Dogged Evolution (The Indian Quarterly, Winter 2012)

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He has few friends. His alliances with human street dwellers are as informal and precarious as those of the first proto-dogs who guarded campfires in return for food. But for all his drab familiarity amid the untidiness of the urban landscape, the Indian street dog may be the subcontinent’s most under-appreciated zoological treasure.

For the Indian street mutt is a Darwinian super-dog. The product of a harsh evolutionary process, which has many ways of eliminating the slow, weak or stupid, he represents a demonstrably superior strain of canis lupus familiaris. Not only are street dogs better adapted to India’s climates than most of the breeds fashionable as pets, they tend to be cleverer, tougher, more resilient and remarkably handsome.

They make crossings of busy six-lane highways – a feat that a human child would be unlikely to survive, and which challenges even human adults.

In the heat of summer, street dogs and water. They somehow finnd food, which, though it would kill a purebred, sustains them through their endless struggle for territory and survival.

Despite genetic hard-wiring that makes these dogs instinctively trusting of human beings – a disadvantageous trait in societies where canine friendliness is often met with stones or kicks – those that survive are able to distinguish between the hostile, the neutral and the friendly. And they can somehow tell the difference at a distance. After all, who hasn’t seen a dog that lives next to a busy chai stand suddenly get up and bark furiously at a particular individual?

Their origins are a mystery and a matter for debate. Many street dogs are clearly recently descended from well-established breeds like hounds, rather than from the indigenous Indian wild dog or the “pariah” dog. Some experts believe that many Indian street dogs had ancestors who belonged to the departing British and who became homeless after they left (the servants entrusted with their welfare having cast them into the streets). Over time, like all purebreds who mix randomly, they produce offspring who revert to a generic size, shape and colouring.

But whatever their origins, they represent yet another remarkable Indian triumph over adverse conditions, and an addition to the world’s dog breeds that ought to be celebrated, preserved and perhaps even exported.