Sav­ing Dogs In Bhutan, An In­no­va­tive Ap­proach

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Twig Mowatt

Na­tion­wide spay/neuter project adds to Bhutan’s ca­nine Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness.

Walk along the ter­raced rice fields of Pana, hike the switch­backs to the 17th-cen­tury Cheri Monastery in Thim­phu or ex­plore the back al­leys of Paro and you see the same thing: dogs. In Bhutan, they are ev­ery­where. Some nap soundly dur­ing the day, conked out on me­dian strips and side­walks and in the cen­ters of traf­fic round­abouts, obliv­i­ous to the peo­ple and ve­hi­cles swirling around them. Oth­ers seem to have busy sched­ules, head­ing up to the monastery for the morn­ing, then cruis­ing back down to meet friends in the park­ing lot and head off on af­ter­noon ad­ven­tures. Near tem­ples and tourist sites, they fol­low vis­i­tors in hopes of hand­outs, or seek shade un­der parked cars.

Look a lit­tle closer and you’ll no­tice some­thing un­usual: most of them— in fact, about 75,000 of the coun­try’s es­ti­mated 100,000 dogs—have a tri­an­gu­lar notch in their left ear. This dis­tinc­tive mark iden­ti­fies the dog as hav­ing been spayed or neutered as well as vac­ci­nated against rabies. It also rep­re­sents a huge mile­stone in the world of an­i­mal wel­fare.

Strad­dling the Hi­malayas, tiny Bhutan is perched be­tween China to the north and In­dia to the south. It may be best known for its Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness in­dex, in which Bud­dhist cul­tural and spir­i­tual val­ues are ap­plied to so­cioe­co­nomic de­vel­op­ment. The fact that th­ese Bud­dhist val­ues ex­tend to all sen­tient be­ings is one rea­son Bhutan is now seven years into the world’s first—and ar­guably, most suc­cess­ful—na­tion­wide spay-and-neuter ef­fort, the re­ver­ber­a­tions of which are al­most cer­tain to be felt well out­side its bor­ders.

In part­ner­ship with Hu­mane So­ci­ety In­ter­na­tional (HSI), Bhutan has now ster­il­ized about 75 per­cent of its to­tal es­ti­mated ca­nine pop­u­la­tion, hit­ting the crit­i­cal tip­ping point at which most an­i­mal wel­fare ex­perts be­lieve a pop­u­la­tion sta­bi­lizes (mean­ing that growth stops and over­all num­bers de­cline). Main­tain­ing that per­cent­age will re­quire about 3,200 ster­il­iza­tions per year. The Bhutanese team, which now con­sists of highly ex­pe­ri­enced vets, vet techs, ad­min­is­tra­tors and dog­catch­ers, in­tends to do that and more—to reach be­tween 10,000 and 12,000 dogs per year and achieve its dream of both re­duc­ing the dog pop­u­la­tion and im­prov­ing its over­all health.

“Be­cause the Bhutanese gov­ern­ment was so wel­com­ing and so sup­port­ive, we had a huge op­por­tu­nity to tackle [ca­nine pop­u­la­tion man­age­ment] on a scale that was re­ally un­prece­dented,” says Kelly O’Meara, di­rec­tor of HSI’s com­pan­ion an­i­mals and en­gage­ment depart­ment. “Now we have this gold stan­dard model for a pro­gram cov­er­ing an en­tire na­tion that we can use as an ex­am­ple for other gov­ern­ments who are look­ing for a real solution to their dog over­pop­u­la­tion prob­lems.” Com­mu­nity Dogs Dogs in Bhutan aren’t typ­i­cally owned, as we de­fine it in the United States. But they aren’t re­ally strays ei­ther. Al­though most house­holds have dogs in the yard, th­ese an­i­mals don’t go in­doors, wear col­lars or chew on squeaky toys. Fur­ther­more, Bhutan does not have dog breed- ers; the few pure­breds in ev­i­dence likely come from In­dia, Thai­land or Nepal.

The ma­jor­ity are “com­mu­nity dogs,” mean­ing that they hang out in a spe­cific lo­cale—a city block, on the grounds of a ho­tel, at a tem­ple or bus sta­tion—and the peo­ple who live and work in that area feed them, in ac­cor­dance with Bud­dhist prac­tices. The Junc­tion Book­store in the cap­i­tal city of Thim­phu, for in­stance, promi­nently dis­plays a change jar on the counter to col­lect money to feed the eight dogs in its im­me­di­ate area, all of whom have notched ears. Most com­mu­nity dogs are a healthy weight and rea­son­ably well so­cial­ized, but that doesn’t mean they have easy lives. Among other things, al­most no one takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for them if they’re in­jured or ill. (See the side­bar for an in­spir­ing ex­cep­tion.)

Prior to 2009, Bhutan’s dog pop­u­la­tion was ex­plod­ing. Over­all economic de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing a pro­lif­er­a­tion of meat mar­kets, had re­sulted in new sources of food scraps and garbage. Fe­males were hav­ing mul­ti­ple lit­ters, and their pup­pies were wan­der­ing into traf­fic, with pre­dictable re­sults. The sight of so many dead pup­pies along the road­ways up­set both the lo­cals and vis­i­tors flood­ing the coun­try as a re­sult of its push to ex­pand tourism. Tourists were also com­plain­ing that they couldn’t sleep be­cause of in­ces­sant night­time bark­ing; some tour groups and guides even sug­gested that their clients bring earplugs. t(

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