In December 1986, an overseas volunteer wrote to Kuensel complaining about the stray dogs problem in the capital, Thimphu. The dogs, she wrote in the “Letter to the editor column” of Kuensel, were a menace even biting school children.
Kuensel published a similar letter this year from a Motithang resident. There is a gap of 32 years between the two letters, but the content is same – almost pleading authorities to do something to address the issue.
Last week, a family buried their pet dog. Hungry stray dogs dug up the pit and ate half the carcass. The family buried the remaining body, covered it with stones and thorns. The stray dug a tunnel and took away the remaining. “It has literally become a dog eat dog world,” says the owner.
Flipping through old Kuensel files, there are several letters from almost all parts of the country expressing the same concern. In an internet and Facebook age, not many people write to the editors, but Kuensel published 12 letters in 2017 alone on stray dog problems. There are also articles on measures the government or authorities took to control the stray dog problem.
What has been missing, judging from the concerns is that a solution had gone missing for a problem identified decades ago.
In the meantime, the stray dog population is increasing. Packs of dogs chase children, joggers, cyclists, campaigners and the weak. They even attack livestock and hunt wildlife. One time in 2017, the Thimphu referral hospital recorded eight-dog bite cases everyday for six months. The hospital recorded 1,484 dog bite cases including from pets. This week, it became 12 a day. Thimphu Thromde estimated 4,800 free roaming dogs in 2016. From the numbers on the streets both in the core area and in the outskirts, the number could have increased manifold. One livestock official estimates the current number to be around 5,000.
The increase, if ascertained with scientific research methods, is not much- it’s 100 dogs a year. Given that dogs are prolific breeders it should be a manageable increase. But what is concerning is that the number is still on the rise despite interventions. We cannot expect immediate impact of mass sterilisation, but after years of sterilisation and neutering and even resorting to killing, the number should have stabilised if not declined.
Battling the stray dog problem has been as painful as the bite. Authorities had tried everything from neutering them to killing them using poisoned meat. There had been court cases when one dzongkhag dumped its stray dogs to another. Some dzongkhags started penalty systems for failing to bring dogs for sterilisation programmes. Those visiting Bhutan too have complained of the roaming and noisy packs in the centre of the town. They have suggested ideas – from building shelters to killing them painlessly with an overdose of anaesthesia.
All these seemed like more than a bite. We have, in some ways, come to terms that this is a problem that will never go away. Every time a news headline talks about increasing number or rising dog bite cases, we hear promises of sterilisation campaigns, but we have not yet had the stamina to maintain a sustained campaign. The logic is straightforward. If we can sterilise all the dogs, the number would decrease over the years. The problem is that it is almost impossible to sterilize all the dogs.
As a Buddhist society, we are against killing. There is a general agreement that killing ferocious or sick strays is the only way to control a further explosion of the stray dog population. This view is sensitive- to the extent that those proposing it are judged as “un-Buddhist”. This is a misplaced compassion, as a tourist said. If the suffering that dogs cause to others continues and dogs are living a hellish life – without food and care and resorting to cannibalism- our spirituality is indeed a misplaced compassion.
Those trying to control the population feel that the same people who are complaining are not helping. Hiding stray dogs in order to escape going under the knife (sterilisation), chasing them when dogcatchers are on their way and feeding stray dogs leftover food is not helping. The campaigns need support. Support here should come from everyone.
“As long as there is food, there will be stray dogs,” says (Dr) Karma Rinzin, the Chief Veterinary Officer with the Department of Livestock. The Chief says the attitude of Bhutanese is not helping authorities deal with the problem. Left on their own, he says, the survival rate of stray puppies are low. “People take care of the stray puppies and abandon them when they grow up and show signs of a stray.”
Dr Karma Rinzin is confident that by 2020 the stray dog population will decrease by 30 percent. This is because his department has come with a long-term strategy. While sustained sterilisation campaign is the most human and sustainable solution, the department is seeking the participation of the community.
Community participation here refers to helping the department by being responsible dog owners and responsible community members. “We need not kill them. We could take ownership by not only feeding but vaccinating and sterilising them,” he says. The department will continue sterilisation and monitoring them. A new strategy is to promote “One-health approach” where they recognise the importance of all stakeholders in controlling the stray population in Bhutan.
Soon it will be dog’s romance season. Litters that will grow into ferocious territorial stray dogs will follow the season. While the authorities are planning a new strategy, what we could do is help them. Hiding stray dogs or chasing them away when the dogcatchers approach is not helping anyone.
For those who help or pretend to help sick and maimed strays by not letting authorities take appropriate measures, it is a bigger sin. The misplaced compassion could put Bhutan into trouble. The Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals could charge us for cruelty against animal. That would be a big embarrassment for a Buddhist country like ours, especially in a Saga Dawa Month.
Contributed by Ugyen Penjor
The author is the publishing editor with Kuensel