Hybrid Publics of Human and Other-than-Human Life: Free-Living Dogs and the “Green” and “Healthy” City in India

Multi-layered collage: A dark moon hovering over Dholera, Gujarat’s futuristic greenfield city in the making with solar park and chip hub, “squatted” by hybrid publics between human and other-than-human life: a monkey weighing its options in the center, people consuming street food, and free-roaming dogs; the latter two from ROH Indies - Eshita Prasanna / Tailshots. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Colonial-capitalist urbanization has propagated the city as a bulwark against the barbarian wilderness, declaring certain parts of human populations and the natural world obstacles to this project, and thus segregating them as something “undesirable” and ultimately “harmful” to social harmony, well-being, and progress. Overcoming these colonial-capitalist legacies means, not least, imagining cities as hybrid publics of human and non-human life, where the aim should be to engage with the other rather than to manage it, as Guillem Rubio Ramon and Krithika Srinivasan argue in their contribution to the “Kin City” series.


The adjectives of smart and green often go hand in hand with new urban development strategies worldwide. What exactly does smart or green mean, however, is often unclear, with context shaping both definitions and approaches. In India, for instance, some of the Government’s 2015 Smart Cities Mission projects showcase a variety of newly built public spaces, providing space for some citizens to socialize and exercise. Promoting, creating, and protecting green spaces is also an essential part of the Smart Cities mission. For instance, a lake restoration project in Coimbatore has created “a bird paradise” that is also a space for exercise and socialization.

What seems to underlie both these cases is the association of smarter and greener cities with various health benefits for some of their human citizens. At the same time, urban development agendas often include initiatives to remove some types of nature, including animals, from cities, e.g., marshes, weeds, cattle, street dogs, mosquitoes, and rats. This raises fundamental questions for cities in simultaneous processes of de-greening/de-animalization and greening: what is the “green” or urban nature that these programs refer to? Who or what benefits from these interventions? And what natures, on the contrary, are seen as obstacles to them?

Neglecting uncurated nonhuman nature

While some scholars have critically explored these questions, the “who” we find in such questions around greening the city is often formulated in exclusively human terms: green gentrification, unequal access to green spaces, or displacement due to green infrastructure are some examples of this important work. In most of these accounts, nonhuman nature appears as a passive non-agential object that can be made and remade to fulfill particular human projects and imaginaries. Even in cases where urban scholars have engaged with animals seriously (e.g. Hubbard and Brooks 2021; Narayanan 2017; Palmer 2003; Chowdhury et al. 2024) the place of nonhuman animals in greening programs has rarely been addressed.

Paula Arcari and her colleagues (2020) point out that this might be because some animals in the city, especially those located within institutions such as laboratories, slaughterhouses, and human homes, are not seen as part of nature at all. Similarly, animals situated within or on the fringes of cities can often be regarded as “too human” to be part of nature, and “too natural” to be part of the city (Arcari, Probyn-Rapsey, and Singer 2020; Srinivasan 2019). For instance, animals like monkeys, snakes, and free-living dogs are all part of the everyday geographies of most Indian cities and villages. Still, they are rarely considered as either part of the “green” of the city or as inhabitants of the city whose health will benefit from these greening projects. Because these animals are typically not considered either “green” or “the city” and mostly exist outside the realm of complete human control (Srinivasan 2019), they are mobilized in public discourse and mainstream media narratives as unhealthy elements threatening the city’s human residents.

Free-living dogs in urban landscapes

However, as research on free-living dogs in Chennai for our project, ROH-Indies, shows, this is far from the reality on the ground. Free-living dogs are part of complex multi-dimensional ecologies of place and community-making that escape simplistic understandings of dogs as pets, nuisances, or disease vectors. For instance, a free-living dog barking at night could be a nuisance for some but also a security mechanism for pavement dwellers and communities in situations of insecure housing.

Even when it comes to health, just as pet dogs and cats are often promoted as beneficial to human health and well-being, sometimes at the expense of their own, the same applies at the community scale to free-living dogs and those they live with. These relationships often go beyond functional views of protection, with some participants who care for free-roaming dogs often reporting that they feel cared for in return. For example, a fish vendor in Bandra East, Mumbai, described developing a close bond with a free-living dog: “Back then I used to live on the road. I didn’t have a place. I found her as a puppy under the car. She used to be with me and we would sleep together in a rickshaw. She follows me everywhere now.”

For the most part, free-living dogs and humans typically engage in everyday interactions that are indifferent or positive and caring, similar to those between human neighbors. As an agricultural laborer interviewed in Alipurduar noted: “Generally, the dogs are part of the community. No special attention is given to dogs. But generally, the dogs are friendly and villagers feed them and love them as puppies.” In this way, living with, and at times caring for, free-living dogs can contribute to well-being by fostering a sense of convivial cohabitation, belonging, and multi-species community-making – all recognized as key aspects of a good life for humans, but seldom considered as part of the health that green interventions aim to produce.

Conflict, co-existence, and co-habitation

In both cases, pets and free-living dogs, one finds more-than-human forms of kinship that cross species divides (Han 2022). However, one of the main differences in the case of free-living dogs is that this relationship becomes explicitly bidirectional, with more autonomy present on both sides and with most negative aspects of “living together” not exclusively falling on the canine side of this relationship (Srinivasan 2019). In contrast, pet dogs, as Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff argue “must cope with an asymmetrical relationship (…) [because] to live in our world we require them to give up some of their freedoms and natural behaviors” (2019, 5).

