The severe impact of garbage on man and environment is talked about quite often, but its far more lethal brunt on animals almost always misses the headlines.
Rag pickers (and even migrant children) can be seen scrounging in the garbage heap for some valuable piece of scrap. But for stray dogs, cattle and wildlife there are mostly toxic and painfully sharp pickings, which leave a trail of unreported cases of pain, injuries and deaths.
"Animals, especially cows, ingest the plastic and develop complications, which finally result in their death," says Gustavo Pinto, a veterinary surgeon. The vets from six animal husbandry hospitals and around 12 dispensaries in rural areas usually carry out postmortems on site only if cattle deaths have medico-legal implications to settle compensation claims. Otherwise, there are no figures of the number of animals dying from plastic and toxic waste. "A lot of cases go unreported," says Pinto.
Very few cases are reported to private units. "We get one case of an injured dog or cow every week," says Astrid Almeida, veterinary director of the Assagao-based International Animal Rescue (IAR). Postmortems are usually not done here. But when they do conduct some surgeries on animals, it is often a shocking revelation for the animal rescuers. "Even an apparently healthy cow could be having a rumen half-filled with plastic," says Almeida. The IAR vets once found one-and-half-bucket full of plastic in a cow's rumen.
The rumen is one of the four compartments of the cattle's digestive system, explains P K Naik, animal nutritionist at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Old Goa. "The feed enters from the reticulum to the rumen, omasum and finally the abomasum (true stomach). But when the plastic in the reticulum blocks the feed from entering the rumen, suffocation occurs and the animal dies."
1,000 years of torture
Plastic being non-biodegradable can remain intact in the environment for 1,000 years. "Cows and other cattle are not selective eaters. The often swallow food with plastic," says Almeida.
Once plastic enters their entrails, it can neither be digested nor vomited. "It must be really painful for the cattle and animals, as once the plastic is ingested there is no technique to remove it," says Amrut Singh, an animal rescuer.
Animal rescuers are often distressed to see animals feeding on garbage sustain agonizing injuries-a dog with its head trapped in a jar of biscuits, obviously while trying to retrieve the contents; a cow with a hoof stuck in a tin of food. The dog had no access to food and water till the obstruction was removed by IAR vets. The cow had maggots due to the infection on its limb.
Cattle also tend to ingest sharp objects like needles while consuming food. This can pass through their rumen into the diaphragm and can infect the pericardium, the layer around the heart. Often animal rescuers treat animals with pins stuck in their jaws.
An unchecked cruelty
"Plastic and other toxic garbage poses a serious problem for cattle and other animals," says Pinto. Almeida agrees, "There may be lot of such cases where animals must be dying without any help reaching them or their deaths may not get reported."
A few years ago, around 40 cattle heads had been rounded up after a drive to impound stray animals. When they were taken to a cow shelter at Usgao, all of them died within a few days. "Postmortems revealed they had ingested lots of plastic," a source told TOI.
The animal rescuers are not sure how many wild animals may be suffering from toxic waste. "They may be rummaging in the garbage in areas near forests as a lot of toxic waste and sharp objects, such as glass bottles, blades and pins, are often flung around bins," says a garbage manager.
Strays & their 'food source'
It is being noticed that stray animals are now surviving on food in waste. "When we started door-to-door collection in Penha de Franca, around 30 stray dogs would surround the labourer collecting the waste, as they were being deprived of their food," a source said.
Stray animals are also being forced to consume unnatural food. The shrinking of grazing grounds has left the cattle stranded around garbage heaps. Many of them can be seen ambling towards dumps at night.
A garbage researcher, Pradip Sarmokadam, suggests that the setting up of cow or animal shelters near garbage treatment units can have many spin-offs. People offering food to animals as part of religious rituals can drop the food at these shelters.
"Waste in the form of green material and food wastes duly tested to check for contamination can be easily passed on to these animals," Sarmokadam says. "This can reduce the quantum of waste to be processed and contain the menace of stray animals too," he concludes. [TOI]