Killing dogs in Rwanda (updated)

I am a member of a Facebook group for expats in Rwanda, and it’s a great forum for literally anything – if you want to buy or sell something, get a pet, need tips about hotels, restaurants or things to do in the country and the region, look for advice on best internet provider, or just want to find friends. People also share their experiences of everyday life in Rwanda, including stories of best croissants they ever tasted, best massage and manicure in town, cool events they’ve attended, but also less cheerful stories of burglaries or thefts, bad customer service, etc. A few days ago a member posted that their two pups had been poisoned at night and died. The discussion that ensued made me want to scream…

In Rwanda, there is a very strict law on stray dogs. If you own a dog, it cannot run around free (apart from your own property of course). It always needs to be kept on a leash and you need to carry the vaccination cards with you if you’re taking it outside your property. Apparently there is a problem with stray dogs, especially in villages, as they often attack livestock and bite people, especially children. Strangely enough, the risk of rabies isn’t mentioned at all… Any stray dog, even if it wears a collar and/or is in good condition suggesting is might have an owner, and even if it’s calm, may be killed. How? Most often by being fed poisoned meat, sometimes simply by being beaten to death by a mob.

The Facebook group member’s pups didn’t get out to the street that night – they got out of the house but were still within the complex where their owners live. Poisoned meat was thrown into the property over the wall. After some investigation the owners managed to speak to the head of local security and then to a police captain, and after quite a bit of prodding they finally got this reluctant admission out of them: the Mayor’s office gave a citywide order to poison all stray dogs in Kigali.

But theirs weren’t stray dogs. They were still inside the complex, not running around in the street. Dozens of comments appeared under this post. Everyone was shocked and outraged, some told their own stories of rocks being thrown into their gardens by children trying to hit their dogs. Others were trying to understand why there is so much hatred towards these animals in Rwanda. There were suggestions that it might be a legacy of the Genocide when abandoned and hungry dogs were eating corpses and eventually had to be shot by UN soldiers. But then others argued that their Rwandan friends, many of whom are Genocide survivors, were absolutely appalled to hear this story and also took to Twitter (it’s quite a powerful tool here) and other social media to share their anger and call out the authorities. There were also voices that Rwandans just don’t do pets and simply don’t understand what it means to have a dog or a cat just as a companion and not as working animal, like a goat or a cow.

I don’t know. All I managed to find out is this: last week, as a result of this action, all dogs in the neighbourhood where the group member lives with her family were killed; she got this information from government officials. They were “sorry” but also claimed that this was the right thing to do. Poison was given to local communities and clearly some of the people interpreted this as a green light to throw poisoned meat into private complexes as well. It’s not clear why they did that. What if a child found a bit of it on the road or in the garden? What if it put it in its mouth? There are hundreds of children in Kigali just walking and running around, also very little ones. There are children in that household where the pups were killed.

On the morning when the pups were found, the member’s Rwandan mother-in-law, a Genocide survivor, heard some locals loudly celebrating the fact that they managed to kill them. The member’s husband, also a Genocide survivor, went on the radio on Sunday to talk about this horrible incident. Other members of the Facebook group tweeted, talked about it to their friends and neighbours, approached the local media. Yesterday it was in the local TV news and some of the group members reported that many of their Rwandan colleagues, housekeepers, guards watched it and were very upset. Their children were upset too. They thought it was inexcusable and barbaric.

There isn’t much on the internet about the technicalities of getting rid of stray dogs in Rwanda. The law talks about “penalties” and “appropriate actions” taken against owners who do not comply with the regulations but these measures are not specified. I guess they give quite a lot of room for interpretation. One of the comments under this Facebook post was that theoretically stray dogs are supposed to be caught and euthanised. But isn’t it easier to just give poison to a group of people and tell them to sort it out themselves? I’ve come across this short article in Rwanda’s only English-language news portal: http://www.newtimes.co.rw/section/article/2015-11-19/194539/ If you read the comments, you will see that people think dogs are simply dangerous animals and they pose a serious security threat…

Mahatma Gandhi famously said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. The fact that a number of Rwandans who heard about this incident thought it absolutely wrong and shameful gives hope. But clearly there is a long way to go for people to understand the value of animal life. A human or a dog, a butterfly or an elephant – all are sentient beings and all can feel pain.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, one of the group members, who is a journalist, shared that she’d been to a meeting with the Police Spokesman’s Office on a different matter but decided to bring up this incident to see what they had to say. I’m copying her post here:

“He was genuinely horrified and he told me the following:
1- No such directive has ever been issued to poison dogs, stray or otherwise. When such an operation is to happen, there is a special announcement that is made and circulated for days. So whoever is doing this is doing it illegally.
2- The government does not ask random people to deal with stray dogs even when they are going around biting people. There are people to deal with this and in a professional manner.
3- No one was given any poison to do anything. He actually thought that it was ridiculous for anyone to even suggest this.
4- He pointed out law No 436 against animal cruelty which punishes such.
5- He pointed out that poison is illegal in Rwanda.
6– He gave me a Policeman’s name, his name is Rogers, he asked me to call him and tell him everything. He said that Rogers will deal with this, because first, they will need to know the area and investigate. The person whose dogs were killed can PM me for the number. He has actually told me that whoever is doing this will be punished. Also, he said that he is going to help follow this up.”

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