Dogs in Bhutan are not like dogs in other countries, I observed on a trip to the tiny Himalayan kingdom squashed between China and India earlier this year. They are not the coddled pets of the West or the pitiful strays you see in many Asian countries.
They have pride and independence. They live harmoniously alongside humans, but are not mastered by them. They are given food by Bhutanese families or by monks at the country’s many Buddhist monasteries, but they don’t beg for it. They tolerate humans, but you get the feeling their significant relationships are with other dogs.
Canines have historically played an important role in Bhutanese culture; generations ago, dogs helped yak herders to protect their livestock and the hardy Tibetan Mastiff bloodline originates here. Even today most Bhutanese people are still subsistence farmers and dogs play an important role at the farm, warning the family about approaching strangers and keeping wild animals away. In rural environments, the dog population never gets out of control because the forces of nature keep it down –- only two or three puppies from each litter usually survive until adulthood.
But as Bhutan became more developed, the population of stray dogs got out of control in capital city Thimphu. Rahul Sehgal, the Asia director of Humane Society International, which has led successful stray dog population control programs in nearby Asian countries, says this was because of unregulated meat sale. Bhutan is a Buddhist country, and at certain times of the year the sale of meat is banned — but there is a black market.
“The dogs live off the waste product; since it’s not regulated there is no mechanism of disposing of the unsold meat,” he says, adding that as tourism has grown the dogs also feed from hotel bins. “It’s a typical example of when a city or a country goes through development and misses out on certain aspects of managing their garbage. That’s why there’s such a large presence of free-roaming partially owned dogs in Bhutan.”
The growing dog population clashed with another growing population — the high-end tourists who are required by law by to spend at least $250 a day during a visit to Bhutan. They began to complain that they couldn’t sleep a wink while staying in Thimphu because of the dogs howling and barking all night long. Despite a senior Bhutanese bureaucrat pointing out that when he goes to America he can’t sleep because of the sirens and traffic, the dogs continued to be a black mark on the country’s otherwise glowing reports in the tourist industry. And it wasn’t just the noise: Even dog lovers were intimidated by the large packs roaming the streets, and there were incidents of bitings.
Sehgal was called in to bring down Bhutan’s dog population.
“We said that if we are allowed to work for four months we will prove that there will be no puppies on the streets, the barking would go down,” he says.
They got to work and sterilized 4,000 dogs in four months, starting on Valentine’s Day 2009. The government of Bhutan was impressed and funded a $1 million joint spay/neuter project with Humane Society International.
The project hit an early snag when Sehgal realized there was a dramatic shortage of vets in Bhutan who could perform the surgeries.
“They had very few people within the veterinarian department and most of them were senior enough to be in administrative positions with Ph.Ds and masters’ and stuff like that, and it was difficult to get them to do the high-labor physically intensive spay and neuter program,” he says.
To start with, vets and dogcatchers were imported from India; thanks to a vet training program, 90 percent of staff are local Bhutanese.
“It’s been a huge success, and I think we’ve treated 50,000 dogs,” says Sehgal. “The howling and the conflicts have gone down and it’s been a super-hit with people because they have seen the visible effects.”
Watch a video about HSI’s Bhutan street dogs project here:
To ensure that the dog population doesn’t become a problem again, HSI is also encouraging Bhutanese people to bring dogs to clinics themselves to get them sterilized, so they don’t have to rely on dogcatchers. The project offers free T-shirts and doggy accessories to encourage people to bring their local dogs to vet clinics on Tuesdays and Thursdays for free surgery.
“Eventually over the next five years the population will come down to a level where these dogs will start being valued by the community because they are not that common any more and they are not a nuisance any more,” says Sehgal.
A new chapter of the Bhutanese canine history is beginning, but although they may be more valued and appreciated, I can’t see creatures with this proud heritage becoming lapdogs. I hope these pack dwellers, like the people they co-exist with and the country they live in, remain unique.
Read more about dogs in Asia:
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