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Killer Dogs Take 14 Lives. Did Closing Slaughterhouses Play a Role?

KHAIRABAD, India — On a recent evening just a few minutes before the sun went down, Sahreen Bano, a 10-year-old girl, walked into a sugar cane field to urinate before going to bed. A pack of wild dogs was waiting for her.

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Killer Dogs Take 14 Lives. Did Closing Slaughterhouses Play a Role?
HARI KUMAR, New York Times

KHAIRABAD, India — On a recent evening just a few minutes before the sun went down, Sahreen Bano, a 10-year-old girl, walked into a sugar cane field to urinate before going to bed. A pack of wild dogs was waiting for her.

The dogs formed a tight ring and then closed in, pulling her down as one dog’s teeth sank into her neck. She screamed. Nearby farmers dashed in as fast as they could, rocks, sticks and hoes in their hands, yelling at the top of their lungs.

Sahreen now lies on a hospital cot, a brown, bloodstained bandage wrapped around her neck like a scarf, eyes fluttering, most likely out of danger.

But the attack on Sahreen was not an isolated event. At least 14 children have been mauled to death by dog packs around Khairabad in recent months.

Khairabad is one of those little towns, off a highway in northern India, that prosperity and hope seem to have skipped over. The houses are small and smothered in dust; the villagers thin and poor. Most are farmers, many are Muslim, and on this terrifying dog menace, they blame politicians — specifically the Hindu-right politicians whose zeal to protect cows, they say, may have created killer dogs.

Last year, a new Hindu-right government, led by Yogi Adityanath, a monk who is one of India’s most divisive figures, was swept into power in this state, Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath built his career by pushing a Hindu-supremacist agenda and demonizing Muslims.

One of the first things he did as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister was shut down most of the state’s slaughterhouses, scores of them.

The stated reason was that many were operating illegally. But residents are convinced that the yogi and others in his political party wanted to wipe out the meat industry in order to protect cows, a sacred animal in Hinduism. That many Muslims had been employed in the meat industry may also have been attractive to him and to some of his Hindu-supremacist followers.

But another consequence was the stray dogs. And nothing — not increased police patrols, high-level visits, a surveillance drone or a dog vigilante squad that employs macabre tactics — has been able to stop the attacks.

On Wednesday afternoon, minutes after another young girl was mauled in a mango orchard, a squad of police officers, wearing jeans and gym shoes, rushed to the area.

They sprinted past the arcing mango trees heavy with hard, green fruit and into the endless sugar cane fields. They were sweating through their shirts, yelling to each other to go this way or that, rifles and shotguns bouncing on their backs.

But the officers didn’t squeeze off a single shot. The killer dogs had vanished.

School attendance is dropping. Khairabad’s farmers are terrified to linger in their fields, especially at night. Last weekend, wild dogs struck again, attacking five people.

Khairabad, like just about any other Indian village, has a lot of strays. Many of the strays used to survive off scraps from the slaughterhouse, and after it was abruptly shut down, villagers and veterinarians said, some of the strays might have gone mad with hunger.

“Because these dogs are getting less food, they move toward the neighborhoods in search of food,” said Dr. R.K. Singh, director of the Indian Veterinary Research Institute. “That is leading to intense human animal interaction.”

Children, he said, were “a soft target.”

Adityanath’s government is prickly when asked about Khairabad’s dog menace, denying that the closure of the slaughterhouse had anything to do with it.

“Why would the dogs of only Khairabad turn into man eaters when slaughterhouses have been shut down all over?” said Awadhesh Kumar Yadav, an urban development officer.

That remains a mystery, though veterinarians said dog attacks were happening in other areas as well.

The forensics here in Khairabad tell their own story. Pictures of mauled children reveal that the dogs clamped down on their throats, the way a leopard or a lion takes down its prey. Some of the children had parts of their legs and arms chewed off.

A few adults have been attacked as well, but none killed.

The dogs, who may come from one pack, have developed a taste for human flesh. On some days, maulings are reported five to 10 miles apart, in the span of just a few hours, a lot of ground for a dog to cover.

But these are not normal strays, villagers insist. They can run 40 mph, “faster than a motorbike,” said Ayub Khan, a village elder. Their mouths were larger, their health better, and, he added with wide eyes and a knowing nod, “their jump is very long.”

Police officers say the dogs travel in packs of five to seven; according to tests performed on several animals linked to the attacks, none were rabid. More than 40 strays have been captured and sterilized, but that has not made any difference.

The dog vigilantes are not taking any chances. On a recent evening, they moved out en masse, dozens of men and a few preteen boys, all carrying sticks, knives or axes.

They spread out across the sugar cane fields and mango orchards, just about the only source of jobs out here. As they moved, the village dogs lounging in the shadows seemed to sense trouble and scrambled up on skinny legs and high-tailed it away. The vigilantes were clear that they were not trying to kill all dogs; India’s dog laws are quite protective and courts have ruled it is illegal to cull strays.

But in January, this same vigilante group killed three dogs and nobody got in trouble. Elders said the dogs had attacked children, and they strung up their carcasses from a mango tree for nearly a month.

“We wanted to send the other dogs a message,” explained Rahimullah Khan, part of the posse. Not far from where the vigilantes were mustered stood the Khairabad slaughterhouse, its brick floor grooved to drain away blood. Thousands of animals, mostly buffaloes, used to be slaughtered here.

But the slaughterhouse is now deserted, the sun casting harsh shadows on its empty courtyard. All the dogs who used to hang around have disappeared.

Many villagers here said they never suffered such vicious dog attacks when the slaughterhouse was open. They said it was not fair to protect cows at the cost of people.

They also complained that stray cows routinely trampled their crops but if they tried to do anything about it, they would be arrested.

“Forget about killing them,” a farmer named Saeed said. “Under Yogi, you can’t even touch them.”

When asked if it were dangerous to so openly criticize Adityanath, who has a reputation for being ruthless, Saeed shrugged.

“We are free to say what we want,” he said. “But who will listen?”

In the district hospital, the young children who barely escaped lie on their backs in metal cots, one after the other, blood-soaked bandages wrapped around their necks.

“This is the chief minister’s responsibility,” said one mother, Rani Sharma.

But then she shook her head, as if coming to her senses.

“Only God helps the poor.”

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