Dharamshala: Every autumn since 2005 in the Dalai Lama's resident town of McLeod Ganj, visitors have been met with a curious sight. The town's street dogs all sport a white stripe from forehead to neck as if they are part of a secret gang. It all begins on a precise date every year, and over the course of ten days, practically every dog in sight has the mark. Bewildering as it may be, the phenomenon has a perfectly natural explanation.
September 28 is World Rabies Day and in McLeod Ganj this means it is time for the area's canine population to have their yearly vaccination against the potentially fatal disease. As the dogs receive the vaccination they are also painted with a white stripe to distinguish them from non-vaccinated dogs.
Tibetan Charity To The Rescue
The difficult task of catching the street dogs and injecting them is undertaken by the local organisation Tibet Charity, which in 2005 set up a volunteer vet clinic in response to growing problems between man and his best friend.
Tsering Dhundup, director of Tibet Charity's Dharamshala chapter, told the TPI about the beginning of the veterinary clinic: "In late '05, the local Indian administration received a growing number of complaints relating to street dogs being of danger to livestock and to people. Tibet Charity took up the matter with the district commissioner and we volunteered to help solve the problem."
Initially only licensed as an animal birth control program, the initiative quickly gained the authorities' recognition and now includes a rabies program, awareness campaigns, a professional veterinary clinic and an animal ambulance. At the local Tibetan Delek Hospital, the staff are in no doubt of the project's success: In the last 3 years, not a single case of rabies has been recorded. This year more than 95% of dogs were treated as 736 dogs got the vaccine and an estimated less than 10 dogs went untreated.
Caring For The Canines
The TPI went for a visit to the scenically located veterinary clinic, perched on a hill side a short drive outside of McLeod Ganj. Tibetan refugee and clinic assistant Champa opens the gate in his veterinary-green uniform with matching cap. Only 2 weeks into his 6 months training, he is already well acquainted with many of the procedures and he confidently gives a tour of the premises.
Apart from the animal birth control and rabies programs, the clinic also takes care of injuries and illnesses of dogs and cats in the area. Typical cases are traffic-accidents, skin-infections and wounds from dogs and other animals like monkeys and bears.
"This dog here got attacked by a leopard, you can see the long row of stitches from his head down his neck", Champa says and points to a dog in one of the clinic's isolation facilities. In another enclosure three lazy dogs bask in the sun. They all have a shaved patch on one side and one of them struggles to get on its feet. "This one has just been operated on, that's why it's still sleepy" he says as he pets the cross-eyed and uncoordinated puppy.
In the operation theatre, a 27-year-old, focused Welshman is busy at work. Alwyn is a volunteer veterinarian who has come to lend a hand in McLeod Ganj for three weeks through the organisation Worldwide Veterinary Services. "This dog is being sterilised to prevent further breeding" Alwyn explains as he wipes clean the neatly stitched wound through which the bitch's uterus has been removed, a process called "spaying". On an average working day, Alwyn can perform 3 or more such operations.
Working With World-Wide Vets
Having volunteered at clinics in South America before, Alwyn is impressed with the high standard here; "they have been very thorough in their work here and the facilities are extremely good, especially considering the limited budget they have."
Whenever a fully qualified vet volunteers at the clinic, spaying and castrating dogs is the number one priority. Apart from Champa, the assistant, only one other worker is at the clinic full-time. In his three years of employment "para-vet" Thukjee has learned the trade hands-on. But although he has worked with and learned from close to 40 international veterinarians, it still takes a fully trained animal-doctor to perform major operations.
For Alwyn, working with Tibetan Buddhist colleagues has been an interesting experience: "At first I wondered if they practised euthanasia (putting them 'to sleep'), seeing that they are Buddhist and not supposed to kill any living thing". But to Alwyn's relief, terminal illnesses, i.e. bone tumours and fatal injuries, often means giving the animals a gentler and more painless death. He continues; "I found that Tibet Charity works with a remarkable love and respect for all life, which is a great quality for a charity!"
Making Ends Meet
Despite the clinic's success, director Tsering Dhundup, however, is first to point out the shortcomings and challenges at hand: "Apart from not having funds to hire a regular vet we have at least two needs right now; anaesthesia machines and an X-ray machine. With proper anaesthesia equipment we can provide a more humane treatment and remove the risk of overdosing", he said and added; "the nearest animal hospital with X-ray facilities is 2 hours away and we can't always afford to take the animals there. These are areas where we need more funding."
Receiving its core-funding from the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, the clinic is also sponsored by World-wide Veterinary Services who finds volunteer veterinarians for the clinic and pays for some equipment. The NGO Animal SOS Denmark also provides veterinarians and pays for their long term accommodation. Even so, at times the clinic doesn't have a regular veterinarian available for months during which time only minor treatments can be performed.
But to the very best of their abilities, and with the best of intentions, the green-clad animal lovers of Tibet Charity's veterinary clinic can no doubt be seen in the seasons to come, blessing the dogs of McLeod Ganj with a needle and a coat of paint.