The cool night air whispers against my cheek as I sit in the dark with her, listening to her breathe. Tucked away in the corner of a dusty store front, I watch the night, and listen to the sounds that surround her every night as she sleeps in her new found place of safety and love. I hear the voices of people as they walk by just a few feet away without seeing us in the darkness as the barking of dogs pierce the air. Motorcycles and cars pass by on the road, along with a few street dogs doing their rounds. None of them pay us any mind. Streetlights spread a gentle light across the street and the temple yard across from us while the night wraps us in arms of anonymity and the frenetic energy of the day drifts off into the blackened sky where only one or two stars are bright enough to penetrate the haze that is still there, invisible to the eye in the darkness.
She showed up in our neighborhood a few weeks ago, emaciated with dangling teats but no puppies. I couldn’t imagine that any had survived. Instead of the usual brown of this particular street dog breed, her eyes are amber in color, the same color that her fur would have been had it not been consumed by mange. Instead of floppy ears, she has funny large pointed ears that stick out from the side of her head, their size hinting that perhaps, had she been properly nourished, she would have been a bigger dog. She is not a dog that people would consider attractive, but she is endearing all the same, perhaps because of her spirit against all odds.
I look at Lakshmi’s* rich caramel coat and wonder what this dog would have looked like had someone taken care of her. The bare wrinkled skin of her neck attests to the fact that she has been struggling with mange for a long time and her oversized chest in relation to her abdomen confirmed her malnutrition. Some of her toes are in bad shape as well. But she hasn’t given up. She jogs along the sidewalk in the morning, her thin naked tail dancing on high as she travels. Were it not for her appearance, one would not think that she has a care in the world.
My heart ached when I first saw her; I could not take in another. Each day I looked for her and, much to my amazement and delight, the shopkeeper couple who own the tiny stationary store where I can not get paper clips but was able to purchase a pair of dusty badminton rackets began feeding her. Beat-up plastic containers of rice and water became a regular occurrence on the porch of the shop and she had clearly set up house there. Apart from periodic forays out and about in the neighborhood, she was always to be found on the shop porch. They were feeding her biscuits and rice from what I could see. Many people feed stray dogs biscuits, an odd choice given their relative lack of nutritional value but I don’t think most people who feed the street dogs consider canine nutrition when they choose the foods that they put out.
The food was followed by a small square of cardboard upon which she would curl up to sleep each night. Then a thin dusty blanket appeared, and in the morning she would be completely tucked underneath; someone had obviously covered her as she slept. An old dark green army jacket of some sort joined her meager household. Finally, she was prancing around in a blue tunic which someone had made for her from an old shirt, cut down and sewed along the sides to fit her thin frame. She was loved. She became the official greeter at the stationary shop where, each morning, a coffee table holding the day’s newspapers and two chairs would appear next to her bed in the corner of the porch. Either the man or the woman shopkeeper was always there with her all day; she had a home and companions. That did not, however, change her health situation; I also believed that she would never survive another pregnancy, assuming she was still fertile. It was hard to know how old she was.
It was time for me to do what I could do. I called my vet and arranged for him to come and explain in Nepali that I wanted to pay to have her spayed and treated for mange, worms, fleas, and anything else hanging about if they were going to continue to give her a home. The couple seemed grateful and, once she had returned, proudly brandishing her own (used) collar, I promised to bring meat for her to eat to build up her strength. They do not seem to mind my assistance; everyone agrees that she needs meat to regain her strength and it is clear that I am the only one who can afford to give meat to a dog. Plus, it is very possible that they are vegetarian. Each day, I mix up a huge batch of ground chicken, chopped liver, high grade puppy food, and rice for her and my pups to eat. I deliver food to her three times a day, the last meal late in the evening, which is when I like to sit in the quiet of the night and rub her ears and tell her how beautiful she is. I have named her Shakti, after the primordial female cosmic energy that moves through our universe, although I don’t know if anyone will ever call her this except for me and her vet.
