by Duncan Schroeter
When discussing the homeless dogs we come across, we need to first consider some dictionary definitions. Similar concepts apply to cats.
A “stray” strictly speaking is an animal that has been in a home but strayed away from its normal confines or route. It may have failed to return to its home for whatever reason.
A “feral” animal is one that exists in a wild state or has returned to a wild state after living in a domestic situation.
In the recently published book “What is a dog” by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger it is estimated that there are a billion dogs in the world. Some 15% of these are estimated to be under human productive control. Of course this is an educated guess since it is impossible to accurately count the dogs referred to by the World Health Organisation as “unrestrained dogs” and difficult even to accurately count the restrained ones. There is also considerable variation from country to country with the USA thought to have 33% unrestrained (Beck 1988) and Zimbabwe 99% (Butler & Bingham 2000).
These unrestrained or free living dogs are treated very differently by different individual people from country to country and even in different locations in each country.
Dogs recognised by kennel clubs as “breeds” have only existed for the past couple of centuries and some are very recent. They have all come about as a result of human manipulation aimed at getting a particular look, function or behaviour pattern. This was and is done by restricting breeding with many potential problems resulting such as in the dogs with shortened snouts and their breathing issues to give just one example. This sort of “cuteness” may be desired by people ignorant of the health problems and provide a market for breeders to sell dogs for profit but is not in the best interest of dogs as a species. Some of the recognised breeds are claimed to be of ancient origin. Well no, actually the “breed” that is the ones bred and sold for profit as “pure” are modern. As soon as a few dogs are selected from the natural free roaming landrace of dogs and bred under human restriction they can no longer be considered ancient as the now restricted and human controlled breeding is recent. Increasingly a number of “pure breeds” are developing health issues as a result of inbreeding aimed at “fixing” a desired characteristic although the better breeders are beginning to give greater consideration to genetic factors.
So what of the dogs in the UAE? There is no doubt many modern breeds are imported and later abandoned for various “reasons” and these probably need more help to survive than any, since they have not learnt the skills needed to find food and water. Underlying these there are, however, still many descended from the true natural dogs that have lived without human help or restriction or interference for thousands of years, designed purely by nature. These are the real natural dog as evolution produced and anyone lucky enough to have them should be proud of. These are the truly pure, unrestricted dog. These are not “mongrels” which are dogs resulting from interbreeding of “breeds”.
Sadly humans all too often see any animal living in close proximity to them, be it on a farm or in a city, as being a pest that needs to be controlled and even eliminated. These free living animals have a tough time surviving, some more than others depending on human acceptance of them. Only the strongest and luckiest survive. The free living dogs are one of the most successful animal species in nature. There are no figures of survival rates in the UAE or other countries in the Arabian Peninsula but probably the majority of newborns will not reach adult hood and even then most will probably not survive anywhere near as long as a well-cared for pet would do. The single most important factor in these dogs or cats being able to live where they are is availability of food and water and this also controls the number in any particular place. Malnutrition is considered a major cause of death in adult feral dogs and availability of food has a direct relationship to numbers of feral animals in any given place. If access to food is denied by keeping rubbish bins closed etc. these animals will not be present. Other factors also take a heavy toll on survival rates, including disease and human activity leading in death.
It seems highly unlikely that homes could be found for all these animals in the UAE, nor the rest of the world. What to do is not an easy decision and has to be assessed case by case. There simply are not enough homes anywhere to house all these feral animals, so only a tiny percentage overall will be lucky enough to find a permanent home. Some that have lived all their lives with little human contact may not take kindly to being captured and take a lot of patience and persistence for them to accept humans and may never be the pet most people want. For those reasons any attempt to “rescue” every feral dog, however noble this may seem, by capturing it and enclosing it in a cage is not ultimately likely to have much impact on total numbers and may even add to health issues if the rescue facility becomes overcrowded and high standards are not maintained – not easy considering the thousands of feral animals and limited resources.
Providing food and water on site definitely makes life easier for the animals at those sites but is likely to draw more in. If numbers are to be controlled and this “problem” (as seen from the human point of view) needs to be eventually eliminated, then it is of course essential to stop further births.
Neutering of animals in such sites will help locally, since with food available newborns have increased chances of survival, further adding to numbers. Unless funds are available to neuter all the animals in a particular area then it would be best to concentrate on getting all females done initially. That way any intact male moving in will not result in offspring. A female arrival will at worst only breed one litter (and then be neutered). If all males only were neutered then even one new male arrival could result in all females producing and a rapid surge in numbers.
Probably a better solution would be to have a large enclosed sanctuary, large enough to allow individual animals to maintain their separate groups and move around within the area as they choose. Shaded areas, food, water and basic veterinary health care would be needed. Animals most at risk, in unsafe or unwanted places could be moved here. This of course would lead to increased survival rates if not controlled and again raises the problem of how to control this without reducing the wide genetic diversity inherent in feral animals. Not an easy to solve issue since even selected neutering could wipe out important genetic material before we even realise it.
Are we right to try and prevent any further breeding of these feral animals? Do we really want to try and eliminate these real natural dogs in favour of modern breeds with all the increasing problems of genetic bottlenecks resulting from “founder effects”? There is no easy answer to all the issues involved but it would be a sad day if total success was achieved in eliminating what many see as problem animals only to find we have destroyed the real natural dog species.