggerating the danger posed by the dogs and could better spend the money on treatment.
"The real problem is that hospitals are poorly equipped to deal with dog bites," said Dr. Saleem Khan, who runs a state rabies clinic in Srinagar.
Khan noted that only one out of five rabies vaccinations needed after a bite were paid for by the hospital. The rest had to be bought privately for about $8.50 - more than a week's wages for many - and with most victims poor children, that was nearly impossible, he said.
China has also grappled with rabies outbreaks that kill more than 2,000 people each year, prompting officials throughout that country to order periodic dog killings.