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Urban dogs: A threat in the making.

Walk through any neighbourhood at night in Muscat, and you might catch a glimpse of stealthy movement around you. You may even feel like you are being watched. Packs of wild dogs are in fact watching us by night, sharing our city, and their numbers are growing every day.

What's more, these dogs, or their offspring, may be a future threat to human health and safety. Where have all these dogs come from What sort of future can we expect with them

Many, if not most, of our urban dogs have genetic roots in Arabia that go back centuries. The Saluki, for example, is a native of Oman and lends its short hair, lean shape, and sandy colour to most of the wild dogs here. Look carefully though, and you'll see features found in other dog breeds from imported dogs that escaped, or were abandoned. Pet dogs often breed with the wild dog population here, and the result that we see is a wild population of diverse shapes, sizes, and colours.

Large numbers of the animals around us, though, never produce young. Our harsh desert environment selects "winners" and "losers," sorting out animals who may survive to mate from those who will not. Traits like short hair, long upright ears, large, lean body type, and a strong cooperative instinct to work with the pack do well here. Dogs without these traits fare less well, and breed less often.

This genetic selection process happens quickly, as a new generation can easily arise every two years. Further, the changes afoot in these dog packs are not simply genetic. They are intellectual and behavioural, as well.

For every street dog that's rehabilitated and taken into a home, there are countless more who find themselves in a very different relationship with humans. They are pelted with rocks, kicked, and some even set on fire. These animals naturally learn to be fearful and highly wary of humans. The dogs we keep as pets are almost family members, wilfully taking instruction from and guarding that family. But what if a puppy sees its mother killed, or is repeatedly kicked when scavenging How will it react to humans In the short term, the dog learns to fear people, so its behaviour is channelled towards avoiding real and potential human attackers. But harassing wild dogs to keep them fearful of humans is truly a very short-term view.

Look forward a decade. What might happen, when a dog from a breeding line with nothing but negative human contact for four or five generations is confronted by a human aggressor The response we're used to, of dogs scattering fearfully, may be replaced by something new. A single dog may be no match for a human, but a pack of ten or 12 highly organised predators is a very different matter - especially when some of the pack have silently circled behind the human.

Plainly, we run a risk of aggression being met with aggression, as these new urban predators conclude that together they can easily overcome this odd creature that harasses them. When the memory of man's generosity has faded, and the fear of our species has much declined or disappeared, then the creature we confront is only genetically related to our pet dog. Behaviourally it's a very different creature. It is now a wild predator - and it may pose a very real threat to human safety.

If this seems a bit far-fetched, consider some statistics from outside Oman. In the US, the Centres for Disease Control estimate that dogs bite people there 4.5 million times per year. Emergency rooms treat about 350 thousand bites each year, some 30 or more of them fatal. Closer to us, authorities in India, with a larger human but smaller dog population, estimate that animals, mostly strays, bite people 2.2 million times per year. And that's only part of the story.

Consider our species' relationship now, and over the long term, with wolves, which are these wild dogs' very close relatives. Verified wolf attacks - some resulting in serious injury or death - have been reported in Europe and Asia for centuries. Though historically far less threatening, North American wolves have killed humans as recently as two years ago, when a lone runner was killed by a pack.

And with each new litter, our wild dogs become more akin to their close cousins the wolves than to the creatures we know as pets. A coordinated attack by a dog pack on a human victim, especially on a child, is well within these dogs' abilities, and consistent with their species' history. All the pieces are there.

Admittedly, this is a worst-case scenario. It doesn't have to be this way. We humans bear some responsibility for these dogs, and there is much we can do to prevent future confrontation and disaster. All cities have animal problems, and many have come up with solutions that have worked well to keep urban dogs in check. Muscat could adopt some of these measures, and perhaps develop others, for the safety and benefit of dogs and humans alike. The key question is, what might work best for Muscat

Perhaps the best possibility, used widely in developed countries, is a humane programme of capture and sterilisation. Such programmes, when conducted properly, can dramatically slow, and even reverse, the growth of urban dog populations. In many cities, these efforts are carried out by a partnership of municipal animal control officials and animal welfare groups, usually NGOs.

Trained municipal dog wardens identify and capture problem animals. NGOs then spay or neuter the animals, and seek adoptive homes for those dogs tame enough to become pets. Many cities also use measures that are less direct, but highly effective, by reducing the amount of food available to wild animals. This is done by using modern rubbish containers that seal well, and educating the public to use them properly. Abu Dhabi has such a programme, and it reduces not only wild dog and cat populations, it helps to reduce all wild scavengers, including rats. There are many more opportunities for controlling urban dogs that Muscat might adopt. There are choices, clear choices.

It is important to select and widely implement methods that will keep Muscat's street dog populations to a minimum, to a population which is mostly recently-escaped pets, and a few of their wild chums. The authors are freelance writers based in Oman and the views expressed are their own.

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Publication:Times of Oman (Muscat, Oman)
Geographic Code:7OMAN
Date:Apr 5, 2012
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