Colonial Canicide, Cruel to be Kind?

One of the ways in which British colonizers sought to distinguish themselves from the colonized populations that they ruled over, and to justify that rule, was through claiming that they treated animals more humanely than the ‘natives’. In Burma this claim was also made, but it was not always straight-forward. Buddhism was viewed by imperial writers as inculcating in the Burmese population an excessively sympathetic attitude towards animals. They argued that the resulting kindness could actually be cruel. When it came to stray dogs, the apparent reluctance of the Burmese to harm them was viewed by British officials as a example of this inadvertent cruelty. This colonial attitude was plainly expressed in a letter concerning the working of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1890, written by a deputy commissioner serving in the Irrawaddy Division in 1910:

The Burman is when in his normal frame of mind humane in his treatment of both children and animals… A very common form of negative cruelty is the permitting of dogs to linger on without taking steps either to cure them or kill them after their continued existence has become an active misery. It is difficult to deal with these cases. It would not be possible in a Buddhist country to require these wretched animals to be killed by the members of a village community.

Five years later the Government of India began to encourage provincial governments, including British Burma, to use gas chambers to kill stray and rabid dogs. Prior to this most provincial governments had used strychnine to poison them, or had organized bands to club them to death. It was reported that in Calcutta alone roughly 12,000 dogs were killed using these methods annually. Strychnine poisoning was not a kind option. It was an exceptionally painful and slow method of putting the animals to death. Additionally, killing stray dogs by leaving sweetmeats that had been poisoned with strychnine out on the streets had led to the deaths of several children in Madras. It was hoped that gas chambers would be more humane and safer—that the price of strychnine was going up was also a factor.

In Burma, however, officials felt that the policy was impractical. In order for the dogs to be killed in the gas chambers, a gang of dog catchers would need to be organized. It was argued that no Burmese person would do this work, and that anyone who did would be attacked by the general public. Overcoming these obstacles would, it was complained, add to the expense of the scheme, which also involved building the chambers and paying for the gas. Despite its increasing price, strychnine was viewed as the most cost-effective and easily implemented option, even though it was recognized to be the least humane. It seems from the records at the National Archives of Myanmar that strychnine poisoning remained the favoured method of colonial dog-killing. In light of this, imperial claims that killing dogs was a kindness seem hollow.

From J.L. Kipling, Beast and man in India: A popular sketch of Indian animals in their relationship with the people (1891). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
From J. L. Kipling, Beast and man in India: A popular sketch of Indian animals in their relationship with the people (1891). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Simrat says:

    Could you please give the reference to the Calcutta dog killing in India?

    1. jonathansaha says:

      Hi Simrat—of course! I got it from the National Archives of Myanmar in Yangon, and its full reference is 1/15(E) 3939, 1915, file no. 3m-17. If you can’t get to Yangon, it was part of a Government of India circular. The reference to Calcutta was in a minute contained in the circular and written by the Examiner of Medical Stores dated 11 August 1914. Hope this helps!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s