New lease of life for street dogs in Ladakh
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