These canines have independent, peaceful, happy lives without a pet’s constraints. Why are they being persecuted and culled?
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Unbound by human owners and the constraints of petdom, they live the doggiest of dog lives: they sleep when they want, mingle with friends they choose, pee when the urge hits, and eat when hungry – as long as food can be found. Wandering the streets of Chennai in southern India, we saw them dozing alone or in company on pavements, seeking shelter from the heat under a van, watching children playing on the beach, or being cared for by local residents. Part of Indian street life, these free-living dogs stand in stark contrast to the culture of pet ownership found in the West. Not only do they defy the image of the out-of-control and marauding canine stalking the sensationalist articles of 19th-century newspapers in Western Europe and North America, they ask us to question our sanitised cities and stewardship of a world with nature at so much risk.
India’s robust street dogs also challenge the supposed superiority of pedigree that dominates dog breeding today. One of us recently adopted a street dog from Romania. Bell Kanmani was brought to the United Kingdom by one of the many charities picking up street dogs there and finding them new homes abroad. While walking her in the UK, Bell Kanmani’s human is regularly confronted with the question ‘What breed is your dog?’ The response that she is just a ‘dog’ only serves to prompt further speculation about what mix of breeds she might be: everything from a collie to a Jack Russell. Having grown up in India, Kanmani’s human finds strange, and rather disturbing, this idea of dogs as necessarily belonging to a particular breed or mixture of breeds. She is familiar with dogs who have lineages free of any human breeding, not necessarily belonging to humans or doing what humans command them to. These unowned and breed-free dogs are now often known as street or village dogs, or – our preferred term – free-living dogs.
Too often in the West, dogs are seen through the prism of pedigree, and connected to their owner via collars and leashes. All too often, the realities of how dogs and humans live together in the Global South are overlooked. As a country with a significant street-dog population, India is a good place from which to explore how humans and canines share street life in cooperative ways that move beyond images of free-living dogs as dangerous.
Exposing the reality is crucial given rising media calls for culling Indian street dogs, exposing them to rhetorical and actual violence. The condemnation of street dogs as risky and unwelcome is rooted in colonial attitudes, and overlooks complex and varied everyday interactions, often positive, between dogs and humans. Discussing their lived experience will help the dogs themselves, and also help us reflect on how humankind can share the planet with all the other creatures who live on it.