Over the past few weeks, villagers in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district have been living in fear, terrorised by packs of deadly dogs.
In the locality, around 92km to the north of state capital Lucknow, streets are often deserted and children are being told not to venture outside, even for school. On May 13, a 12-year-old girl was mauled to death by stray dogs, but she was only the latest victim. A series of horrifying attacks have resulted in the deaths of at least 12 other children aged between five and 12 in the same area. Another 24 have reportedly been injured. Many of the children had simply gone out to pluck mangoes or use outhouse toilets.
The first attack was reported in November last year, but they have escalated this month, with six other cases recorded since May 01. UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath visited the area last week, just before the latest incident, promising to eliminate the canine menace and offering Rs2 lakh (around $3,000) in compensation to the grieving families. But villagers say the government is not doing enough: On May 13, they blocked the national highway in protest.
Stray dogs are a common sight across India, and they are for the most part harmless, inured to the crowds of people walking by every day. But feral dogs have been a problem for many years. In 2015, a report by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control showed that India accounted for over a third of global rabies deaths, largely because locals are often bitten by infected dogs. In Mumbai alone, more than 400 people reportedly died of rabies between 1994 and 2015.
Between 2015 and 2016, the southern state of Kerala experienced a spate of unexplained stray dog attacks. Over 100,000 people were bitten, according to reports at the time, and one 65-year-old woman was brutally attacked by a pack of 50 dogs. After she succumbed to her injuries, the state government embarked on a controversial mission to kill stray dogs.
As yet, no one has figured out what has made Sitapur’s dogs so bloodthirsty all of a sudden. In fact, a team of scientists from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) was deployed to the area to investigate why the dogs have become so aggressive.
“It is very difficult to tell. This question is the million-dollar question,” IVRI joint director VK Gupta told Quartz.
Some Sitapur residents believe the situation may have something to do with the UP government’s crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses, which began in April last year as part of the chief minister’s programme to ban cow smuggling in the state.
“Till the slaughterhouses were working in Khairabad, these feral dogs used to get adequate food,” a resident told the Indian Express newspaper. “But since the present government closed them down, they don’t get flesh, so they have turned ‘maneaters’ and are attacking children.”
There also remains a question mark over whether the predators are really stray dogs at all. One witness told the Indian Express that they looked like wolves, and an animal rights activist said it’s possible they could actually be wild dogs. Gupta said that the IVRI team has collected saliva and tissue samples from the scene to find out.
“They are analysing it and maybe in eight to ten days we will be able to tell if it is a dog or something else,” he explained.
For now, local authorities in Sitapur are using drone cameras to survey the area, and have set up 13 teams to tackle the problem, besides keeping ambulances and emergency vehicles on high alert. But the villagers have reportedly decided to take matters into their own hands: Armed with sticks, rods, and rifles, they’ve set out to shoot or strangle any dogs that they come across, despite the protests of animal rights activists.