December 2008: I love dogs. The ones in my home; the ones on India’s mean streets; the wild ones that run chital and sambar down in deep forests and the ones that started it all, the ultimate top dogs – wolves, Canis lupus.
Incredible survivors, canids are the earliest-known members of the order Carnivora, whose ancestry dates back 40 million years. Until seven million years ago, canids were restricted to North America, but then a land bridge formed between America and Asia, allowing canids to exploit new food sources. However, the canids were domesticated around 15,000 years ago in East Asia and, when some Asian tribes migrated to North America, a few Canis familiaris packs accompanied them.
Man’s best friend warned him of enemy attacks in exchange for food scraps, and the relationship grew stronger through the agricultural, industrial and, finally, the urban revolution. Expert scavengers, dogs thrived on the garbage that humans scattered around their dwellings and this largely weeded out their carnivore instinct. The easy pickings had a profound physical impact on domestic dogs. Their skull size (compared to that of wolves) reduced by 20 per cent, brain size by 10 per cent and paw size by 50 per cent! Years of artificial breeding by humans also gifted them floppy ears and upturned tails, something still never seen in wolves.
Dogs, cats, kites, crows, rats and cockroaches love Indian cities because they are unbelievably dirty. Decades of killing and poisoning dogs by municipalities failed to bring populations down, because even small populations of well-fed dogs inevitably multiply again. The mismanagement of garbage and dogs in city after Indian city forced animal welfare organisations to win a court order supporting sterilisation (animal birth control) over failed, inhumane (and very expensive) dog killing. Yet officials continue to drag their feet, using red tape to thwart citizens’ efforts. This is why stray dogs chasing flamingos – or flocks of Black-tailed Godwits in the Thane Creek in this case – are commonplace.
Sanctuary plans to inspire one million Kids for Tigers to help implement an ‘each one teach one’ adult-literacy programme in India. The kids will prove that environmental protection improves the human condition. This is as true for the management of garbage, dogs and birds in the Thane Creek as for tigers, mines, forests and climate in the Kudremukh National Park.
Put another way, it is not just dogs, but all of nature that is man’s best friend, a fact that adults just do not seem able to grasp.