In Nepal it is thought that caring for dogs will ease your path to heaven.
With 16 dogs for every kilometer of street, Kathmandu has one of the world’s highest densities of roaming dogs.
For comparison, Constanta in Romania, has six dogs per kilometre, Panama City has three and Bogatic Municipality in Serbia has fewer than one dog per kilometre. The streets of Kathmandu are lined with dogs of all shapes, sizes and breeds, their abundance and diversity reflecting a vibrant culture in which animals and people coexist in a way that has changed little over time.
For millennia, dogs have been hanging around humans in return for food and security.
In return, dogs warn us of danger, help us hunt, dispose of our waste, keep us warm, and guard and play with our children. The species itself – the domestic dog – came into existence because of this symbiotic relationship, which many believe has also helped shape human evolution. As we dispersed into all corners of the planet, dogs came with us. We selectively bred them to fill different roles in our society, from hunting, guarding and companions, to modern roles such as detecting landmines, detecting cancer, and assisting people with disabilities. As a result, dogs have the most morphological variation of any species, ranging from the chihuahua to the great dane.
Humans are undeniably responsible for this species, and dogs are almost completely reliant on humans – without human care, dogs rarely survive, thrive or reproduce.
In the more developed world, people have deemed it undesirable, and unsafe, to have dogs roaming freely. Roaming dog populations have been largely eliminated through mass culling and/or strict enforcement of dog control laws and responsible dog ownership education. In Kathmandu and much of south Asia, where roaming dogs are abundant, our ancient symbiotic relationship is more evident. In 2016, when Kathmandu’s residents were asked how they felt about the number of dogs on their street, 43% of survey respondents felt it was ‘about right’ or even ‘too few’. The same survey estimated there are over 80,000 owned dogs in Kathmandu, and more than half these are allowed to roam freely on the street – indicating that most of the city’s roaming dogs have an owner. The overall health of Kathmandu’s roaming dogs is relatively good; less than 2% have visible skin disease or emaciation (compared, for instance, to communities in Bali where this figure was 24%).
Despite this, intensive efforts in recent decades have aimed to eliminate or reduce Kathmandu’s roaming dog population. For 50 years the municipal ‘dog squad’ would lay poisoned meat on the streets. Many thousands of dogs suffered a long and agonising death, and their bodies piled up on the banks of the Bagmati river, Nepal’s holy river. When questioned, a municipality worker asked:
A major driver behind the dog culling was rabies – roaming dogs are the primary reservoir for the rabies virus, a fatal disease which kills more than 30,000 people in south Asia every year. Yet the world’s public and veterinary health authorities agree that only mass dog vaccination, not culling, will eliminate rabies.
Municipal dog poisoning ceased in 2004, when non-governmental organisations (NGOs) took over the responsibility for dog population management in Kathmandu, conducting mass neutering and providing a rescue service.
More than 25,000 dogs have since been caught, surgically neutered, and returned to the streets.
Scientific surveys of Kathmandu’s street dog population have been conducted regularly since 2006. Teams follow pre-designated survey tracks, using a GPS-enabled tracker app on their smart phones to record the sex, age, health and reproductive status of every dog. According to the latest survey in 2018, there are over 22,000 roaming dogs within the city – a 22% increase from 18,000 dogs in 2010.
Traditionally, dog population management interventions target dogs. Dogs are caught, relocated, rescued, re-homed, sheltered, killed, vaccinated or neutered, while the community looks on, growing accustomed to an external agency dealing with the dogs. Local people are disempowered, made to feel like they have no responsibility for roaming dogs, when in fact they are the reason dogs are on the streets, and it is their attitude that determines whether roaming dogs present a problem. Within each community there will be great variation in how dogs are perceived; there will be unique conflict issues and hotspots, and unique resources to develop a solution.
Sustainable roaming dog management gives autonomy to the local community to define and address the problem, recognising that roaming dogs are an integral part of society.
In the twelve years since we first started questioning the open acceptance of cruelty inflicted on animals in the name of religion, we have heard the drumbeats of protest and change.
We have seen the same religion, same faith expressed in different practices, some compassionate and non-violent; others spilling blood and anguish. Co-existing with the concept of all creations being children of gods and the need for every individual to act out of compassion and benevolence, Hinduism as a religion has been the champion of ‘Ahimsha’, the concept of non-violence. Remarkably, that same religion counts among its faithful those who believe in offering animals as sacrifices to gods and goddesses.
