New lease of life for street dogs in Ladakh

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - VIR­GINIA JEAL­OUS

THERE are about 20 tem­po­rary res­i­dents and they greet staff and vis­i­tors alike — that is, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally and with very loud barks.

It sounds as if street dogs in Leh, cap­i­tal of the north In­dian re­gion of Ladakh, ap­pre­ci­ate the chance for a cou­ple of nights’ full board and lodg­ing, al­though such hos­pi­tal­ity does come with a few con­di­tions.

Mem­bers of a small Aus­tralian NGO, Vets Be­yond Bor­ders, spend the north­ern sum­mer here in a clinic where vol­un­teers and four lo­cal staff work on Ladakh’s anti-rabies and dog man­age­ment pro­gram.

It’s not sur­pris­ing, then, that those pro­vi­sos about free ac­com­mo­da­tion in­volve ster­il­i­sa­tion and vac­ci­na­tions.

Syd­neysider Sarah Matthews, whose back­ground is in equine surgery, is pro­gram man­ager and chief vet for this year’s sea­son. She gives me some statis­tics to put the work in con­text — an aver­age of 15 dog-bite vic­tims are treated daily at Leh’s hos­pi­tal and, while rabies is un­com­mon, each bit­ten per­son re­quires a three-jab dose of anti-rabies serum. This adds a sub­stan­tial bur­den to the hos­pi­tal’s very limited re­sources, so a rabies-free and low­breed­ing pop­u­la­tion of street dogs is gen­er­ally re­garded as a good thing.

Vol­un­teers come and go through­out the four-month sea­son. This year one worker is Andy Grafton, Matthews’s part­ner. He’s here for the du­ra­tion though, learn­ing skills well be­yond the pa­ram­e­ters of his reg­u­lar life as a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ist. As Matthews pre­pares for surgery, Grafton out­lines a day in the life of the clinic.

He says a team of three govern­ment dog-catch­ers de­liv­ers, ide­ally, 15 ca­nines each morn­ing.

That should al­low Vets Be­yond Bor- ders to reach its an­nual tar­get of 1000 de­sexed dogs. By the end of last month, the team had al­ready treated more than 500 since Jan­uary.

Then an ef­fi­cient pro­duc­tion line gets down to busi­ness.

The dogs are se­dated by long-time as­sis­tant Tse­wang Spal­gone, who sings a lul­laby to soothe the an­i­mals (it’s known af­fec­tion­ately as ‘‘the Xy­lazine song’’, af­ter the drug he ad­min­is­ters). Each dog is given a rib­bon col­lar, num- bered and colour-coded to show where it came from and to where it will be re­turned , and is then pre­pared for surgery — anaes­thetised, shaved, earnotched for fu­ture iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and so forth. Af­ter­wards, dogs in var­i­ous states of woozi­ness lie on stretch­ers on the floor be­fore head­ing to the re­cov­ery pens. In be­tween, vol­un­teers clean cages and feed and pet the oc­cu­pants, deal with waste mat­ter and as­sess any un­ex­pected ar­rivals.

The nuts and bolts of the work are both sim­i­lar to and dif­fer­ent from Western ve­teri­nary prac­tices.

The surgery is more chal­leng­ing, says Matthews. ‘‘For ex­am­ple, here we spey the girls from the side rather than the cen­tre, to lessen the risk of in­fec­tion from dirt roads. And work­ing in a Bud­dhist cul­ture brings a com­plex set of is­sues to the pos­si­bil­ity of eu­thanas­ing ter­mi­nally sick or in­jured an­i­mals.’’

The small tem­ple is the only dogfree zone in the clinic. A no­tice on its door says: Please don’t use for dogs. Only for Bud­dha.

The ap­proach to the clinic, a few kilo­me­tres out­side Leh, is dra­matic. A steep road winds through a moon­scape of bar­ren slopes, while green po­plar groves and gar­dens line the oc­ca­sional wa­ter­course and snow-topped peaks rise in the dis­tance.

This ex­tra­or­di­nary high-al­ti­tude en­vi­ron­ment is an­other drawcard for vol­un­teers, most of whom spend a min­i­mum of two weeks at the clinic be­fore ex­plor­ing the coun­try.

Some of the ca­nines, how­ever, have be­come per­ma­nent res­i­dents.

De­spite at­tempts to re­lease and even re­lo­cate them, a few just don’t want to go. The most res­o­lute of all, the three-legged sur­vivor of a car ac­ci­dent, reap­peared re­cently af­ter be­ing dropped off about 25km away. She has been named Boomerang.


Sarah Matthews, above; Tse­wang Spal­gone, Andy Grafton and Gary Gor­don with a ‘pa­tient’, left

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