Category Archives: stray dogs

Where Stray Dogs Make my Street Home

A stray dog sleeping off the winter chill in the Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

A stray dog sleeping off the winter chill in the Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

I like to think that feeding the dogs has made me a better person. But that would elevate me to a place I don’t belong. At first, when I moved to Kathmandu almost two years ago, I was scared that one of the many unvaccinated stray street barkers would attack Biko, my 95-lbs Rhodesian Ridgeback when I took him out for walks. Nights, they howled, yelped, ululated and whimpered incessantly, up and down the street, echoing into the valley and down onto the main road. They were part of the cacophony that drove me crazy my first months in Nepal. In addition to the dogs, I fantasized about shooting the pigeons on my window sill, snaring crows that dropped rotting bones on my porch and sneaking in pitch darkness over to my neighbor’s house to cut his electricity wires and terminate the high pitched Bollywood songs that could not be blocked out even with earplugs and pillows over my head.

More than 50 percent of stray dog puppies do not survive past their  first six months. ©Donatella Lorch

More than 50 percent of stray dog puppies do not survive past their first six months. ©Donatella Lorch

There are about 20,000 stray dogs in the Kathmandu Valley though only about 30 of them live in a square block area around my house. Eight of them live on my street. They are community dogs in the sense that they live their lives out on a territory of a few blocks and are fed scraps by shop owners and passersby. They drink from the open sewers. I have seen them occasionally petted but more often kicked, tortured by little kids, hit or just ignored.

Raksi, soaked after a storm, awaits her daily meal. ©Donatella Lorch

Raksi, soaked after a storm, awaits her daily meal. ©Donatella Lorch

Last August, one of them, a long-legged, thick-haired black female was hit by a passing car in front of my house. Not wanting her to wait for death while lying in the ditch (or maybe not wanting to see her wait for death), I called a mobile vet who anesthetized her on the spot and brought her down to the animal hospital on the back of a motorcycle. This wasn’t a great act of charity on my part. Transport, vaccinations, deworming and three days of treatment for an injured back leg, after some bargaining, cost me less than $50. I promised my husband that I would not adopt her. She returned to the streets.

Raksi trying convince Biko to play. ©Donatella Lorch

Raksi trying to convince Biko to play. ©Donatella Lorch

I named her Raksi, after the local moonshine. She’d been blinded in her left eye by a sharp object and had a habit of rolling her head to a side so as to expand her field of vision, just like the neighborhood drunk next door. I started to feed her every day outside my gate. She’d recognize my car as soon as it turned the corner and in her trademark weaving run, head up the middle of the road regardless of on-coming speeding buses. Raksi has more than street smarts. Fortified by the daily meals, she rapidly became the self- entitled queen of my street, ruling with a bossy and iron hand that consisted of barking and biting her contemporaries. Other canines, when they see Raksi, are quick to give up sunny sleeping spots and scrounged food. Her single-mindedness turns aggravating when she dashes through our opening gate and makes a run for the house and the kitchen to plop down on Biko’s bed, fleas and all. No pulling, yanking or yelling can get her out, only luring her with dog biscuits. Unlike any of the other strays I have encountered, she greets me with high chest jump, tail wagging and sharing mud and dust. She uses her mouth as a hand shake, gently holding my hand with her very sharp white teeth.

Meal time in front of our gate. Raksi is on the far left. ©Donatella Lorch

Meal time in front of our gate. Raksi is on the far left. ©Donatella Lorch

Feeding only one dog does not work in Kathmandu. Raksi’s highly subservient partner soon joined her. Tentative and weak, we named him after a local politician. He had mange. Another veterinary bill. A red brown Raksi look-alike followed suit. Neighbors say she is a half sister, so we called her Whiskey to keep the alcohol theme in the family. Feeding time on our driveway is now a juggling art as Raksi needs to start eating before the others or an all out whirlwind brawl ensues. The gate gang has also adopted Biko, whose philosophy on his daily walks is that most dogs are to be ignored or barely tolerated. His attitude does not impress Raksi. Irrepressibly playful, she jumps on him, licking his nose and they occasionally chase each other around our lawn in a mad frenzy. They all follow Biko on his daily walk. Whiskey rolls on her back, feet up in total subservience when he approaches. Raksi places herself between me and Biko. If a strange dog approaches, Raksi takes the lead, barking to make him back away.

Biko and Raksi in a mad race. ©Donatella Lorch

Biko and Raksi in a mad race. ©Donatella Lorch

I find it hard to say no or even to set a limit at five. I fed a terrified pregnant bitch – we named her Kali – both before and after her nine puppies were born. Raksi was impossibly nasty, attacking her every day with bared teeth. I hated Raksi then. And on many days, I find her hard to tolerate. Yet I do respect her and that irrepressible chutzpah that I know makes it possible for her to survive and thrive on the street.

An exhausted Kali and some of her nine puppies. ©Donatella Lorch

An exhausted Kali and some of her nine puppies. ©Donatella Lorch

As a child, growing up in a Manhattan apartment, I relentlessly begged my father for a dog. He attempted to console me with a total of 16 parakeets, though thankfully not all at the same time. My husband gave me Biko, my first dog, as a Mother’s day present six years ago when we lived in Kenya. My four kids tease me that I love Biko more than any of my human children. But no one gave me Raski or her gang. Knowing them, means I am no longer intimidated by all the other plentiful strays. I’ll catch myself talking to these Kathmandu denizens as I pass them on my runs.

My son, Lucas, with two of Kali's nine puppies. ©Donatella Lorch

My son, Lucas, with two of Kali’s nine puppies. ©Donatella Lorch

I carry dog snacks in the car for the dogs at the airport and at my son’s school. And cocoon-like, the hours of nighttime barking now lull me to sleep. I can easily recognize Raksi’ s lilting shrill howl. Kathmandu is without doubt my home.

Visiting Raksi on her street side home where she lives with half a dozen other stray dogs. ©Donatella Lorch

The wisdom of a Nepali street dog

Stray dogs happily sleeping the day away ©Donatella Lorch

Stray dogs happily sleeping the day away ©Donatella Lorch

I had noticed her only in passing. On any given day there can be as many as 10 stray dogs moving up and down a 40-meter stretch of my street but I usually just pay attention to the two trouble makers that try to intimidate my Rhodesian Ridgeback when I take him out for a walk. The others either sit and watch or completely ignore our temporary presence.

Kathmandu's 20,000 stray dog are an integer; part of the city ©Donatella Lorch

Kathmandu’s 20,000 stray dog are an integral  part of the city ©Donatella Lorch

Recently, a local crowd caught my attention, hovering over a dog lying and whimpering in an open sewage ditch, unable to move. A car had hit her, I was told, and she was incapable of walking or standing up.

Living in Kathmandu, an interaction with a stray dog is inevitable. There are, after all, more than 20,000 of them in the Valley’s tri-city area. When I first moved here a year ago, I lumped them all together into one large category: destitute, miserably hungry, unloved, unhappy and most critically, unvaccinated and un-neutered. Rabies is present throughout Nepal and Lucas, my nine-year-old son, knows never to reach out and pet a stray dog. Nepalis in general coexist with the strays, feeding them scraps, letting them hang out on their stoops, but the dogs are not family pets and the Nepalis do not care for them. On the dark side, I’ve seen dogs kicked and abused. I’ve seen little kids garrot a puppy and drag him around for fun. Some dogs, starving or maimed, grovel for leftovers from the stronger strays.

Raksi was lying in a ditch whimpering and unable to move. ©Donatella Lorch

Raksi was lying in a ditch whimpering and unable to move. ©Donatella Lorch

My Nepali neighbors hovered over the dog and attempted to feed and give her water, but she was in pain and intensely afraid. In Kathmandu, injured stray dogs are left to their fate, even if it means days of suffering. But I couldn’t walk away. At the same time, I was hesitant to interfere. In the back of my head I was replaying a line that my producer at NBC News would tell me regularly: “Dony, you can’t play God.”

A mobile vet injected her with anesthetic. ©Donatella Lorch

A mobile vet injected her with anesthetic. ©Donatella Lorch

Perhaps, I reasoned, I could make her death more peaceful if in fact she was badly injured. I couldn’t move her so I called the local mobile vet. Though Kathmandu is Nepal’s largest city, it is home to all types of farm animals, and vets also treat cows, buffalo, goats, sheep and elephants. After some time, two young men arrived on a motorcycle, pulled out a syringe and anesthetized the dog. They packed her in a cardboard crate, placed her between them on the bike and drove off to their roadside two-room clinic to X-ray the injury. I followed in my car.

The mobile vets packed her in a crate © Donatella Lorch

The mobile vets packed her in a crate © Donatella Lorch

raksi on bike The dog had only tissue damage, but she needed a week of daily steroid, antibiotic and pain killer shots. This meant keeping her virtually immobile in the vet’s small cage, recovering for a week. If she was then immediately released back on the street, her chances of survival were slim. By then, it had become clear to me that I had inherited a stray and its hospital bill. She had also at some point been blinded by a stick or rod in her left eye, so before I changed my mind, I added in drops for the infected eye as well as rabies, distemper and paro-virus shots. Lucas named her Rexi. The Nepalis, having some difficulty in pronouncing Rexi, renamed her Raksi – after the local moonshine.

For the past year, in my morning runs and commutes to school, I have studied the multi-layered social interactions and relationships between Kathmandu canines and the world of humans. The Nepalis who have dogs as pets (often white, furiously yapping, furry Spitzes) keep them indoors or on their rooftops. Some people tie their guard dogs on such short chains outside their houses they can barely lie down.

Raksi'd first efforts at standing up. © Donatella Lorch

Raksi’d first efforts at standing up. © Donatella Lorch

The vast majority of strays, like Raksi, are community dogs that live their lives outside in a self-delineated territory of a couple of city blocks. They drink from the open drainage ditches that often double as sewers, and beg–always patient, unobtrusive and even elegant–from store fronts and especially from the ubiquitous one-room butcher shacks. They are mostly thin and dirty though some are strikingly handsome. Raksi had a thick black and brown coat and impressively healthy white teeth. Some are social and wag hello, others are terrified when I walk by and on rare occasions there will be one that snarls or barks. In this city of massive and aggressive traffic, a week never goes by without seeing at least a couple of dogs lying on a road, killed by a vehicle. Sometimes the animal lies there for days before being removed.

Kathmandu dogs are nocturnal, and their baying, howling, snarling, yelping and ululating barks punctuate my night. Silence only descends briefly between 4am and dawn. In the winter, the cold takes the weak. In the dry, hot months, thirst kills. Puppies have a particularly high death rate. Wounds from nighttime fights fester. I never cease to be amazed by the dogs daytime ability to sleep — absolutely anywhere — though they love to spread out in the middle of roads, oblivious of honking trucks or speeding motorcycles. During my weekly runs, I’ve taken to greeting the strays on my route. Occasionally one or two will join me for a stretch of road.

Within two days of moving in, Raksi was  walking around our garden. ©Donatella Lorch

Within two days of moving in, Raksi was walking around our garden. ©Donatella Lorch

After her stay at the vet, we took Raksi to our house to recover. Once in our home, she stayed in a makeshift corrugated iron shack with cardboard and a towel as a bed. My dog, Biko, immediately disapproved of Raksi’s presence and not only ignored her but me as well. After a day, she began to limp around cautiously, and then soon was wandering around the garden, sleeping in our garage and trying to find ways to enter our house. Gentle and courteous, she wagged up a fury whenever she saw anybody, circling her head high so as to catch us with her good eye. I began to worry that she would never leave. I knew with each passing day, I was falling for her too.

At the end of the first week, as Lucas and I walked one morning onto the main road, Raksi followed. She went to sit facing us on a mound of half-burned blue and pink plastic garbage bags. Lucas tried to woo her back through our gate with her favorite dog bones and a bowl of milk, but she sat there sphinx-like and dignified and finally just turned, crossed the road and disappeared down a narrow alley.

Lucas went to school in tears that day. He thought that he had lost a friend. But Raksi didn’t really move away; she moved back to where she always had been—on the streets in our immediate neighborhood. Since then we have seen her every day, sometimes in front of our gate or on the concrete landing in front of the local tailor shop next door, even as far away as across the main road by the green grocers. I see her sleeping, surrounded by her many companions. She’ll get up and limp over to sniff a newcomer, warning him off with a bark. Her favorite spot is the sand pyramid on the construction site opposite our place. She has always greeted us with utter delight and wagging tail, dog-tracking towards us with a huge grin, one black ear perked, the other flopping.

