By Barbara Law
She was huddled, shivering, in a corner out of the wind, tiny, beautiful, with a little sharp-nosed face and brindle fur.
It was February, and she had obviously been dropped, abandoned like the rest of her litter in various places around the city.
Bewildered without the warmth of her mother, her fate was to be driven from one place to the next by the fiercely territorial neighborhood dogs, to starve, or to die under the wheels of a car.
I tried to coax her to come to me but she scuttled away, and, afraid she would dart into traffic, I let her be. My landlord wouldn’t allow me to have a dog, and I knew nothing about available animal rescues in Kathmandu.
Thousands of Abandoned Dogs
There are thousands of dogs such as this in Nepal, an estimated 20,000 in Kathmandu alone. Nepali street dogs are smart, resourceful, resilient, street-wise, and, given half a chance, loving and loyal. But many starve, get hit by cars, suffer from mange and other illnesses, and are left untreated, to live out miserable lives and die alone and unloved.
Although there is a Day of the Dog in the Hindu calendar, where dogs are worshiped, most Hindus consider them “jhutto:” dirty. They will at best ignore them—hundreds of students at Kathmandu University walked daily past a family of five dogs so far gone I couldn’t even get them to nibble the treats I always carried.
Poisoning the Neighborhood
At worst, people commit unspeakable acts of violence with butcher knives and boiling water or whatever they have to hand. The government of Nepal routinely poisons whole neighborhoods, or even villages under the pretext of reducing the population or eliminating the dangers of rabies, rather than inoculating and sterilizing.
All is not dark. With the rise of a new middle class, more and more families have dogs for pets. Many feed and interact with the neighborhood dogs, and like my landlord, have been known to take them inside when the government announces it’s going to put out poison meat in a certain area.
Animal Nepal and KAT
Kathmandu has two animal rescue organizations that work mightily to better the lives of countless animals across the country – KAT (Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center) and Animal Nepal. Because I lived in Lalitpur outside Kathmandu proper, my association was strictly with Animal Nepal during the two years I lived there.
My first rescue was a fluke. I stepped off a microbus in 5:00 traffic along Kathmandu’s busiest thoroughfare to see a tiny puppy wandering into the road. Chances of survival? None.
I stiff-armed the bus to a halt as I darted out to scoop him up, then, sorting through the brush by the side of the road, discovered two more, just at the age when puppies begin to leave the nest to explore their surroundings.
Their mother was nowhere to be found, I couldn’t leave them, so I gathered them all up, and, burdened by groceries, a book bag, a computer and three wriggly babies, lugged them the mile home to my apartment.
My landlord Manoj was quite surprised to see three puppies tumbling around in his garden. He called Animal Nepal, we stuffed them into a duffle, and, the bag wedged between us, rode on his motorcycle out into the countryside.
Animal Nepal is an area called Chobar just outside of Kathmandu, at the end of a bumpy pitted track that can’t claim to be a road. A large fenced-in area sits on a hill, with a patio, an L-shaped kennel, and a small building that houses the office and surgery.
A host of puppies rushed to the lip of the patio to greet us and as I released my charges, they swarmed our legs, saying hello. It was the happiest place imaginable.
Founded by a Dutch journalist named Lucia, Animal Nepal takes in strays, maimed or sick animals, treats them, spays them, inoculates them, tries to find homes, and, if a home can’t be found, releases them back to the area they were brought from.
They operate roving spay programs and work to educate owners, particularly the owners of the donkeys that slave under abominable conditions in the brick kilns. Lucia was very peeved that I had not brought in the mother of the puppies and would not rest until we had caught her and transported her to Chobar to be reunited with her babies.
Over the next fifteen months, I became a familiar presence at Chobar. Manoj got used to coming home to find strange dogs in the house. I swept up puppies who were simply cast into an alley to find their own way.
Unwilling to Pay for the Vet
I chased down hairless dogs who had been abandoned by owners unwilling to pay for treatment, driving the noisy, territorial neighborhood dogs off until I could capture them. I kept a vigilant eye out whenever I rode the bus or walked, watching for dogs with mange.
If one was spotted, I would note the cross streets, return later to find the dog, call Animal Nepal to arrange for a pick-up, and a volunteer veterinarian would come on his motorcycle to meet me. If he deemed the animal not needing rescue, we would catch it and he would give it treatment on the spot.
If the animal was very sick, he would truss it up like a chicken, dump it in a bag, whistle for a taxi and I would take the dog to Chobar.
It was a gratifying, satisfying way to spend my spare time in a country where the in-your-face poverty and rampant corruption can lead even the most optimistic to despair. Hari, the young man who worked at Chobar, immediately took one bright, beautiful puppy home himself.
“He is a very smart dog,” he said proudly. In hunting for one dog I had spotted, the vet and I recruited some neighborhood boys who led us through the labyrinthine alleys to an animal that was barely recognizable as a dog, with horrendous sores, a thick mane of fur around his neck and little else. We called him the Lion Dog.
Months later, after he had been released, I went back to find him, and the same boys led me to a shaggy healthy dog that looked nothing like the miserable creature I had transported to Chobar. “Are you sure this is the same dog?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” they clamored. “See? He knows you. He loves you.” Sure enough. The dog walked up and thrust his face into my lap. He followed me all the way back to my bus.
Not all endings were happy. I came upon a puppy so sick she couldn’t get up. I gathered her in a towel, whispered to her in the taxi, and held her tight, but she died shortly after we reached the shelter. I found another starving and had to leave her because I was escorting a party through a temple. Torrential rains prevented me from returning, and although I looked for several days and recruited the local boys, I never found her.
But the success stories outweighed the sad ones and I had to be content with saving the ones I could.
And people noticed. As I was carrying just one more nearly hairless puppy home, a man fell in step beside me. “I’ve seen you before,” he said. “Most Nepalis don’t care about dogs, but they watch you. It is a very good thing that you do. Thank you.”
So perhaps my example lingered in people’s minds long after my contract was up and I had gone.
As for the puppy? A few days later I saw her following a child through a gate, ears up, tail wagging.
Raksi the Pup
I named her Raksi after the potent local rice whiskey, lavished affection on her. She knew her name, knew the sound of my voice, would come joyously romping up to me, playfully nipping, draping herself across my lap when I sat down to feed her. The neighborhood people were very fond of her, and when she had puppies, she built a little shelter to keep them out of the rain.
I tried to find ways to bring her back to America with me, arranged for her shots and neutering, but circumstances made it impossible. The last time I saw her she was lying under the vegetable cart she called home, curled up with one of her daughters. “She’s all right,” I thought to myself. She was happy and contented.
And so much more lucky than most dogs in Nepal. Thank goodness for KAT and Animal Nepal.
Barbara Law has been a teacher her entire career. She has a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from Michigan State University. She’s published four books with the U.S. Department of State. She recently returned from a two-year assignment training teachers in Nepal as an English Language Fellow, her second overseas tour after a year in Syria. She lives in Michigan.