Pack drill

Kathmandu’s large canine population face disease, starvation and the threat of rabies. Sam Davies's organisation is achieving remarkable results in keeping numbers down and health up 

Hero image

In Kathmandu, not every dog has a collar. Strays are everywhere in the Nepalese capital – gutter mutts and garbage connoisseurs, wandering the labyrinthine streets of the city and sunbathing in its shop doorways, more plentiful than sacred temples or backpacking hippies. But problems with dog populations are rife.

The city now has more strays per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world. Many of them carry rabies or distemper and are at risk of starvation as the population balloons. Others are abused, or threaten other species.

While in Nepal as a medical student aged 19, Samuel Davies began to realise the scale of the street dog crisis. In the car park at the teaching hospital where he was training, there were packs of strays, often in ill health, malnourished or carrying injuries from vehicle collisions. “I started searching for local charities to help them,” he says.

Research shows that sterilisations reduce the incidence of dog bites in children

A British woman named Jan Salter was running an organisation called Kathmandu Animal Treatment (KAT) Centre, which since 2004 had been trying to control the dog population in the city via sterilisations, as well as vaccinating against rabies. Salter – previously an artist famed for her lifelike portraits of Nepali people – had become something of a legend in animal rights circles and later received an MBE. She and Davies became friends and when she had to step aside in 2014 due to ill health, he took over. Salter died in 2018.

He set up a temporary centre at a house he was renting, but his landlord was quick to remind him that the policy granting tenants permission to have pets didn’t quite stretch to an entire compound of sickly dogs. They went through several centres, each more makeshift than the last, before settling in their current home.

It was back home in the UK, where Davies sought training from Dogs Trust in animal population control, that his passion was infused with scientific understanding. He decided it would be his “mission” – through neutering and spaying – to do something about the problem.

PR for strays is a mixed bag. Inner city dogs are smaller, scrappier, beagle-sized and doted on, at least by the younger generations. At Kukur Tihar, a Nepalese Hindu festival, dogs – strays included – are adorned in floral garments and given the Tika, a red forehead spot, as well as treats. Hindus believe that dogs are messengers of Yamaraj, the god of death, so honour them to appease him.

But older generations have come to know the creatures – drawn to the plentiful supplies of litter strewn across Kathmandu’s streets – as pests and vectors of illness. Mountain breeds – much larger dogs – roam like wolves and carry semi-mythical status, prowling assailants known to seize livestock. Parents warn their children at night to steer clear of the mountain dogs, like beasts in fables, lest a terrible fate befall them.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where and when the stray dog problem emerged in Kathmandu, but Davies believes “a combination of unchecked breeding and the quantity of litter on the streets” are the main causes. “In the tourist areas it’s not so bad for them, because the dogs get fed and so they can be quite fat, but in non-tourist areas it’s a different story.”

In such areas, dead dogs can often be seen lying out on the roadsides, while sickly ones drag their paws into the limited shade.

KAT’s systematic programme of sterilisation has brought a decrease in the street dog population – from around 34,000 in 2012 to 23,000 now. One of the major benefits of sterilisation is bringing down the puppy mortality rate. Sterilising one female prevents her from having puppies, meaning that the puppies of another female can survive, as resources are less scarcely spread. KAT has also provided over 20,000 rabies vaccinations.

A new problem is emerging though: CTVT, a sexually-transmitted cancer, which can cause extremely graphic tumours that can grow to the size of a football. Images of CTVT-affected dogs on KAT’s social media channels are difficult to view. Unfortunately, a lot of vets in Nepal believe that vincristine, the chemotherapy drug used to treat CTVT, can lead to infertility if they come into contact with it. As such, many flatly refuse to treat the disease, allowing it to spread with ease.

KAT is in the process of securing land to build a specialist treatment facility for CTVT-affected dogs and is the only organisation in Kathmandu tackling the problem. It has raised almost £2,000 of a £10,000 target and hopes to start work later this year on screening, hot-spot mapping, isolating and treating infected dogs.

Suprabhat Basnet, who manages the centre, adds another issue to the list of problems: commercial breeding. “They buy dogs, breed them and then when they get old they release them into the street because they don’t make money any more,” he says.

Breeding is unregulated in Nepal, meaning breeders can sell dogs like huskies into areas with extremely hot climates that aren’t suitable. Others are tortured and those born with deformities are thrown out on to the streets.

It isn’t only dogs that the KAT Centre has saved over the years. Davies fondly remembers Fred, the one-armed monkey who had, somewhat unwisely, been using the electrical wiring traced from building to building in the city as a personal climbing frame. His arm had been electrocuted and was essentially mummified.

“Monkeys can be bullies unfortunately,” Davies says matter-of-factly. “They gave Fred a pretty rough time.”

Aside from the severe arm injury, his torso and armpit were dotted with bites and sores – many inflicted by other monkeys – which had caused infection. KAT staff managed to lure him away from the group with bananas but he was in a dire state. The KAT vets – highly skilled in treating dogs – were out of their depth.

They considered euthanasia as a humane option but first contacted a specialist American organisation, which told them that monkeys could actually cope quite well without a limb. A four hour amputation operation was performed – jubilation washed through the centre when Fred’s eyes flickered back open.

In 2019, two men in Diktel, 250km from Kathmandu, were caught on camera tying dogs to a post and beating them with wooden planks on the orders of the mayor Dip Narayan Rijal. The mayor had instructed his officials to kill stray and diseased dogs with poisoning. The incident went viral, causing fury, and is considered to be a turning point when a lot of people began to stand up for animal rights.

Since then, Radha Gurung, who works for animal welfare charity Animal Nepal in Lalitpur, on the other side of Kathmandu valley, has seen no similar incidents, and believes that many of the resources once used for culling are instead being put into birth control programmes.

Around 10 years ago, plans were drawn up with the health minister to stop culling in Kathmandu, after lobbying from KAT Centre. The government used to tackle the dog population through cyanide poisonings, but Davies’s organisation offered a bargain of sorts: to bring in overseas funds if they agreed to stop culling.

“Their way of managing the dog population was through mass poisoning but, aside from the animal welfare problem, it doesn’t actually work,” says Gurung, adding that culling a group of dogs solves nothing, as a new group simply replaces them in areas offering them food and shelter.

Moreover, intra-city migration disrupts territories. Dogs, being highly territorial creatures, then begin to fight. Fighting equals increased risk of rabies transmission. Research also shows that sterilisations reduce the incidence of dog bites in children, which are highly expensive to treat. By making their case this way, outlining its logical and financial benefits, organisations have been able to appeal to the authorities.

“Younger people now seem to be much kinder to dogs and are more willing to take responsibility,” Gurung says. Most young people in Kathmandu have smartphones, so can flag up injured or sick strays, allowing Animal Nepal or KAT Centre to send rescue vans. Others administer medicine themselves and the organisations carry out follow-ups.

Lots was done over the pandemic. Empty streets are cleaner streets. For humans, this might have been a silver lining of lockdowns but for strays it meant fatal consequences. Butchers and shops, food sources for the dogs, were closed and many starved. In response, communities left out buckets of meat and other foods. Mini-groups formed and made rotas to go around checking on the dogs.

A few years ago Animal Nepal conducted a dog breeding status report, consulting with Dogs Trust Worldwide, to shine a light on malpractice by breeders. Although Gurung accepts that shutting down the breeding industry altogether is a pipe dream, she believes the work of her organisation will help when lobbying the government to at least monitor and regulate the situation. “Slowly, we are making a difference.”

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Pack drill

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.