Lucas visit Raksi on her street side home where she lives with half a dozen other stray dogs. ©Donatella Lorch

Lucas visit Raksi on her street side home where she lives with half a dozen other stray dogs. ©Donatella Lorch

I like to think that this is her way of telling me that she is okay. The dog rescue organizations in Kathmandu had warned me that there was virtually no chance of finding her a home and that if a foreigner adopted her (the most likely possibility) he or she would probably leave Raksi behind when leaving Nepal. If she was healthy, the street was the best place for her.

I still grapple with all I have learned from Raksi. When I saw street life as misery, why did I automatically believe she thought the same? Why did I assume my joy was her joy? I thought she was like my Ridgeback, an obsessively loyal animal whose idea of home was lying by my side. Biko won’t even smell the street garbage that is Raksi’s food. But it’s obvious to me that Raksi, like so many other dogs here, is only at home in her pack. She and several other dogs move, eat, sleep together. She has the freedom to roam. She perks up with the chaos of trucks and honking horns and it also lulls her to sleep, lying inches away from the paved road. She likes to lie with her nose on the edge of the open sewer. And though she greets me effusively, when I see her, one thing is clear: This is her world.

Worshipped yes — But in Nepal, it’s a tough life to be a dog.

Mitho taking a rest on our run together © Donatella Lorch

Mitho taking a rest on our run together © Donatella Lorch

I met him by chance on one of my morning runs. Three black dogs sleeping in front of a gate, a fixture on my trail for almost a year, had lifted their heads briefly as I greeted them but I didn’t notice the small tan and white newcomer trotting behind me until he almost tripped me. He stopped when I stopped, sitting and cocking his head and looking up quizzically. He had mange on his lower back and he was rather skinny but he wasn’t aggressive or pushy. For the next four miles, as I zigzagged through a small village and terraced golden wheat fields, he tagged along by my right heel, never passing and immediately sitting when I’d stop to check on him. Our conversation was rather one-sided as I outlined for him all the reasons I could not keep him. By the time I got to my front gate, I had named him Mitho (pronounced Mee-toe), Nepali for ‘sweet.’ He gulped down the food and water I gave him but when I checked on him half-hour later he was gone.

Stray dogs in mid-morning, sleeping during the daytime hours. ©Donatella Lorch

Stray dogs in mid-morning, sleeping during the daytime hours. ©Donatella Lorch

In Nepal, there is a special day dedicated to dog worship. On Kukur Puja, many of the city’s dogs are garlanded with marigolds and are fed sweet rice cakes. But this warm feeling does not seem to last long. Mitho is one of hundreds of stray dogs that live on the streets of my neighborhood on the southern edge of the Kathmandu Valley. He is one of more than 30,000 stray dogs that call greater Kathmandu home. They sleep through the day, mounds of brown, black and white fur, oblivious of traffic that is forced to detour around them. They howl and fight at night, dodge traffic and beg for food and water from shopkeepers. Their favorite hangouts are the three-sided one-room roadside butcher shops where I frequently spot three or four dogs politely sitting at a discreet distance hoping for scraps while keeping an uneasy friendship with the tethered goats outside awaiting the knife. You’ll find the dogs scavenging in the garbage-filled plastic bags in the city’s ubiquitous open-air roadside dump sites. In winter, they shiver from the bitter cold and the weaker ones die off; in the summer, they suffer from dehydration in the torrid heat. Unvaccinated and mostly un-neutered, they succumb to parasites and nasty skin infections. They are frequently abused, kicked, hit and even scorched by boiling water. They are maimed and killed by motorcycles, cars and trucks. Fifty percent of their puppies die.

Stray mother and children in the countryside in Southern Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

Stray mother and children in the countryside in Southern Kathmandu Valley. ©Donatella Lorch

I had a healthy fear of stray dogs when I moved here ten months ago. There were two main reasons. Dog-carried rabies is prevalent in Nepal, killing over 200 people a year. Since the mere trace of an infected dog’s saliva on an open cut can give you rabies, a disease which is more than 99% fatal once the symptoms appear, we dutifully received our three anti-rabies shots. Let’s note here that the shots only delay the symptoms and give you a slightly larger window to get more shots. I warned my nine-year-old never to pet a stray dog.