Growing up in the rural village of mid-western Nepal, I witnessed frequent animal sacrifices.
Even when there was no apparent religious occasion or auspice, those butchering a goat first make a perfunctory "offering" to to the goddess before quickly devouring what was left of the goat. I remember that the butcher would often perform a little ‘puja’ where they would worship the soul of the animal and ask for the forgiveness for the killing. I still find it curious, whether the conscious choice is better made with or without the element of guilt. Is hypocrisy superior to barbarism?
I play with these thoughts more these days as our campaign against the ritualistic slaughtering of animals in the temples in Nepal closes in on success and hence has shifted naysayer’s attention towards the mass slaughtering of animals for consumption. They are heard more often these days asking ‘But what about eating animals? How is that different? Killing is killing, after all!" "Why are you attacking our religion?" and "Are you funded by Christian organizations?" goes this new drumbeat.
As demoralizing as these accusations are, we accept that we need to address them. One of the major questions has been how to prioritize which challenges to confront first. We picked the largest religious sacrifice of animals in the world as our first real campaign subject, the infamous Gadhimai Festival. Many asked why we would start from such a large-scale problem; others said it was stupid to expect that it was even going to end. Many pointed fingers toward the team, saying we chose Gadhimai to avoid targeting our preferred Hill temples; that we were racists and vindictively targeted a Madhesi (southern plains) festival. Others claimed that although we tolerated commercial killing of animals, we had a problem with Gadhimai because we were "anti-Hindu."
Why should we be so concerned about the slaughter of a few
hundred thousand animals at Gadhimai, once every five years?
We all have different beliefs. Some of us believe we need to eat meat to survive. Others believe if we eat meat we absorb the pain and despair of the slaughtered animal and will never find happiness. Some believe that humans have rightful dominion over other species and the Earth. Others believe we are all animals, equal in our capacity to suffer. I personally never believed that even a meat-eating human would want any unnecessary suffering by the animals they consume, or be proud of stealing a life.
Cruelty can be circumstantial, but the cultural condoning or promotion of cruelty desensitizes generations. In such cases, cruelty becomes a permanent foundation the society. Regardless of our individual beliefs, anyone who can look into the terrified eyes of a calf surrounded by a sea of headless writhing animals like I have, and not feel that this is wrong, perhaps is not ‘a normal human’ state after all. Those who do not have any guilt or sensibility of some sort in inflicting pain and misery to animals need correction. And if the society at large is incapable of feeling this guilt and showing sensibility on these matters, then I would argue that the society at large needs correction.
Eleven years ago, when my little team for the first time dared to speak against the cruel hacking of animals at Gadhimai, people feared that we would meet some serious consequences. We took our humanitarian message to the heart of the Gadhimai area and gathered a critical mass of supporters in the communities there. Now, there are frequent spontaneous rallies and demonstrations across the region in support of our campaign. The Supreme Court of Nepal, in response to a Public Interest Litigation filed by our team, responded comprehensively in our favor with a well-expressed ruling. Bhadrakali Temple in Kathmandu, one of the former centers of animal sacrifice during Dashain Festival, recently announced they are stopping sacrifice after this year.
In 2010, several temples in Kathmandu protested against budget cuts to state-sponsored animal sacrifice. Recently, a prominent temple in Kathmandu announced an end to animal sacrifice.
Granted, there are those who still deflect and try to distract from the main agenda by pitting Hills against Plains people, calling us out for anti-Hinduism, and railing about "invading religions." These desperate outbursts indicate a turning point, an indicator of change. There was a time in 2010 when some temples (religious trusts) in Kathmandu protested against the government budget cuts to state-sponsored animal sacrifice; yet recently, a prominent temple in Kathmandu announced an end to animal sacrifice as a practice. This is a proud moment for us all, yet also an opportune time to mobilize all our resources for a final push to create a society that is one step closer to being compassionate and just.
After this decade-long campaign, we are within reach of a rich reward for all the misery we have witnessed and sustained, the sacrifices and attacks we have suffered in our personal lives, to reflect on our country's progress from tolerating cruelty to living with compassion. We will reflect with deep joy on this cultural metamorphosis as we watch goats and buffalo munching grass in the warm Gadhimai sun.