Roaming packs of feral dogs have killed six children in the last week in north India, terrifying villagers who have begun keeping their children home from school and killing any dogs they encounter. At least two dozen more children have been injured.
The killings have occurred in and around the town of town of Sitapur, said senior police officer Anand Kulkarni. Many of the attacks occurred when children were out gathering mangoes or when they left their homes to use outhouse toilets, he said. Many homes in the area lack indoor plumbing.
Twelve children between the ages 5 and 12 have been killed in dog attacks in the area since November, officials say.
It was not clear how many dogs were involved in the attacks, but India has millions of strays that wander the streets in even the most exclusive neighborhoods. The feral dogs often survive on leftover food set in alleys for them, but also face relentless cruelty by people, and regularly fight other dogs over territory. While injuries from dog attacks are fairly common, a string of fatalities in one area is rare.
Some in the area believe the attacks began after a nearby illegal slaughterhouse was closed, making the dogs more aggressive after they were left without a major source of food.
Villagers say the dog packs are terrifying.
Rajendra Kumar, a farmer near Sitapur, said he was working in his fields when a girl came running toward him. "She was shouting 'It killed her!'" said Kumar. "Around two dozen of us ran toward the mango grove with large sticks, iron rods and shovels."
There, he said, they found a half dozen dogs tearing into the corpse of a 7-year-old girl named Gita. She had gone with two other children to pick mangoes, which are coming into season in north India.
Education officials say some schools have seen a significant drop in attendance because of the attacks. Parents have been told to accompany their children to and from school.
The recent deaths included three children killed by a pack of strays on May 1, Kulkarni said. Two more children were killed on May 4. Gita was killed on Friday.
Sitapur magistrate Harshdeo Pandey said villagers have been told not to allow their children to use outhouses on their own.
"Public announcements have been made in villages regarding this," he said. "We also suggest that children should not be allowed to go out to play for a few days, until all these dogs are caught."
Villagers have been shooting and strangling stray dogs, believing they have no choice.
"The administration does not care about the plight of the people," said Sitapur resident Pankaj Singh Gaur.
Four teams of dog-catchers have captured 24 dogs in recent days, said district magistrate Sheetal Verma. But she acknowledged the menace is not over.
Sitapur is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Lucknow, the capital of India's Uttar Pradesh state.