India’s Canine Lovers Turn to Technology to Protect Strays

India’s Canine Lovers Turn to Technology to Protect Strays

Stray dogs at Shivaji Park in Mumbai, Sept. 26, 2017. India has a long tradition of caring for strays, or "community dogs," which are protected by Indian law.

SourceAtul Loke/The New York Times/Redux

Why you should care

Entrepreneurs are coming to the aid of the country’s 25 million strays.  

When 27-year-old IT engineer Yash Sheth noticed a stray dog wailing and bleeding helplessly on a road across from his Mumbai home, his instinct was to rush the canine to a hospital. But the nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and ambulance services Sheth contacted refused to help and instead offered excuses — one said the accident location was too far, while another claimed to be too short-staffed. Sheth eventually called for a paid ambulance, and the dog survived.

“But I realized how apathetic the general attitude was toward these animals,” says Sheth, who launched an app called Let It Wag in October 2017 following the encounter. The platform connects area-specific animal lovers in real time, provides immediate assistance from vets, ambulance services and blood donors in emergencies, and is part of a wave of tech-based solutions emerging in response to a growing — but largely ignored — crisis.

The accidents have gone down substantially in our vicinity.

Saroj Soparkar, homemaker who puts reflective collars on dogs

Home to 25 million stray dogs, according to the World Health Organization, India has witnessed a recent spate of violent crimes against the animals. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, say animal welfare groups. Animal deaths in road accidents are common.

Now, several canine lovers are using technology and innovation to aid strays — and they’re making a difference. Motopaws, an NGO launched in 2015, has designed reflective collars for dogs to increase their visibility in the dark on India’s streets. The initiative has collared 8,000 dogs across 12 Indian cities so far, and is devising a mobile application that will help Motopaws maintain a “qualitative database” of strays along with their geographical locations, says founder Shantanu Naidu.

Animals Matter to Me (AMTM), another NGO in India, created a gadget in 2017 that plays instrumental music to soothe dogs during loud festivals and storms. The organization ties the woofers around the necks of strays, and also sells the device to pet owners — it has received inquiries from 3,000 individuals so far. And Sheth’s Let it Wag app has already helped rescue 470 dogs injured in road accidents.

“The accidents have gone down substantially in our vicinity,” says Saroj Soparkar, a 45-year-old Pune-based homemaker who procured and put Motopaws collars — they’re free — on 300 dogs in her neighborhood over the past five months.

Some of the recent attacks on strays have been chilling. In March, north India’s Gurugram police found carcasses of 12 pups, their skulls seemingly smashed with bricks. In the western city of Pune, four dogs were burned alive, and 16 others poisoned in October 2017. A month later, 150 stray dogs were found poisoned to death in the southern state of Karnataka, allegedly by a village council trying to control cases of dog bites. Also in 2017, a group of Chennai medical students reportedly threw a puppy off a building, and a Mumbai watchman sexually abused a dog. The actual volume of crimes far outstrips the number reported, say activists.

motopaws volunteers collar a dog in mumbai

Motopaws volunteers collar a dog in Mumbai.

Source Motopaws

“Comprehensive records are not kept in a central location in India, and many such cases go unreported or unregistered,” says Mumbai-based Meet Ashar, a PETA India emergency response coordinator. “We hear of such cases every week.”

But insensitivity and a lack of awareness aren’t the only challenges strays face in surviving India’s harsh public spaces. While driving to work, Naidu would see carcasses of dogs on the streets, so he conducted a survey of motorists to identify why so many strays were dying. “Most respondents stated the problem was visibility. In the dark of the night, they couldn’t spot the dogs,” he says.

Enter Motopaws. After testing a few prototypes, Naidu — a design engineer — settled on denim for durability, with retroreflective material sewed onto it. The collars are created by three Pune-based tailors, and have a manufacturing cost of 50 rupees (74 cents) per unit. In 2016, renowned Indian industrialist Ratan Tata backed the initiative.

AMTM’s woofers are also a product of research. The founder, Ganesh Nayak, partnered with composer Siddharth Basrur, who came up with a mix of music featuring bamboo, flute, water and pan pipes. Apart from the woofers, the music, tested on 150 dogs, is also available for free online and has been downloaded 40,000 times already. Research shows that “healing music is three times more impactful for dogs than humans,” says Nayak.

Manisha Yadav, 28, a Mumbai-based digital marketer, has seen that impact firsthand. She used the woofer for her pet boxer, Pumpkin, during the festival of Diwali, widely celebrated with loud, bursting firecrackers, which scare dogs. The device helped calm Pumpkin’s ruffled nerves. “The woofer kept her at peace,” Yadav says.

a dog with a woofer around his neck

A dog with a woofer around its neck, loaded with music that keeps animals calm during noisy events, such as Indian festivals.

Source Animals Matter to Me

Collaring strays is harder. “They often resist, and if you chase after them, there are chances they’ll bite,” says Soparkar. In her neighborhood, residents who feed the strays also collar them since the dogs are friendly with them, she says.

But the dogs aren’t the hardest to convince. These tech tools can help, but a lack of legal deterrents for cruelty against strays coupled with apathy from the police means that perpetrators of crimes against animals are rarely punished.

Salim Charania, president of Mumbai-based nonprofit Peace for Animals Welfare Association (PAWA), has filed, on average, 130 police complaints regarding cruelty, murders and road accidents involving dogs, each year for the past four years. He has provided CCTV footage in several cases, but no one has been convicted, and court proceedings drag on. “It’s as if no one, from citizens to police to the judiciary, cares about these voiceless beings,” he says.

According to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act enacted in 1960, the maximum penalty for animal cruelty, including mutilating, kicking, beating and torturing a stray dog, is a meager 50 rupees (74 cents) for the first offense. That, says Ashar of PETA, is “an outrageously outdated penalty.”

But while the law stays trapped in the past, the tech solutions are offering hope for the future. They’re not going to eliminate crimes, but at the moment, they may be the best bet for India’s stray dogs.

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