The nation will go to its dogs next week. On Kukur Tihar (26 October) every Nepali dog will have its day, every bitch hers. It is that time of year when they are worshipped and called upon to keep the god of death, Yamaraj, away. Dogs are gods for one day. For the rest of the year, they will be for the most part mistreated, kicked, chased, abandoned. It is a dog's life. We will let sleeping mutts lie: these mangy, flea-ridden, sick, rabid and prolific breeders.
Well, now that D-day is here, we can lavish some attention on our best friends. The number of strays in Kathmandu and their general condition is a worry and is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Right now, they are celebrating the annual canine mating season with character-istic gusto and ensuring another generation of dogs for the future.
However, there are changes afoot in the demographics of dogs in Kathmandu Valley. And this is a trend towards a gentrification of the human-canine relationship. Suddenly, dogs are status symbol. So the next time you run into a St. Bernard on a walk in Sanepa, don't be too surprised. This high-caste import is an accessory of social status. Exotic breeds with good bloodlines grace the increasing numbers of villas in the valley's upmarket residential neighbourhoods of Dhapasi, Bhaisepati, Godavari and Dhum Barahi. If you have a Land Cruiser in the garage, then you must have the latest model Rottweiler in the dog house. Of the 200 breeds recognised by the Kennel Club of Great Britain, Nepal now boasts more than 40, and that totals 5,000 individual dogs with blue blood.
No one quite seems to know why, but it appears that the St Bernard is the hot favourite. This Alpine animal, bred and developed by Bernadine monks in the French Alps and famed for rescuing snowbound mountain travellers, is being imported into Nepal from the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan via Delhi. Each pup costs Rs 35,000. "We are expecting more St. Bernard pups. The demand for this breed is increasing in Kathmandu despite its high price," says Suresh Shah, owner of Mount Everest Kennel Club (MEKC) in Baneswor. "The popularity of a breed depends on the hype that surrounds it, but there is also a growing interest and awareness about dog keeping." Shah sold eight St Bernard pups in the previous month alone. None of them, we are told, are being used to rescue trekkers stuck in blizzards in the high Himalaya with miniature brandy barrels in their collars.
The valley has also seen a growing number of kennel clubs, some nascent animals rights activism, and isolated community efforts at managing mongrels. There are around 15 kennel clubs and close to 50 specialist vets in Kathmandu. The Mt. Everest Kennel Club alone has 13,000 dogs registered under it, and there are more who avail of their services but are not registered.
Apart from the growing popularity of the St. Bernard, the Tibetan Mastiff (Bhote Kukur), remains the dog of choice, followed by the German Shepherd, Labrador, Japanese Spitz, and smaller breeds like the Tibetan Spaniel, Tibetan Terrier and Lhasa Apso. The Himalayan Kennel Club at Maitighar sells up to 50 pups a month of various breeds. The increasing popularity also has to do with the recent initiative by the Kathmandu Municipality and various kennel clubs, of which the MEKC remains on the frontline, to carry out registration of pet dogs, keep records, provide medical examination on house calls, and also sell a wide variety of breeds.
That is how the canine upper crust lives, but for the rest of the dog proletariat, life on the streets is a grind. They have frequent bruising fights with neighbourhood toughies, they have to keep a look out for speeding trucks and motorcycles, sadistic-minded dog-hating humans who like to beat them with sticks, Kukur Tihar notwithstanding, and battle all manner of afflictions like scabies, worms and distemper.
Animal lovers are trying some conscience rousing. Jan Salter, the British artist who has lived and painted in Nepal for 30 years, is one concerned animal lover. She has taken strays off the mean streets and given them a home in her home. Some of the dogs she adopted earlier died in road accidents. Now, she's got four ex-strays that she keeps safely inside a closed compound. "I just happened to meet all of them at different times on the street. I brought home those that looked friendly and gave them good treatment. Now they give me good company," Jan told us. She takes time off to talk to her dogs in Nepali when it gets lonely in the studio. Apart from the dogs, Jan has adopted two cats which live in harmony with the dogs.
Many, many others are not so lucky. On the streets, mongrels befriend street children, rummage the trash piles together, sleep on the streets, follow them about and sometimes receive good care from the vagabond bunch as well. "We cannot feed them but it's good to have them around," says a 10-year-old child who lives on the sidewalks of Thamel. He strokes his group's mascot, Tiger, and says he is most worried about the municipality's dog squad which goes on periodic extermination sprees.
It is a knee-jerk response and goes into high gear when complaints from the public gets out of hand or when there is a rabies scare. The municipality's dog-killers operate by night and leave poisoned food about for the strays to eat. Then, in a pre-dawn swoop, the dead dogs are taken to the green belt along the Ring Road on the city rim and buried before the neighbour-hood awakes. "What can we do? People are selfish. They turn a dog loose on the streets but when it gets poisoned they are angry and ask us why we poisoned a pet. We are thus forced to carry out our operations in the dark," a municipality worker told us from atop a garbage collection truck. The newest hazard for dogs is the runway at Kathmandu airport, fifteen runway dogs have been killed in the past week by the panicky airport authorities after complaints from pilots. No one seems to have thought of closing off the holes in the fence from which the dogs sneak in to seek mates, or to sniff around discarded airline food.
Community efforts at managing the dog population have been isolated. In Patan Dhoka, the MEKC and volunteers of the local Shanti Yuva Club work with the help of the strays' local benefactors, who help lure the dogs and muzzle them while the dog is vaccinated for rabies, treated for skin disorders or given a temporary contraceptive shot. MEKC has not been able to carry out permanent sterilisations due to the lack of post-operative care facilities.
Any dog on the streets of Kathmandu is called a bhusiya kukur (mongrel) regardless of its breed. What people don't realise is that most of the mongrels on the streets and foraging the rubbish heaps may have some blue blood-we have sometimes observed scraggly looking second-generation Labrador, Tibetan mastiff even German shepherds. Some even argue that the bhusiya itself is now a unique breed in itself. A breed apart, as it were.
There are superstitions linked to dogs. Nepalis believe that the cry of a bitch during the mating season is a bad omen and that they are possessed by a witch. Residents also complain of having to put up with the rag tag choir of barking and yelping dogs throughout the night. Some expats in Nepal have undergone nervous breakdowns because of sustained lack of sleep caused by all-night barking.
Shah blames the selfishness of locals who mistreat dogs. "First of all, where do these dogs come from? People themselves let them loose on the streets either after the dog gets sick, or if it happens to be a female or bears frequent litter. The owner could have sterilised the animal, or not kept it at all," he says. "The problem of stray dogs is due to the ignorance of dog owners. Pet dogs should be tagged and those on the streets should be taken care of. Poisoning won't help. The owners who have the habit of letting their dogs out on the street have to be educated first." Jayanarayan Singh, 70, founder of the first kennel club in Nepal-the Nepal Kennel Club-lives with two Tibetan Mastiffs and two German Shepherds for company. "There are people who ill-treat their dogs, leave them to a servant's care, chain them, lock them in a kennel the whole day. these people should not even think of keeping a pet. It is criminal to keep a dog if you can't spend time with it," he says. Instead of complaining about dogs in the neighbourhood creating a nuisance and just feeling sorry at the sight of a sick or wounded animal, it would help to complement efforts at managing the dog population by controlling their numbers and keeping them healthy. And let us begin on 26 October by making a Kukur Tihar Resolution to give our dogs decent lives in their present incarnation. After all, isn't that what friends are for?