About Me

My photo
Mumbai, India
I'm a landrace dog fancier, birder and amateur arachnologist. Founder of the INDog Project (www.indog.co.in) and the INDog Club. Before that, worked with urban free-ranging dogs of Mumbai from 1993-2007. Also a wildlife conservationist working in the tiger reserves of central India with Satpuda Foundation.

This blog is for aboriginal breed enthusiasts. It is part of the INDog Project www.indog.co.in. Only INDogs (Indian Pariah) and INDog-mix mongrels are featured here. The two are NOT the same, do please read the text on the right to understand the difference. Our aim: to create awareness about the primitive natural breed called the Indian Pariah Dog/INDog. I sometimes feature other landrace breeds too.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Who's straying?

"The vet keeps describing Poppy as a 'stray,' " said my mother. "I told him she was never a stray. She was the petrol pump puppy before I adopted her. Even her father wasn't a stray. He was the Temple Towers dog."

I think this was a remarkably acute comment, like much of what she says on the topic of language for that matter. But then my mother's career and specialization was in linguistics, and it's normal for her to analyze words and their usage. Most of us tend to mindlessly accept common terms and rattle them off like talking parrots. Me included.

That's why I accepted and used the grossly inappropriate "s" word for many years, though something about it made me uneasy (yes, really). Back in 1993 when I used to work in the street dog birth control programme, a couple of other NGO managers had suggested we refer to these dogs as street dogs and not strays. The 1990 Guidelines for Dog Population Management (WHO and WSPA) described the term stray as "imprecise because a dog found straying may be lost, abandoned or merely roaming."

Roaming and straying - these are different things. If I take a walk around my neighbourhood, would you say I'm "straying?" The point usually overlooked is that all our dogs DO have a neighbourhood, a territory.

As for the odd use of the word as interchangeable with "native" or Indian dog, as in "I own a stray dog" or "my dog is a stray" - this is a bizarre contradiction but it's depressingly common in our country (remember my mother's remark about her vet). As I've mentioned before, the word doesn't refer to breed but (vaguely) to the ownership status of a dog, as understood from municipal acts. How can your pet be an ownerless dog?

Although in 1973 Alan M. Beck used the word stray in his famous book "The Ecology of Stray Dogs," he did sub-title it "A Study of Free-Ranging Urban Animals." His study was of the dogs of Baltimore. Nowadays biologists do not use the term stray, specially for the dogs of Asia and Africa. The correct term is free-ranging.

I'm now quoting from the Glossary I've compiled in the INDog site, because I've said it all there (and I'm assuming nobody has read it!)

Actually the use of the word "stray" for India's free-roaming dogs is highly debatable. Dog enthusiast Gautam Das once pointed out that the usage arose from the British meaning of a dog that is owned by someone and has "strayed" from its home or owner. In Indian languages such as Marathi, the word used is "bhatakta" which would more correctly be translated as "wandering" or "roaming." This is rather different from "straying" which always implies that the dog is somewhere it shouldn't be (with the further implication that a dog should always be in a human dwelling or not exist at all?)

The implication that a dog has no right to be in any place but a human home is inappropriate when applied to India's free-roaming dogs. Such dogs have specific territories even if they don't have homes in the European sense. So they certainly aren't "straying" from anywhere.

In the countries of northern Europe the category of free-living or community dog does not exist, and any dog roaming unsupervised would therefore be an abandoned or straying pet. This is an example of English canine terminology being mechanically accepted for usage without taking the Indian context into consideration.

Even pet dogs in villages are often described as "strays" in English, since they wear no collars and roam unsupervised.

It would be best to use the terms "street dog" or "neighbourhood dog" in the urban context, and "free-roaming dog" in the rural one.

One can imagine the first Englishmen in India, setting eyes on our free-ranging scavenging dogs and saying "look at all those strays!" And sadly the term stuck...

Click here for an earlier (and shorter) post on this topic. And thanks for reading!

Photos: Free-ranging dogs in Nagpur, clicked by me in 2008

No comments: