Hands down, I am a card-carrying cat lover. Everyone who knows me will attest to this. When it comes to dogs, however, my feelings are mixed. It is certainly nice to be loved by a dog, but they also require a lot more attention than a cat. Being the independent sort of gal that I am, the idea of having to walk a dog every day gives me pause. Especially when I compare it to the ease of leaving a litter box hidden away for my cat to use in her own time and in her own way. But the fact is, I love all animals, cats and dogs alike. I even like insects. I’m the first to rescue an earthworm washed onto the sidewalk after a rain storm. I rescue crickets that mistakenly enter my house. Snakes, mice, geckos, you name it, I’ll rescue it if I come across it where it isn’t meant to be.
Whenever I see a critter in distress, and I can help it, I will. Not only do I rescue them, but I consider them all to be sentient, with feelings and the capacity to feel pain or joy. Add to this the understanding that we all return to this earth lifetime after lifetime, and incarnate as animals in some of those lifetimes, and I have all the ingredients to stir up a pot of emotional distress if I find myself in the presence of animal suffering of any type. It could be me one day! I could be someone who I have known and loved, returned for an animal lifetime! So it was with some trepidation that I came to Kathmandu after reading about the 26,000 stray dogs that inhabit its streets. Nepal is, apparently, one of a few Asian countries without what animal rights people consider to be good animal welfare legislation.
On any given day, when I leave my apartment, I see dogs. Some look to be in pretty good shape so someone must be feeding some of them. When I was at the university where I will be teaching for the first time, I sighted a mama dog with her three full-grown puppies at the top of a flight of stairs. They looked to be in good condition but, if so, where were they getting their food? Some are clearly in need of medical care, others appear to be simply waiting to die. Watching one sadly look through a box of old vegetable cuttings that had been left out on the street was heartbreaking. There and then I knew I had to do something. But what?
I feel helpless to do anything for homeless dogs of Kathmandu as a group. There are several organizations that are working to help them, but each of them, when I contacted them, didn’t have much help to offer except tonight one man, Abhi, called me from Sneha’s and offered to help me with any sick dog that I might come across. You call me if you find one. Yay! He also invited me to visit their shelter. I started exploring the possibility of taking some home with me when I leave, but where to keep them and get them healthy if I did this. And none of my brilliant ideas changed the reality that I am allergic to dogs.
When I look at the size of the city, and consider the staggering number of strays that are living in it, I am overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of the task. But I can not keep walking by them and do nothing. So, I bought a bag of dog food and a big (too big actually, but it was all the store had) green plastic bowl into which I can pour the food and water that I now carry with me when I go out. Not only do I believe that animals should be fed, housed, and loved, I believe that they should do all these things in style.
On the one hand, I am wondering if people in my neighborhood will think I am nuts. On the other hand, my Nepali colleague who took me to the supermarket and waited while I selected my purchases did not bat an eyelash when I bought dog food and a bowl. I could have been picking up trash bags or laundry detergent. Certainly, the shopkeeper in front of where I found the first dog to feed helped me out and brought me water since I had forgotten to bring it. No one seemed to care when I whipped out my green bowl and poured food into it. The dog appeared to be old and was missing most of his hair, due to mange I believe. He had a hard time getting interested in the food but he did finally eat and then drink. I subsequently found out that I can get free meds for mange from one of the rescue organizations, or buy it from a vet, and put it in the food that I feed to dogs with mange, but I haven’t seen that poor boy again. I wonder if he died. At least, if I see him again, I now have someone to call — Abhi.
Of course, I heard a different story tonight from what the organizations working with the dogs have to say about the situation. I was told that many of the strays actually have houses where they go at night to act as guard dogs. Certainly, this my be true for some. It wold explain why some appear to be in quite good health, even “fat and sassy”. It is probably true the ones that I see marching jauntily along the side walks with their tails raised high as if they are fulfilling some unseen purpose the way that happy dogs do. I would not be surprised to find these at their appointed post in the evening. But not the ones who look ill and sleep curled in little balls on stone steps or curb edges. Who looks after them? Who chooses who has a home and who is left to fend for themselves? I am sure that the truth about the stray dogs of Kathmandu is more complex than I can imagine.
