Thursday, June 6, 2013

Gone to the Dogs

Pema and the shelter caretaker, "Uncle"

Last weekend, my friend Pema and I took a walk down the valley from RTC into Ngabiphu, the scattered village below the college. She was taking me to the dog shelter to spend some time with the animals and just see what was what. Pema is doing her capstone project on the treatment of stray dogs in Thimphu and on RTC campus. The dogs are a big "problem" in the eyes of the administration and the staff of the mess (dining hall). There are a dozen or so dogs that live pretty full-time on campus, in various states of health, but who are generally regarded as pests. The dogs of RTC are consistently well behaved and friendly compared to the packs of dogs that roam Thimphu-town, many of whom are very fierce looking. I actively avoid the dogs in town, but have befriended many of the campus dogs. My favorites are Roger, a mange-y tawny-colored old boy in sore need of attention, and a tiny black and white half-blind but eager and affectionate girl named Henry. 

looking down at part of Ngabiphu
We are instructed not to feed the dogs on campus, partly because they have the status of rats, but partly out of the more compassionate view that, like bears at campsites, they become dependent on the humans and have nothing to eat when school is not in session. This compassion aside however, I've been pretty surprised by people's behavior toward these animals. The most common reactions are annoyance or disgust, but aggression is pretty common too. My friend Ana actually saw one of the mess workers kick a dog in the head, completely unprovoked. 

These kinds of incidents are a big part of Pema's research. She is a big animal right's activist, and tells me she is motivated by her views that animals experience feelings and pain just like humans do. This stems from Buddhism, and the respect and empathy extended to animals because of their position in the wheel of life as sentient beings. She explained to me that even the tiniest fly tries to get away from you if you swat at it because it is afraid that you will hurt or kill it. Animals, she says, may not express pain the same we do, but they do experience it, and we should do our best to help them, or at least not harm them. It is the Hippocratic Oath of kindness.

dog shanties

One positive part of RTC's relationship with the strays is that much of the leftover food from the mess is sent down the road to the shelter that Pema and I visited. This shelter is right above the road I walk on my way to  my internship at the National Biodiversity Center. It is divided into two sections, one of which is owned by the city, and the other which is owned privately by a Lama, who is currently abroad in India. In the meantime, the caretaker whom Pema and I called "Uncle," is in charge of the facilities. Over 100 dogs live at this shelter, and most were very friendly. Like the dogs on campus, many were partially blind, or had injured legs, or patchy fur. Many of the injuries come from car collisions, especially among the dogs rescued from the city. The shelter is mostly composed of small shanty-like buildings where the dogs stay, as well as a few larger buildings and a small clinic. Many of the dogs have been spayed or neutered, and they are marked by either a clipped right ear, or a number tattooed inside an ear. 

Nado shaking his ears
The shelter also has a pen to the side of the complex which houses four pigs. These muddy, fly-covered, big-eared pigs had incredibly expressive faces. In Bhutan, raising pigs can be pretty controversial, because they are not raised for any other purpose than their meat. This is a big conflict among many Buddhist Bhutanese, even though eating meat is largely acceptable, it seems better in their eyes to raise livestock who have a purpose in life (cows and sheep for milk, cheese, etc; chickens for eggs) aside from becoming dinner. Additionally, while it is typically seen as ok to consume meat, it isn't seen as ok to do the killing of the animal oneself. The traditional method of slaughtering pigs is really brutal too--the pigs are essentially beaten to death. I was happy to see these pigs alive and snorting pleasantly. The biggest of the four, named Nado, was particularly lively. I oinked and snorted with him, which made Pema laugh. "You can't speak Dzongkha, but you can speak Pig!"

friendly dogs at the shelter,
the black and white one is named Meto (flower)
I had a lot of fun playing with the dogs at the shelter, and I think this was especially good for me because I had been having a difficult time working up the courage to walk past the farm below the dog shelter on my way to and from work. Playing with these dogs and the campus dogs reminded me of how much kindness and joy exists in people and beasts (if those two things are separate categories). The road I take to work goes between the farm and the shelter, and while most of the dogs are confined by the fences of the shelter, there are a few that hang out regularly on the road, including a big black and brown blood-hound mix who lives on the farm. Oftentimes, on my way to work the dogs would bark at me as I went by, or settle with giving me the stink-eye if the farmer was nearby. But a few weeks ago, I was coming back to school and it was just me and the dogs on the road.

The blood-hound and one of the bigger long-haired shelter dogs began barking fiercely and followed me along the road, barking and snapping at my heels. I was afraid to run or pick up a rock to throw at them (as I"d been instructed to do in such a scenario) in case this would make them more aggressive. So I hollered at them and tried to hurry away until I was past the farm gate, but before I could escape, one of them did bite me. Luckily, it got a mouthful of pants, and didn't break my skin, and when I was able to shake him off, I got past the gate a moment later and was able to get away, adrenaline pumping and swearing worse than a sailor.

Since that day, it's often taken a self-pep talk to walk past the farm, and I've taken up the habit of either carrying a stick or rocks, just in case. I hadn't had to use them until yesterday, when again on a return walk these same two dogs came after me. This time I decided to stand my ground and face down these spawn of Cerberus instead of trying to get away as quickly as possible. I held up my rocks and did my best to shout over their low bellowing barks. The same culprit as last time came closer to me and I stomped forward toward him, rock held high and ready to be launched. And the coward stood down. The tag-team kept on barking, but I stared them down and with a few more threats of a rock to the head and assertions that I wasn't afraid (even though I was), they backed off, and I walked off, this time swearing in triumph rather than anger.

When I have gone to the meditation session held on campus, Lama Shenphen has discussed how quickly emotions pass through us and fade away. While I cannot get behind this sentiment completely, these scary encounters with the dogs on the road have reinforced this lesson that negative emotions really can be fleeting. The day that I was bit was also the first day that I found ripe wild strawberries in the woods. With a mouthful of tart, juicy, hand-picked strawberries, you really can't stay mad.

feeding time at the shelter, a joyful time

Your charo (friend),

P.S. Here's a random sheep that was hanging outside the Herbarium last week. This is life in Bhutan. There will be random sheep.
Sheep have freaky eyes. Rectangular pupils give me the willies. (Woolies? Hah.)

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