CANINE CARE – By helping the dogs we are helping the people, says Yangon Animal Shelter
By helping the dogs we are helping the people, says Yangon Animal Shelter
It is hard to avoid the stray dogs on Yangon’s streets. Typically thin and flea ridden, they scavenge for food scraps amidst rubbish and leftovers thrown on the roadsides.
“When I gave them clean water, they refused to drink it. They are used to drinking the sewage,” says Tun Min, a resident from Botataung Township, Yangon. The predicament of the strays is depressing to many dog lovers, including American teacher Terryl Just. But Ms Just was adamant that she needed to do more for her furry friends. When she started out as a foreign teacher in Yangon, she had no idea she would become the founder of Yangon Animal Shelter that currently holds more than 600 stray dogs on around two acres of land.
Ms Just’s compulsion to do something emerged from a heartbreak over the loss of Lucy.Ms Just built a close relationship with a scrawny stray dog she called Lucy through daily encounters to and from work. She fed Lucy and her canine family, got them vaccinated and gave them the love she felt they deserved.
Then suddenly they were gone and she realized they had been poisoned. Since the establishment of the shelter in 2012, Ms Just has worked to save as many Lucys as she can. To run the shelter, Just and her co-workers rely heavily on funding and donations, spending about $7,000 to run the shelter each month. “I worry every month if we will have enough to continue. We are doing the best we can, but we have huge financial issues,” she tells Mizzima. Despite that, Just makes sure all the dogs in the shelter are well treated and protected.
It is dangerous for stray dogs on the streets of Yangon. They live in unhygienic conditions. They get hit by cars and motorcycles. And, as Just knows too well, they can be poisoned. In the streets, the cadaverous canines are covered with marked wounds, scars and stains of dirt. However, people usually choose to keep them out of sight. Car accidents can easily ruin their legs as they cross the bustling roads. They are the innumerable, and yet the invisible at the same time.
“Since it is dangerous outside, we want them to spend their entire lives here,” says Lin Lin, a caretaker at Yangon Animal Shelter. He mentions that it is not usual for the dogs to live healthily and die naturally in the streets - they are either killed, poisoned or they get hit by vehicles. Lin Lin calls every dog by their name and pets them often. When asked about the reason of working at the shelter, he smiles and says: “I have worked here for five years, simply because I really love the dogs.”
“When I gave them clean water, they refused to drink it. They are used to drinking the sewage,” says Tun Min, a resident from Botataung Township, Yangon.
Once visitors enter the shelter, immediately they are welcomed by barks from behind the gates. Even when separated by the bars, all the dogs attempt to get closer to you, sniffing the strangers, with curiosity and wagging tails. At 9 a.m., it is breakfast time. The caretakers open one gate at a time, dividing the dogs into different sessions, so they don’t fight for their morning meal. Whilst one group is enjoying their oatmeal, others get impatient and decide to accompany their buddies’ morning with an orchestra of thunderous yelps, goading them to hurry up.
Every single dog is sterilised at the shelter. During the Mizzima team’s visit, Zaw Ye Naing, the veterinarian of the shelter, who previously worked at Yangon Zoological Gardens, performs an operation of spaying one of the new dogs. There is an injection of anesthesia, then the dog passes out. Similar to human surgeries, the veterinarian completes his work with an assistant and a green medical cloth that covers the body of the patient. The whole process takes around 30 to 45 minutes. The dog is expected to recover around one week after the operation. Zaw comes in twice a week. He, along with the shelter manager and veterinarian assistant, had the opportunity to go to Phuket in Thailand to receive medical training and shelter management techniques, according to Just. Zaw is responsible for vaccinating every dog annually, sterilising and caring for the sick and the injured. He also does injections that clear out the dogs’ fleas and parasites every month for every one of them.
The shelter looks after disabled dogs as well. According to the staff, they were all rescued from traffic accidents. The crippled dogs live in a distinct zone of the shelter. There, instead of having muddy ground, the floor is overlaid with a soft, thin plastic mat. Even the staff take off their shoes when they set foot in the area. Most of the disabled dogs can only use their front legs to move around.
The other special zone is for the puppies. Different from the skinny, underfed ones in the streets, the puppies here yap in all their enthusiasm when a visitor arrives. Instead of begging for food with hungerloaded eyes, they jump around and present you with friendly bites and lots of mischief. All of the puppies were saved from the streets, along with their families. According to Zaw, the most common illness found in the stray dogs in Yangon is canine distemper. The virus is highly contagious and can be spread via the dogs’ blood, urine, saliva, or simply, the air surrounding them. The source of the virus remains unidentifiable till this day. Dogs who are diagnosed with this disease usually cough frequently and suffer from respiratory problems. The serious cases can lead to death. The shelter provides treatment to cure these canines, and also vaccines to increase their resistance.
Even if by accident the ailing dogs who suffer from canine distemper bite people, the illness will not be passed to human beings, according to Zaw. Canine distemper is only transferable among the dog communities.
Whilst the number of rabies cases remains unknown in Yangon now, given the dreadful appearances of the stray dogs, most people immediately relate them to this life-threatening disease when the animals appear to be sick. This in turn imposes a great fear among the public and intensifies the dislike of stray dogs.
Just responds by saying, “I would say that this is why we need a spay/ neuter vaccine campaign and we need the local people to get involved in any way they can. By helping the dogs we are helping the people.”
In Yangon, presently, the total number of stray dogs is unclear. According to The Irrawaddy, there were approximately 200,000 of them in 2016. To control the rapid population growth of the dogs and to reduce the health threats towards Yangon people, the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) has been poisoning the strays for decades, according Guardian report.
The poisoning programme had been suspended though, after some consecutive uproars of protests against it by dog lovers in Yangon, according to The Irrawaddy in July. “Financially at this point we cannot do any expansion. Our hope is that the government will stop poisoning [completely],” says Just when asked about their future plans. She also mentions that it will be ideal if they can coordinate with some of the international organisations that are interested to initiate a spay/neuter vaccine campaign in Yangon. “It is truly the only way to address such a large stray dog population,” she adds. Right outside the shelter, stray dogs are seen everywhere. Little do they know, those big, tall gates keep two worlds apart. But these dogs too deserve to live in a safe place, to have a shelter. So they carry on to prowl and howl, hoping someday they will be heard, and understood.
Volunteers help an injured street dog. Photo: Thet Ko for Mizzima
Dogs receive help. Photos: Thet Ko for Mizzima
Dogs receive help. Photo: Hong Sar for Mizzima