Jessika Ava is currently in Kathmandu, volunteering with Street Dog Care. Today, we are honored to publish her first article in a series of three exploring the world of street dogs.
The Dogs of Kathmandu
by Jessika Ava
Sunrise. The tiny plane lands with a frightening jolt, ending a 40-hour journey from the opposite side of the globe. Following the mad scramble of retrieving luggage from the stifling, 90-degree, overcrowded airport (luggage that is stuffed to capacity with hand-knit dog sweaters, gauzes, and squeaky toys), I walk out the doors and enter the city of Kathmandu. My immediate response is to protect the assault on my ailing lungs; no matter how often I am here, I am taken aback by the debilitating smog. I put on my black, cotton, surgical mask – for at least a sense of psychological relief – and mentally prepare myself for the coming chaos.
For some people, the first impression of Kathmandu may be the maelstrom of humanity: underage workers, morning Hindu worshipers, street side musicians, porters carrying bureaus, travelling knife sharpeners, carpet salesmen, pilgrims, desperate shoe shiners, robed monks on iPhones, rumpled beggars, touts, autos, motor bikers, and grease-stained tuktuks. The hypnotic whirl of activity, the incessant noise of bus horns, shouts, and morning chants, the smells of burning trash, incense, and sewage are the very definition of sensory overload. Yet alongside the city’s human inhabitants lies an arguably more intriguing society. Perhaps some people, with an “anthro-centric” perspective, wouldn’t notice these disheveled denizens, dismissing them as nothing more than a triviality or cause for pity.
But for me, and others of this world with whom I share this “animal-centric” bond, our eyes bypass the bustle of human activity and focus on the dirty, mangy dog sleeping on the sidewalk. Scanning the scene further: dogs are everywhere, sleeping on every street corner, in every alleyway, outside vegetable markets, inside roadside restaurants, meditating at sacred temples. This is my Kathmandu. This underground society of the street dogs is why I lug 50 pounds of Elizabethan collars and tennis balls across the world, this is why I endure toxic pollution and recurring traveler’s illnesses. The dogs’ civilization, the dogs’ culture, is why this city has embedded itself in my life.
Street dogs can’t be compared to bred dogs, or even mutts. They may wag their tails when happy and frown when sad, but the similarities stop there. Even their barks differ. Bred dogs are a legacy of human development, innovation, and exploitation. Street dogs are a legacy of Darwinian natural selection, with a lineage that may trace back to Earth’s original dog. Street dogs are one of the few “domestic” species without the influence of humanity’s misperceived domination. They are not Collie dogs, they are not Bulldogs, they are not ChiLabroDoodle dogs. They are…. simply…..dogs.
The taxi arrives in the place I currently call home, Boudha, a medieval Buddhist region within the borders of Kathmandu. Glancing across the street, I spot three of the ubiquitous curly-cue tails coming in my direction, each effortlessly dodging traffic through clouds of exhaust fumes and dust. I am greeted by six dirty paws, belonging to Rocky, a frail old lady with a limp who recently escaped an untimely death; Derec, a quiet gentleman with a bald tail; and Artoo, a black and white boy looking very healthy. These dogs live outside the gate of my flat; they are my neighbors.
Although they enjoy a certain freedom, street dogs must still navigate the unforgiving world of humanity. Without creativity, intelligence, and the keen ability to strategize, they simply wouldn’t make it. Families, lovers, best friends create packs with societal complexities molded by the intricate interpersonal behaviors of snarls, hackles, and critically positioned, white-tipped, curly tails. In a city with limited public waste control, the rubbish piles provide an unending scavenger hunt yielding coveted rice, momos, and biscuits. To supplement, our little friends have a daily ritual – searching for food, begging for food, conning tourists for food, befriending shop owners for food, befriending pack leaders for food – all while dodging motorbikes, cars, buses, rickshaws, beggars, holy cows, thrown rocks, bicycles, praying Buddhists, flute salesmen, Tiger Balm salesmen, ear cleaners, goat herders, and street kids. (Followed by a much-needed nap.) The street dog goes where she wants to go, she eats what she wants to eat, and she loves who she wants to love. Her life is a life bestowed with freedom – but it is a freedom impaired by disease, illness, injury. There’s a fine equilibrium between the ecstasy of 24-hour off-leash access and the all too real possibility of being crippled from a car hit.
Rocky and Sangmo have fallen asleep, curled up dangerously near Pashupati Road. But people, bikes, cows, and cars simply make way around them; there is nothing unusual about a sleeping dog in their path. Artoo is digging at a trash heap (maybe something tasty). He skips over to me, lightly touching his nose to my hand and we walk together to the end of his territory, where he stops and sits, watching me continue on.
Then as the day comes to a close and the sun is setting over the Himalaya Mountains, a daily transformation begins to take place.
One lonely howl. Followed by a bark that crescendos to the dissonant ballad of a secret language.
The dogs are singing.
When the moon appears, every single dog in Kathmandu – near and far, old and young – begins baying, howling, and growling, affirming their societies, sharing their arcane wisdom with the universe. They bark and bark and bark and bark. The lullaby continues all night as the humans of the city dream. What are they proclaiming? Our species will never have the privilege of knowing.
But at night, these street dogs, older than Kathmandu itself, are the city’s protector. At night, this teeming city is theirs.
If you would like to help street dogs with Street Dog Care, NGO, please contact jessika.ava [at] StreetDogCare [dot] org.
Jessika Ava is the author of the policy paper, Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia, published by Brighter Green. She has been working for animal rights in various capacities for over 10 years, from elephant conservation and primate behavior to food policy and vegan advocacy. In fall 2014 she will begin her PhD in Biostatistics.