So yesterday we hiked to the top of Ella Rock. It’s a beautiful steep escarpment jutting out over the tiny hill town of Ella in Southern Sri Lanka. Most visitors here opt to climb the less arduous and somewhat smaller Little Adams Peak. Navi and I choose Ella Rock instead, mainly due to the presence of dozens of feral dogs on the trail leading to Little Adams Peak.
Rubbish Dump Dogs and Dogma
Sri Lanka has a huge rubbish problem, namely what to do with it all. The streets are much cleaner than India but landfills are numerous and overflowing. With so many rubbish dumps everywhere feral dogs thrive.
In addition, Hindu and Buddhist religious beliefs prevalent through the region curtail the harming of wild animals which hampers any attempt by the government to manage the issue. In 2001, religious lobbyists in India succeeded in making it illegal for a person or organisation to harm a feral dog for any reason. I agree with the sentiment but,
India is a country where 20,000 people a year die from feral dog attacks.
Most are children. This kind of carte blanche legislation does nothing to help solve the problem and ultimately results in over-population and further suffering for the dogs. Funding in Sri Lanka has been directed into low cost, easily administered contraceptives for the dogs but thus far, no viable solution has been sanctioned.
Considerations for Budget Travellers
With so many dogs around it’s important to consider where you walk and at what times of day. Our hotel owner told us that guests from his establishment are attacked and bitten by feral dogs at a rate of around 6 people per year. If you average that across the number of guesthouses in the town of Ella, that works out to about one dog attack on tourists every two days. A quick Google reveals the depth of the problem not only in Sri Lanka but in Asia as a whole.
The number of reported attacks taking place is frightening.
There are even some stories of locals in rural areas being mauled to death by packs of dogs who enter their homes in search of food.
After being attacked ourselves and narrowly escaping just on the edge of town, we didn’t want to risk walking alone in known problem areas such as Little Adams Peak.
The owner of the guesthouse suggested we take sticks to beat the dogs off with but I didn’t want that kind of conformation and I didn’t want to harm an animal simply for acting instinctively.
We’d been attacked before in India but locals had always been close at hand to help. On this occasion we were more shaken up. No-one was around. A passing motorcyclist slowed down to see what was happening and we managed to put the bike between us and the dog and make a dash for it. After a long conversation Navi and I agreed to adapt our travel style in the future.
It’s very sad but we resolved to avoid solitary or secluded places, especially early in the morning and after dark.
More intrepid travellers will say that we are making a mistake. If a dog attack is going to happen – it’s going to happen anyway. We shouldn’t alter our travel strategy. We disagree. Navi and I are away for a long time. If we keep ignoring the risks the odds will catch up with us eventually. Secondary infection is a huge problem for us as we are budget travellers. If we were on a two week vacation we could simply fly home and get cleaned up. But we are not. Any injury on the road is a massive issue and a spanner in the works of our travel plans.
Tips for Dealing with Feral Dogs
After more Googling I was not surprised to learn that our idea on the how to behave around aggressive dogs was fundamentally flawed. Whilst we did nothing to precipitate the recent confrontation we missed a small window of opportunity to diffuse it before it became violent. Allow me to describe what happened.
One More Feral Dog Encounter from Asia
We were walking on an empty stretch of road with no houses. On one side was a sheer rock face and on the other side a sheer drop. The embankment on both sides was about 1 meter and the road was about 8 meters across. We’d spotted some puppies frolicking on the left so we crossed over to the opposite side in case the mother was around. As soon as we drew level with the puppies the mother appeared further down the road and crossed over to our side.
We kept walking at a slow pace with our arms by our side but the instant she was in range she squatted, bared her teeth and immediately began making darting attacks towards us.
Instinctively we positioned our bag between ourselves and the dog as a barrier. We also had jumpers in our hands which we unravelled and tried to use to parry the dog’s lunges in the same way a matador uses his cape.
We shouted and flailed our arms but the dog didn’t back down.
Then I remembered something I’d seen locals do. Very deliberately I bent down and feigned picking up a stone. Next I raised my arm above my head and feigned throwing the non-stone at the dog. She backed off momentarily at this and then came at us again.
Once the adrenaline was pumping time kind of froze for me. I’m not sure how long we were locked into this battle but I doubt it was more than 30 seconds. Then the motorcycle appeared and saved us.
How to Avoid Being Attacked
After reading a few websites it seems we were doomed from the start. A mother with pups will almost always behave in this way. If the lay of the land were different, we could have walked around her or found another route. On a straight road however, with little or no embankments…
…we needed to come through her territory and there was no way she was going to allow that without a fight.
The second mistake we made was looking at her. Eye contact it seems is a signal of aggressive intent to wild animals. We should have stood side on to the dog and watched her through our peripheral vision. Then calmly backed away.
Obviously no-one should turn their back on a snarling dog but the absolute worst thing we could’ve done was run. Internet agrees. If you run from a dog, they will invariably give chase and likely not stop until they have brought you down with a bite to the calf or ankle.
We didn’t run on this occasion but we maintained eye contact and kept moving forward. Once we began flailing our arms and shouting we escalated the confrontation in the mind of the dog.
What we should have done was make nonthreatening gestures in a language the dog understands.
According to the internet these gestures include but are not limited too. Licking your lips, yawning, whistling and humming a tune.
Next time we are in this situation I plan to try these things but I think backing away whilst avoiding direct eye contact will probably be the most effective course of action. Regardless, where feral dogs are a known issue, Navi and I will always consider taking a local guide with a stick or joining a much larger group in future.
Fight or Flight?
If you find yourself in a situation that you simply can’t control and a dog sinks its teeth into you, that may not be the end of the matter. You still need to think on your feet to minimise your injuries. Here are some tips from the web on what to do.
When a feral dog lunges in for the attack it can be tempting to swing at it with a foot, arm or anything to hand.
The reaction time of dogs is superior to humans.
Wild dogs in nature often prey on larger animals. Their offensive actions are based on counterattacks as a consequence. A smart dog will be waiting for you to take a swing so that it can leap in behind your attack. It’s best where possible to interpose the assault with an object such as a tree. If time permits, wrap some clothing around your arm or dangle a bag between you and the dog. Don’t present a soft target. Make it as difficult as you can for the dog to get a clear sight at something to bite.
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Don’t do this either.
It’s vital to stay on your feet at all times.
If you end up on the floor the dog may go for your face or throat. Never give an angry dog that opportunity to bite anything other than your limbs. Keep the dog at arms length and keep backing away.
If you are unfortunate enough to suffer a bite from a feral dog in Asia, clean the affected area with soap and bottled water as soon as possible to limit the chances of infection. Then, get to a doctor or a hospital and seek their advice.
Feral Dogs in Asia, Long Term
It’s a real shame that this has to be a consideration for travellers like Navi and I. There are some beautiful experiences that are best appreciated at dawn or in lonely places when the behaviour of feral dogs can be most aggressive.
I sincerely hope that the governments in this region find a quick humane solution to the problem. I’m disheartened though by the discussions I read online. The rational part of my brain is resigned to the fact that, as with so many things, religious dogma will win out over common sense and the issue will grow worse not better.