What I do wonder now though is whether I need to adjust my understanding of the concept of “stray”. In the U.S., dogs who are pets are, more often then not, treated as members of human family, sometimes they are more spoiled than our children. They are given names, collars, toys, special food dishes, beds, leashes, and are lovingly tucked into handbags or, when too big, crates, so that they can travel the globe with their owners. We take photos of them and frame them. We give them individual cremations when they die, and we mourn them as a lost part of ourselves.
My guess is that in Nepal dogs are rarely, if ever, treated as members of a family. And why should they be? This is not an unreasonable question. They are not people. Perhaps the line between human and animal has not blurred here the way it has in the U.S. Dogs remain animals at all times. Some have a regular person, or persons, who feeds them; some do not. The ones that do not are the ones who need our help. But for the others? Well, it may simply be the case that the people who feed dogs here are not as attached to their animals as we are. They do not confuse them with humanity. They are, in a sense, like a tree or a plant in the garden which they will feed and water but which they would never think to bring into their bedrooms or hold in loving arms or, heaven forbid, carry in a handbag on an airplane. Why not? Because these activities are perhaps, for the Nepali, uniquely human.
If this is true, then the 26,000 stray dogs of Kathmandu are not all equally “strayed”. Some are truly homeless, some are not. And being fed is no guarantee of medical care when needed. That is, some of the ones who are ill may have guarded someone’s house at one time, but when they fell ill, and could no longer fulfill their guard dogly duties, they were left to fend for themselves. Left at a time when they were most vulnerable. The dogs of Kathmandu are not part of a human family, none have been given names. None has a guaranteed forever home, but many do have places to go to at night, and when they are hungry or thirsty. I suspect that as long as I look at all the dogs of Kathmandu from the vantage of an American definition of what it means to have a pet dog, I will remain distressed. But if I can begin to distinguish the ones who are in need of help from the ones who are living their fully dog lives as dogs, rather than extensions of a human family, then I might come to have a different experience of the dogs of Kathmandu.
Certainly, the way in which the dogs are integrated seamlessly into the urban landscape attests to the fact that they somehow “belong” here. That is, they are not unseen. They are not “stray” in the sense that they are invisible. This is obvious when one watches what happens when they stand or sleep in the street, with cars and motorcycles flying past them at breath-taking speeds. Nothing. No one honks at them and expects them to move. No one curses them. And no one runs them down, although I am sure that this happens occasionally but, when it does, it is by accident, no different from when a bird is killed when it accidently flies into the windshield of a passing car on the freeways in the United States. Instead, drivers drive around them, cars and motorcycles alike. Like a parked car, or a pedestrian, they are just another obstacle to avoid, they are not something out-of-place. They are part and parcel of this living urban landscape. They belong to it. They are born of it, and they live in it. They themselves appear oblivious to cars, one might say that they are fearless. Certainly they are less agitated by the traffic than I am. If it were not for the fact that I humanize them, the situation might not even strike me as remarkable. In fact, a foreign service officer from the embassy who has lived in other large cities around the world remarked to me yesterday that, by comparison, the dogs of Kathmandu are overall, in better shape than the dogs found in other large cities. All I could think was I hope I don’t ever go to any of those!
I don’t know if I will ever be able to escape seeing the world of animals the way that I do, this way that causes me to suffer in the presence of animals who are not being treated as I believe they should be. I don’t know that I want to. But I do know that the feelings that I have whenever I see a dog in the street are of my own making, a reflection not of some absolute objective truth, but rather a spontaneous outpouring of sentiment that arise from my uniquely personal perceptions of the world and those who inhabit it with me. I shall continue to be who I am – I don’t seem to have any choice about this. I will carry food and water and a nice plastic bowl in which to serve it. I will call Abhi if I find someone who is in need of medical care. At the same time, I will cling to the recognition that I am the maker of my reality so that I do not to diminish the world in which I live by thinking less of people who do not share my peculiar perspective on sentient life and our collective responsibility to alleviate suffering whenever we can and for as long as we ourselves shall live. As I write this, I realize that my feelings about the dogs of Kathmandu are but a in-real-time reflection of the sentiments expressed in the Bodhisattva vow which I took in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1998, and which I still recite to myself on a regular basis. Dogs are, after all, sentient beings.
With a wish to free all beings, I shall always go for refuge to the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha until I reach spiritual enlightenment. Infused by wisdom and compassion, today in the Buddha’s presence , I generate the mind for full awakening. As long as space remains, as long as sentient beings remain, I too shall remain to dispel the miseries of the world.