The Toronto Star has an article describing the efforts of Naz Sayani to bring home a group of street dogs from India. As an animal lover, she was touched by the number of stray dogs roaming around New Delhi while accompanying her daughter to India for medical treatment. She borrowed a car and started driving around the city dropping off food for strays.
- This is a high-risk activity for rabies exposure. Rabies is very common in India and contact with strays is a prime source of human infection. Ideally, anyone working with strays should be vaccinated against rabies. At a minimum, they should be aware of the risk and be ready to get post-exposure treatment if exposed (possibly through a quick trip out of the country, since knowledge about rabies prevention and access to rabies post-exposure treatment is variable in India).
A pregnant stray dog caught Naz’s eye, and after hearing about people threatening or abusing the dog (and later her and her pups), she tried unsuccessfully to find them homes. Eventually, she made the decision to bring them to Canada, in order to try to find homes for them here.
I can certainly see how this would happen, as it’s easy for people to get attached to a friendly, needy animal. It’s also hard to balance a case-based scenario like this, when someone has an attachment to a specific animal, with the bigger picture of animal rescues, and all the associated pros and cons.
I get a surprising number of advice calls and emails from people "rescuing" dogs from various places.
- The typical questions goes something like "I am organizing a rescue of a group of dogs from [insert one of many central or southern US states here] and want to know if there are any infectious disease issues I have to worry about".
- Worse are the calls that go "I just got some rescue dogs from [wherever] and now my other dogs are sick. What might be going on?"
People that are rescuing dogs usually do it because they have big hearts. Some people like the "status" that they see attached to certain rescue dogs ("You have a new Mercedes? Well I have a new Hurricane Katrina rescue dog"). My problem with international rescue efforts is the question of a) whether it’s a good use of resources and b) whether it poses unnecessary infectious disease risks to people and other animals.
- Organizing rescues, fulfilling regulatory rules, shipping dogs and finding them homes takes a lot of money. It would make more sense if there was a shortage of adoptable strays in Ontario. However, I haven’t heard any shelter personnel lament their lack of dogs, undercrowded facilities or excessive financial resources.
- Moving animals between different regions carries an inherent risk of transmission of infectious diseases. The more movement, the more mixing and the greater the difference in infectious diseases in the areas, the greater the risk of making more animals sick, and potentially doing more harm than good.
- Rabies is one concern, and rabid dogs have been imported into North America in the past. Since rabies has a long incubation period, it’s hard to be certain that a dog’s not incubating a rabies infection.
- More likely to be imported would be a wide range of other bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. These are a concern from several standpoints. Some might cause disease in the imported animal, and diagnosis may be delayed or missed because of it being a disease with which local veterinarians have no experience. Some might bring an unusual pathogen into the area that could be spread to a few other in-contact dogs. Worse, some might bring in a new pathogen that could then establish itself in the local (or national) dog population. We don’t know how often any of these scenarios occur, but they are always a risk, and need to be part of the cost-benefit analysis of animal rescue operations and associated animal importation.
At the end of the day, it’s hard for me to support rescuing dogs from other regions when we already have a large population of dogs in our own shelters and animal being euthanized here because there are no homes for them. I can’t justify the expense and risk of importing dogs if, for every new dog imported, one other dog in a local shelter gets euthanized because it doesn’t have a home. Does importation really mean fewer adoptions here? We don’t know, but it stands to reason.
A situation like this is a little different, as a chance and presumably (hopefully) one-time event prompted by a specific human-animal bond. Overall though, we could do better for the dog populations both here and in regions where there are massive stray problems by focusing attention on better care and adoption here, and international programs aimed at helping stray populations abroad through vaccination, education and sterilization efforts.