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Moving from gruesome handling of street dogs to a humane ABC programme

Macabre method: A dog enters the electrocution chamber.
| Photo Credit: Madras Corporation Chronicle, October 1956

Every once in a while, we read news reports on the street canine population in the city. It is an issue that is forever work in progress. In the last few months, circumstances have so arranged themselves that I have, with my research assistant S. Lashman (unlike Psmith who added a P to his name, this young man dropped a K), been delving deep into animal history in the city and a thread emerged on the way we have historically treated our street dogs.

In the early years of the 20th Century, which is when the administration began tackling the problem, the solution was to send out specially-appointed officers who just shot dead street dogs suspected to be rabid.

They were gassed

But that did not solve the problem and so came a horrifyingly cruel method of gassing all street dogs. A van went around picking them up and they were then brought to a pound where they were killed.

This was the dreaded lethal chamber where a number of dogs were thrust into a wooden box and lowered into a masonry chamber about 4 feet cube. Then the door was closed and gas turned on. It took about a quarter of an hour for the dogs to die. Shades of Nazi Germany?

“The yells of the dying dogs were most unbearable,” noted Rao Bahadur C.V. Krishnaswami Chetty, son-in-law of the builder baron Namberumal Chetty and the then Engineer of the Madras Corporation. Better known as the father of broadcasting in India, he having pioneered that service in 1924 with his Madras Presidency Radio Club which later became the Corporation Radio and still later the AIR, Chetty was horrified at the plight of the dogs and decided to make the final moments less painful. He set about creating an electrocution chamber in which the animal was subject to a high voltage shock that made death instantaneous. As many as 50 animals were killed in a day with this invention.

Fed to wild animals

That macabre piece of history enters its 95th year this week, for it went live on April 1, 1930. There was an even more frightening outcome — the carcasses were fed to the wild animals in the Madras Zoo which was just next door to the Corporation premises. Presumably the rabid ones were not part of the feeding programme.

But all of this did not seem to have any impact on the number of street dogs. The Corporation would continue with its catch-and-kill programme till as late as 1995, when, thanks to a sustained campaign by the Blue Cross of India and Maneka Gandhi as Union Cabinet Minister, the Animal Birth Control programme was introduced.

This involved capturing the street dogs and then, having spayed or neutered them based on gender, releasing them back into their original habitat. That, as of now, remains the Corporation’s methodology.

During the Global Investors Meet held at Nandambakkam earlier this year, I witnessed the process by which the Corporation catches the dogs. You are left wondering as to who to sympathise with — the animal or the catcher. A dog is sighted and a chase begins. At the end of it, depending on the pursuer being more fleetfooted, a net is thrown over the animal and it is then bundled on to a stretcher of sorts, complete with net covering. The dog is then taken to the van, the animal seated regally on its couch, front legs discreetly crossed. It is then tossed into the Corporation vehicle and taken to the birth control centre from which it returns, mercifully alive, and not dead.

(V. Sriram is a writer and historian.)

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