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December 04, 2009

Greetings from Bhutan: Saving Street Dogs

HSUS Board Member Andrew Weinstein with HSI van in Bhutan captial Thimphu
Weinstein
Andrew sees an HSI van in the Bhutan capital of Thimphu.

Perhaps the fastest-growing component of our work at The HSUS is our international activity, driven by our affiliate, Humane Society International. Recently, Andrew Weinstein, a member of the board of directors of The HSUS, was vacationing in Asia, and stumbled across our work in the course of his travels—and the highlight for him was running across our spaying and neutering work in the remote Bumthang valley of central Bhutan. I thought his serendipitous encounter was quite remarkable, and I asked him to provide an account.


Street dog rests in Phobjikha Valley of Bhutan
Weinstein
A dog rests in the Phobjikha Valley.

Bhutan is a small mountain kingdom in the Himalayas surrounded by two giant neighbors, India and China. Bhutan's population—roughly the same as Charlotte, N.C.—is spread across nearly 15,000 square miles of stunning snow-peaked mountains, lush green valleys, and mountain rainforests. Though not wealthy, the country is a global leader on environmental preservation, and its constitution not only requires the government to protect biodiversity and preserve the environment, it also explicitly mandates that more than 60 percent of the country's land be maintained under forest cover for all time.

One area where Bhutan has a huge environmental problem, however, is street dogs. As a Buddhist country, the Bhutanese commendably will not use lethal methods to destroy or control any animal population, but that has led to an explosion of stray dogs across the country, particularly in towns and villages. If you are visiting the capital city of Thimphu, you definitely need earplugs if you plan to sleep comfortably through the all-night barking.

To help address this problem in a humane manner, HSI conducted a four-month pilot program in coordination with the Government of Bhutan earlier this year in which it sterilized and vaccinated 2,866 dogs in Thimphu. Based on the success of that program, HSI launched a larger, nationwide program this fall in coordination with the government to sterilize up to 50,000 dogs over the next 3-5 years.

Although I knew the program had recently launched in Bhutan, I didn't expect to see its great work almost everywhere we went in the country. On our very first day in Thimphu, we spotted one of the HSI-branded vans in the parking lot of the massive Dzong (fortress-monastery) from which the government runs the country.

Street dog near Tiger's Nest monastery in Bhutan
Weinstein
At the Tiger's Nest monastery.

Four days later, after weaving halfway across the country on a twisting one-lane national "highway" through the mountains, we rolled into the small town of Jakar in the Bumthang valley. On our way to the hotel, we drove by a beautiful old farmhouse on the river and were surprised to see a huge HSI banner and another HSI-branded van parked outside (see a photo). We stopped in and met the team leader, a charming veterinarian from India named Dr. Satish.

Dr. Satish was kind enough to walk us through the entire process with an incoming street dog—from capture to anesthesia, vaccination, sterilization and recovery. He told us that the Bumthang team has already sterilized more than 1,090 dogs since September and is handling about 18-20 new dogs per day. They also evaluate the dogs for any other medical conditions and treat them as needed for conditions ranging from eye infections to mange.

After some initial cultural hurdles, due in part to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation and the fear that the dogs may include past family members, the program has gained a great deal of acceptance, and many of the dogs they are now sterilizing are also family pets.

It's very heartening to travel halfway around the world only to discover teams of dedicated HSI employees working to help street dogs and other needy animals.

Members of HSI street dog management and rabies control program in Bhutan

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