Living together and in community (whether human or more than human) offers many benefits (in terms of health and well-being), but it also inevitably involves conflict (Srinivasan 2019). Conflict is constitutive of social life. This understanding of multi-species cohabitation as involving both conflict and coexistence is evident in our study of the city of Chennai: 70% of respondents considered free-living dogs a problem, but 80% also believed that they nevertheless had a right to live on the streets.

Such ideas of multi-species communities, however, are in opposition to greening interventions where the objective is always a narrowly defined health of an abstract human population, pursued through insulation from the rest of life and individual self-improvement; this, in turn, means that greening projects end up being centered on giving particular (usually wealthier) citizens spaces to work on their bodies and minds. Rooted in the notion of cities as human exceptionalist spaces, only non-human natures that further these productive visions are allowed to exist and flourish as “green” and “healthy.” These terms end up becoming synonymous with “nature,” dangerously neglecting the contributions of uncurated nonhuman life, like free-living dogs, to the health of the city, as well as overlooking them as more-than-human publics. In turn, this hinders our understanding of health and well-being in their plural form, as always politically and ethically tied to that of others, humans or not, and beyond limited ecological or medical valuations.

The politics of unruliness and health

Animals (and plants) that do not fit or even negatively impact ideas of productive and healthy urban nature are often demonized as unhealthy or as impediments to achieving human health and, therefore, not part of the city’s green. For instance, in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan program (Clean India Mission), to improve sanitation infrastructure in cities, dogs are often portrayed as a hurdle to such projects, stemming from the belief that “their presence contributes significantly to the uncleanliness of cities.” Moreover, strategies to control, remove, and even eliminate “stray” animals that are not easily contained within determined human systems and imaginaries are not new to India, as well as to other cities in the rest of the world.

As Chris Pearson (2021) mentions in his book “Dogopolis,” which focuses on London, Paris, and New York from the early nineteenth century into the 1930s, dogs roamed freely in the streets of these cities, but were removed, often through very violent means to follow ideas of healthier, safer, and cleaner cities, supposedly leading to increased levels of human well-being. In the colonial era, city authorities launched public health campaigns against unruly animals, often classified as pests, in both metropolitan and colonial cities. In India, while conflict was always present in human-dog interactions on the community level, population-level and systematic efforts to eradicate dogs from the street were wrought by colonial institutions. These efforts often encountered resistance, such as is evidenced by the Bombay dog riots of 1832 (Palsetia 2001), in which plans to destroy “unowned” street dogs were met with fierce opposition by Parsi communities. Yet, similar culling mechanisms became part of the repertoire of institutional tools to deal with free-living dogs in post-independence India until the Animal Birth Control (ABC) rules of 2001 came into effect.

In today’s India, the nationwide ABC rules recognize free-living dogs as rightful inhabitants of the streets of cities and villages, prohibiting not only their culling but also their relocation, which still occurs illegally (Karlekar 2008). Instead, the ABC program is a policy to sterilize dogs, aiming to control their population. This program is the responsibility of urban (or rural) local bodies and includes anti-rabies vaccination, making it both a public health program for humans and also an intervention to manage the presence of unruly animals in the public space. Both dimensions are intertwined in their public contestation: recently, these rules have been legally challenged for their ineffectiveness, with some organizations pushing for stricter regulations against the presence of “off-leash dogs” in the city, as well as institutionalized restrictions on human-dog interactions. For instance, following resident complaints, a 2023 ruling in Mumbai limited feeding street dogs to specific feeding spots.

Contesting colonial legacies

Often at the root of these conflicts are ideas about what cities should look like and how they can be improved and redesigned for the well-being of their human populations. These colonial-capitalist imaginaries are often pursued through the symbolic and material ejection of unruly forms of animal life and urban nature (Zhang 2020). Narrow definitions of the urban “green” ultimately restrict which ideas of health and well-being inform these interventions, usually resulting in exclusionary outcomes for both human and non-human communities. As Pearson (2021, 3) writes, historically, the blame for the need (or failure) of these interventions has often been directed “at the colonized, the poor, people of color, and immigrants for allegedly creating the environments in which vermin thrived, while the authorities and elites overlooked deep social, racial, and economic inequalities.” This can be seen in today’s India too, where basic services such as access to safe water remain more critical public issues than free-living dogs.

Thinking of free-living dogs as both the “green” of the city and the city itself should make us rethink what and who are the natures, ecologies, and multi-species communities that might make (and benefit from) healthier, livable and just cities. Beyond visions of both health and the city that rely on colonial-capitalist constructions and, then removal of ‘unhealthy’ others, we might need a “departure for planning from earlier modes of urban development, by engaging with animals rather than managing them” (Narayanan 2017, 489). This will require imaginaries that go beyond technocratic greening projects that are only justified in terms of the health benefits for specific humans, often conflated to the city itself.

Ultimately, while the focus so far has been to make particular visions of both adjectives, green and healthy, coincide, we might need to make visible the human, socio-ecological, and animal costs of this superimposition. The idea of “the public,” which is constantly contested both in public health (Rock and Blue 2020) and in greening interventions, therefore needs to be further destabilized and expanded. This is especially important if we are to recognize that there is always more than one (human) city, public, and health.

Editor’s note: The article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Kin City” series. The references are listed here. More information about the “Kin City” project: https://berlinergazette.de/kin-city-urban-ecologies-and-internationalism-call-for-papers/

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