He tries to run, but one of the animals pulls the boy to the ground. Two more dogs close in, offering the victim little respite.
The boy, who has not been publicly identified, is dragged by the pack for several feet, writhing in pain as the strays pounce. He strives to wrestle from their grip, but his small and fragile body cannot compete with the aggressors.
His piercing screams alert his father nearby – but it was too late. The child was declared dead upon arrival at the hospital.
The brutal attack, captured by a security camera in Hyderabad in February, a sprawling city in the central Indian state of Telangana, has horrified the nation of 1.3 billion and placed focus on an issue that long divided opinion: what to do with India’s vast number of stray dogs?
‘Man-eater’ vs man’s best friend
The issue is a sensitive one in a country where there is an ingrained cultural respect for animals and an aversion to culling. Most agree stray dogs are an issue, but there is a fierce debate over how best to respond.
According to the Press Trust of India, there are around 62 million strays in the country, although experts say the real number would be nearly impossible to verify.
Most of these animals – lovably nicknamed ‘Indie’ dogs – live in harmony with humans. Often, residents of gated communities come together to feed them, some even adopting them as family pets.
But over the years, bites and killings by stray dogs have put many cities on edge, with politicians, the media, and citizens scrambling to present various solutions.
Long before the death of the 4-year-old boy in Hyderabad made headlines, local media have run similar tales about India’s “killer dogs” – stories that are then often picked up by international outlets.
“”Man-eater’ dog terror back in Bihar,” wrote The Telegraph India in a story last month after a series of bites in the northern Indian state.
It is illegal to kill stray dogs in India. A 2001 law states strays should instead be picked up, neutered, and vaccinated against rabies, before being released.
But in light of the gruesome attacks, many of which have happened to children, some have attempted to challenge the law.
In 2016, a campaign to kill stray dogs after a series of bites in the southern state of Kerala gained traction in the local news.
But animal rights activists were angered, instead urging authorities to offer clemency and find other solutions. The hashtag #BoycottKerala began trending on social media, and the plan was later abolished.
While the law requires strays to be neutered and vaccinated, experts say there is a lack of strict implementation.
“Of course we have a stray dog problem,” Anjali Gopalan, managing trustee at the All Creatures Great and Small, a Delhi-based non-profit that cares for animals, said.
“Not only do we have a stray dog problem, but we also have a problem with rabies in this country. So, steps have to be taken to deal with both.”
India’s rabies problem
Rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease which can spread to humans if they are bitten or scratched by an infected animal. It is almost always fatal unless a series of jabs can be administered soon after someone is bitten.
Dogs are the source of the vast majority of human rabies deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and contribute up to 99% of all rabies transmissions to humans. India is endemic for rabies, the WHO said, accounting for 36% of the world’s rabies deaths.
A key way to reduce rabies within a stray dog population is to capture and vaccinate as many animals as possible.
But veterinarian Sarungbam Devi, founder and trustee of Animal India Trust, said India needs to do more.
“At the time of the sterilization, we vaccinate the dog only once and then they are released. That’s all the vaccination a stray dog gets in his lifetime and that’s not enough,” she said.
A lack of resources in the country means it is difficult to push government bodies to increase the inoculation of street dogs against the virus, Devi added.
But when it comes to dog bites, Devi said, education plays the biggest role: “The government hasn’t done anything to increase awareness or educate the masses. We need to educate people, we need to be more vocal and visual about the (anti-bite) programs,” she said.
“People need to know what to do when a dog bites you, how to you prevent it … I don’t think I have ever seen anything on this anywhere.”
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) recommends avoiding unfamiliar dogs and wild animals, not running when approached by an unknown dog and always supervising children and dogs, among other things, to avoid bites.
According to the government, more than 6.8 million Indians were bitten by stray dogs in 2020 – and increase from 3.9 million in 2012. And experts say those numbers are likely not the full picture.
CNN has reached out to the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying but has not received a response.
“The problem is lack of awareness towards how to live around dogs,” Devi said, adding there needs to be an “intense anti-rabies drive and sterilization program everywhere in India.”
How to move forward?
But many Indian cities and states have been successful in bringing down their feral dog population and eradicating rabies.
In the financial capital Mumbai, as many as 95% of the city’s stray dogs have been sterilized owing to “consistent” implementation of re-vaccination and welfare programs, said Abodh Aras, CEO of the non-profit Welfare of Stray Dogs.
A robust public health system for post-bite treatment and regular school programs about dog bite and rabies prevention has also contributed, Aras said.
“There are other places that have success stories. There is Goa that has eliminated rabies, (the state of) Sikkim that has got its state of operations around, and eliminated rabies,” he added. “It needs a combination of government support, will and infrastructure, and animal welfare NGOs working in that area for this model to be successful.”
But not every city has the resources to implement this model.
Take for example Noida, a satellite city of more than half a million on the outskirts of Delhi that is a comparatively wealthy place and home to many middle-class families.
Devi, from the Animal India Trust, said Noida remains “very disorganized,” and her organization is the only non-profit covering the entire city – a colossal and tedious task for a small team, she said.
Gopalan, from All Creatures Great and Small, points to even more difficult operations in rural India, where electricity is lacking and maintaining cold storage for vaccines is an issue.
Following the 4-year-old’s death in Hyderabad, officials promised swift action to prevent future tragedies.
“We have been sterilizing dogs and anti-rabies injections are being given to them,” Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation Mayor Vijayalaxmi Gadwal, told local news agency, ANI.
“So far in Hyderabad we have identified more than 500,000 dogs and sent more than 400,000 dogs for sterilization. We are following every guideline which is being given to us by the Supreme Court. We’re also going to adopt these dogs so that the number of stray dogs will be reduced.”
That campaign may have an impact locally. But it many fear it is likely only a matter of time before another pack of dogs somewhere in India takes a child’s life.