My dog, Biko, gets worshipped on Kukur Puja, and receives a garland, a Tikka and sweet rice cakes. © Donatella Lorch

My dog, Biko, gets worshipped on Kukur Puja, and receives a garland, a Tikka and sweet rice cakes. © Donatella Lorch

But perhaps more immediately relevant for me was my large, 85 lb Rhodesian Ridgeback, Biko, that my four kids insist is my main love. I am not ashamed and can openly admit it: I am a dog lover. Biko was a four-year-old bundle of energy when we arrived in Kathmandu, and he needed daily walks. But how do you walk a pampered house dog through a city littered with strays? The stray dogs in Kathmandu mostly ignore humans, but they are very attentive to any outside dog that comes into their territory, and—though they may be feigning sleep when we walk abreast of them—they often turn into barking, howling, snarling villains when our outside dog passes by. Think dog fights—our house dog against a pack of street-hardened dogs. Think rabies. We quickly learned that there was only one way to proceed: with intimidation. We had to convince the stray dogs in our neighborhood that Biko belonged to our pack, and that our pack was as tough, or tougher, than theirs. In our tentative first efforts, four of us armed with long sticks escorted Biko on his walk, a Nepali version of armed Kenyan rangers protecting individual Rhinos. Most of our neighborhood dogs now grudgingly let us through. Today, I may still carry a stick but I walk Biko alone.

Guarding Biko our first weeks in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

Guarding Biko our first weeks in Kathmandu ©Donatella Lorch

I am no longer scared of the dogs I meet. Mostly it makes me sad to see so much loveless suffering. I may not pet them but I talk to them and bring them scraps from restaurants. I have my favorites like the Tibetan Mastiff mix outside the Roadhouse Café in Patan, or the gaunt timid bitch down the street who has obviously had too many litters and submissively lies down wagging her tail when I pass.

The world of the Nepal stray dog is divided into societal gradations. The biggest group is the community dog. They do not necessarily belong to individuals but are outdoor dogs with a narrow territory and the community feeds them scraps and leftovers. These are the nighttime howlers and many become outcasts when they are maimed in dog fights, hit by vehicles, or acquire mange and other disfiguring skin infections. Some dogs are tightly chained to buildings with barely the ability to lie down. The smallest group is the dog as personal pet. Many Nepalis fear dogs and are incredulous at the affection I show Biko and how I care for him.

Twenty years ago, the government poisoned stray dogs to keep the dog population in check. Death came after hours of convulsions. Small NGOs reliant almost entirely on donations, bring in some dogs for neutering and spaying and then return them to their area. Most often it is the volunteer work of a few for the many.

A dog is recovering after being run over by a motorcycle at Kate Clendon's "Community Dog Welfare, Kopan" ©Donatella Lorch

A dog is recovering after being run over by a motorcycle at Kate Clendon’s “Community Dog Welfare, Kopan” ©Donatella Lorch

Biko’s Nepali vet runs an animal shelter and volunteers to treat injured animals. Kate Clendon, a New Zealander who is a longtime resident of Kathmandu, is now housing 31 dogs at her Community Dog Welfare Kopan. She eases the last days of the ones with blood parasites, finds sponsors for the ones with disabilities. She does community outreach and last year vaccinated 150 dogs. Neighbors now bring her injured dogs. She is looking after newborn puppies abandoned in the middle of the night at her doorstep. Each dog has a name and history that Kate can relate in detail. Leo has two broken legs and is getting a wheelchair from a Swedish sponsor.

Jade has mange that has not responded to medical treatment. ©Donatella Lorch

Jade has mange that has not responded to medical treatment. ©Donatella Lorch

Kare and Dorje, Community Dog Welfare Kopan in Northern Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Karen and Dorje, Community Dog Welfare Kopan in Northern Kathmandu. © Donatella Lorch

Tiger had his back sliced by a Kukri (a curved Nepali knife), Jade has mange, Dorje was beaten and has joint problems. Kate knows what she does is a drop in the ocean. “To have a long term impact it’s more about changing attitude,” Kate insists. “Nepalis need to be more responsible and have more respect for dogs.”

As Mitho ran with me, I made a list of what he needed: rabies test and vaccines, deworming, delousing, a bath and lots of food. That I could do. But he could not live with me. My husband has threatened divorce if another dog enters the house. I toyed with the idea of placing Mitho’s photo on Facebook and convincing friends to foster him or even adopt him.

Hugging Biko at the end of the day. ©Donatella Lorch

Hugging Biko at the end of the day. ©Donatella Lorch

But even I knew that was daydreaming. I went home and I hugged Biko.