Sarnath, the holy site of Buddhism in Uttar Pradesh, is right on the nose in making Buddha proud in his Stupa. For a country (India) with an estimated dog population of over 30 million and annual dog bite incidents of 1.75 million, this small town with a shrinking dog count and dwindling dog-bite cases is nothing short of a whiff of relief. Located 10 kilometers north-east of Varanasi, Sarnath recorded zero rabies and dog-bite cases in 2018.
From fear of dogs to love for them, Sarnath is a model town that has managed its animals well enough to put authorities to shame. While Animal Welfare Board of India’s (AWBI) — a statutory body under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change — National Rabies Control Program has been shifted to the back burner due to ‘fund crunch’, a team of social workers in Sarnath have achieved the elusive in style.
Picture this! A town with more than 70% of dog population sterilized, a manageable healthy dog number in and around the area, no rabies or dog bite cases reported, fewer puppies born – thus even fewer get crushed under the wheel – Sarnath has achieved it all in four years.
“Totally, our team has spayed and vaccinated over 1,500 dogs in Sarnath and surrounding villages. Each time, we sterilized and gave anti rabies injections to about 300 dogs. There is a noticeable effect in the streets,” says Eileen Weintraub, founder, Help Animals India, an NGO dedicated to supporting effective animal protection organizations in India and Nepal and the body behind creating the Sarnath magic.
It all began in 2013, when Mary Jane, a Canadian Buddhist nun, visited Sarnath to attend a seminar. Mary (Lama Jangchub) saw puppies run over by fast moving vehicles, children abusing puppies and terrible conditions of starvation for both mother dogs and their pups. Mary vowed to come to the rescue of helpless animals and contacted her long-time friend Eileen Weintraub.
Apart from puppies being run over by speeding vehicles, tourists being bitten by street dogs and cattle and human population contracting rabies, there were some other reasons that prompted Eileen to shift gears in Sarnath. The duo, with the help of many more, raised funds, contacted local NGOs and spoke to villagers to kick start the project.
Talking to angry villagers and working with them was another roadblock and an uphill task. “There were hurdles initially. We used some influential people from social welfare groups to get villagers agree to the idea of animal welfare. Most of the villagers had lost their large animals due to dog bite causing rabies and hence most hated dogs. However, the team conducted awareness programmes as well and explained the importance of vaccination and how that helped save their large animals. So we connected the issue to their bread and butter,” recalls Praveen Ohal, a social worker involved with ‘Building Compassion’ project at the grassroot level.
Annual awareness campaigns in neighbouring schools, villages and throughout the community hold the key to the success of the project. Moreover, while the ‘Building Compassion’ project has completed five animal birth control camps since inception in 2014, the team made sure that each animal birth control camp was accompanied with a very strong awareness programme in schools. Videos of musical skits explaining ways around street dogs, informative promotional films on dog bite prevention and Sarvodaya vets talking as friendly dog catchers were made and played at every school and village in and around Sarnath.
“While we were lucky to have a very amicable and wonderful veterinarian who had a way with children and village people, awareness programmes through videos, countless flyers in English and the local language and numerous sessions with villagers did the trick. Our team conducted countless outreach programmes at many gatherings to educate verbally and through videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEQ4SkIYfD4),” says Eileen.
About Help Animals India
Help Animals India is working towards transforming the relationship between monasteries, villagers and dogs into peaceful coexistence in the city of Sarnath — a sacred pilgrimage site where the Buddha first taught. Thanks to an aggressive programme of animal birth control, rabies vaccination and community consciousness-raising, compassion is increasing for all sentient beings — animals included.