In the beginning she ate as any starving animal eats, consuming the food so quickly and eating so much that she would vomit. So we began to divide the food that I brought into smaller servings, now she is able to eat more at a time but I still bring enough for several small servings during the day on my morning run, and the same in the late afternoon. She still eats as if she hasn’t seen food in a long time, but seems a little less hysterical about it. Of course, Shiva doesn’t like her, any more than he likes other dogs he sees walking around freely in areas which he considers to be his domain. Lakshmi isn’t quite sure what to make of her because of Shiva’s angst. On her own, I suspect the two ladies might have become friends. So I go out to drop off her food when my dogs are practicing staying in their travel crates or are tied to the old broken swing set in the park across the street from the shop or are finally settled down for the night in the bedroom.
Yesterday, a young man and woman stopped and thanked me for taking care of her. They had “heard” via the neighborhood grapevine, I presume, that I was helping. They said that they work at the restaurant next door and feed her and that they even took her to a vet once to be treated for worms. It would seem that this little lady has touched many hearts in this neighborhood. I told them that I would help until the end of June but that I hoped they would start feeding her again then.
Of course, whenever the vet comes to do her injections for mange, neighbors collect around us to see what is going on. She was giving a fancy orange bandage on her foot today, for one of her toes wasn’t healing properly, and now she is prancing around the neighborhood with one orange foot. I get more and more kind looks from the locals when they walk by and see me with her each day.
A few days ago, a young woman stopped dead in her tracks when she saw me arranging freshly laundered blankets and a used (I don’t want to flaunt my relative wealth, so she gets cast offs from my dogs) door mat with bright blue fish swimming across it while Shakti was out doing her rounds. She asked why I was staying on the step in front of the closed shop. I explained that the space was arranged for a dog, not for me and she gasped in relief… I thought maybe you were in trouble, she said. I was touched beyond words.
Shakti is clearly getting stronger, and I love seeing her sitting out in front of the shop, head held high, ears on full alert, paws out in front as if she is the queen of the neighborhood which, in some ways, she now is, given the amount of love and attention being showered upon her.
Today, an American woman came up to me in the park as I sat with my two dogs and said, Oh, I can see you are another dog lover and I saw you sitting and petting that poor dog the other day and just knew I had to talk to you. She and her husband had lived in my apartment building for a year in the past, and are just in town for a couple of weeks, returning to their old neighborhood. She explained how she hated seeing all the dogs when she lived there and how she would carry food to give them wherever she went. I even tried to warm the food for them, I didn’t want to keep giving them cold food, she said, and I knew I had met a woman after my own heart. In another time and space, we would have undoubtedly become friends. Her name is Sandra.
I explained that I was not, in fact, a “dog person”, that my life until now had been devoted to feral cat rescue, and that it was because of the situation with the dogs that I knew I could not remain a resident in the city beyond this year. Like me, Sandra said that she had to close her eyes because she could not tolerate the pain she would feel seeing dogs in need; I told her that I had long ago taken to “napping” whenever I am in a taxi driving through the city.
Sandra turned out to be the mysterious stranger who had brought Shakti small hot dogs wrapped in bread from the nearby bakery that the man in the shop had excitedly showed me a couple of days earlier. Married live your building, he had told me but the only married couple had denied giving her anything. He remembered them from the past, I assume.
Today, Sandra had, in her hand, a small bag of pieces of cheese rind for Shakti who had discovered us talking in the park and was hopefully sniffing about, oblivious to Shiva’s hysterical barking. She clearly knows who her friends are when it comes to getting food and little will deter her from letting us know how much she appreciates our presence in her life. In the end, we parted, she left with Shakti in tow to go to the bakery and so she could lure her back to the shop with a new bag of breaded hot dogs while I calmed my hysterical pup. I am sure we will meet again, she said as she turned to walk away and I sank into the pleasure of having met a kindred soul in my obsession with the street dogs of Kathmandu.
Tonight, as I sit in the darkness tonight, hidden from the world passing by in front of me, I am filled with a feeling of contentment with my life in this city that has challenged me in so many ways. Now, instead of having only the experience the sight of unattended or ill-treated dogs, I bear witness to the kindness of strangers who choose to look after the ones that they can in whatever way that they are able. The generosity and kind-heartedness of people touch my heart. Tonight, my little dusty neighborhood is magical.
*A Kathmandu street dog whom I rescued as a puppy who later found a forever home in the U.S. See earlier posts entitled: A purple crate, a purple leash, a purple harness and a (no, not purple) puppy… , It takes a village, and Smooch for the Pooch.