31 May, 2004

A Mercy Mission

Nation Weekly, May 31-June 6, 2004

A Mercy Mission
Taking an innovative model from Kalimpong and Jaipur as examples, the Katmandu Animal Treatment Center is trying to control the population of street dogs by sterilizing them
BY SUSHMA JOSHI

What do Maha, the famed comedian team of Madan Krishna Shrestha and Haribansha Acharya, and Ani Choying, a nun who’s gone global with her extraordinary Buddhist songs, have in common? Besides their fame and high profile, they share an interest in ending the suffering of the dogs who roam the streets of Kathmandu.

“There’s a feeling in Nepal that a good project can only be started with large amounts of international funds,” says Khageshwar Sharma, who manages the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT). “But we wanted to show that we can do it with local support.”

The idea behind KAT was simple enough. Everybody living in Kathmandu has memories, or heard stories, of piles of poisoned dogs being driven away on tractors. Dog owners in the city feel shivers go down their spine every time they hear that this inhumane initiative is underway. Many remember the days when their pets never returned from the streets. The poison, strychnine, stays in the carcasses of the dogs and is scattered around in the streets, and also pollutes streams and rivers where the corpses are dumped. This poisoning program, conducted by the Kathmandu Municipality to reduce the street dog population, has been going on for a number of years but has failed to make much of a dent on the canine population. Now, taking an innovative model from Kalimpong and Jaipur as examples, the KAT is trying to control the population of street dogs with a much more humane and effective method—sterilization.

KAT started with the initiative of Jan Salter, a British artist and longtime Kathmandu resident who was moved by the suffering of street dogs she saw every day. After visiting the Goodwill Animal Center in Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Salter embarked on a crusade to bring together a board of stellar supporters, including BBC presenter Dr. Charlotte Uhlenbroek, and Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal South Asia, for the project. Started with a personal loan from Salter, the project, housed in modest premises in Chapaligoan, on the way to Budhanilkantha, boasts a cheerful looking red office, a small operating theatre and 18 kennels.

The kennels are clean and well-kept. A small brown mongrel licks herself as she looks up from a blood-stained plastic covering in Kennel 8. “Most of the dogs recover within four or five days of the operation,” says Dr. B C Jha, one of KAT’s part-time vets. “This one had complications, so we had to re-operate on her. We keep them here till they are fully recovered.”

The bitch, blissfully unaware of the international standards of healthcare that has been bestowed on her, ignores the visitors. Then she suddenly wags her tail as she sees Ramlal Shrestha, one of the two helpers who has been provided by the Kathm andu Municipality to support the program. Ramlal goes out every morning at 6 a.m., along with his co-helper in a minivan to capture the street dogs. A contribution from Ani Choying helped to buy the van used in the morning forays. “We try to get them to come into the vans by themselves,” says Shrestha. “We try to avoid putting them in sacks, unless they resist.” Shrestha, 28, who admits he likes dogs, says so far he has not been bitten by a single dog.

The program, which got underway on May 11, has already treated 45 dogs—seven male dogs got rabies shots, two with distemper and cataracts got euthanized, and the rest, who were females, sterilized. Only two dogs have died—one from an overdose of anesthesia and respiratory distress, and the other from bleeding. “We don’t know the history of street dogs, so it’s hard to diagnose what went wrong,” says Dr. Jha.

This is a good start, but the project has larger goals. “Our goal is to treat 70 dogs every month,” says Khageshwar Sharma. Sharma, originally from Gorkha, ran the Goodwill Animal Center in Kalimpong for five years. He is the perfect man for the job—not only is he qualified, he radiates a sense of cheerful optimism and proactive productivity.

“Spaying a female dog costs us more than Rs. 1,000,” says Sharma. “People think: there’s not enough money for people, why should we give it to spay a dog?” In spite of such reactions, Sharma says they are trying to increase local awareness and raise support for the project, rather than look for international funds. Support in the form of donated goods has already started—Serene Pharmaceuticals has donated food supplements. Now the project is trying to get food from hotels, and catgut (used in surgery) and antibiotics from pharmaceuticals to lower their costs. Besides meat, the dogs also eat rice, lentils, vegetables and soybeans, making food from almost any hotel a welcome donation.

Although WHO and the World Society for the Protection of Animals recommended animal birth control programs in order to reduce street animal populations as early as the 1980s, the Kathmandu Municipality has not been able to follow those guidelines due to lack of funds. Now, in partnership with KAT, they may be able to follow those international, humane guidelines. More importantly, this program might actually reduce the street dog population.

“The number of street dogs went down 80 percent in Jaipur and Kalimpong after similar programs got implemented there,” says Sharma. “Also, the incidences of human deaths from rabies fell to zero.”

Will KAT go out of business when the lease on their land expires in six years? Hardly, says Dr. Jha. “There are 60,000 street dogs in Kathmandu. Even if we get enough funding to treat 200 dogs a day, that’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Kathmandu residents, recent witnesses to a spate of bombings against government programs, offices and vehicles, can heave a sigh of relief that at least there is one project out there that is trying to change the world by constructing, rather than destroying; by joining hands with the bureaucracy to replace an ineffective government method; and working towards a humble but still revolutionary solution.

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