Life as a dog on the streets of Kathmandu

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Cute puppy face

It’s a sweltering day in Kathmandu and Doctor Katharina Dworschak is at the base of Boudhanath stupa, overseeing a bubbly melee of soaped-up street dogs and the volunteers responsible for them.

The pups are bathed beneath the watchful eyes of the Buddha every Saturday, year-round, creating a delightful spectacle for onlookers. If you make it early enough, you’ll see the regular doggos queueing up next to the pigeon congregation area, excited for their day of pampering (one of my favourite things about Kathmandu: pigeons can be given as landmarks).

The Buddha is always watching
The Buddha is always watching

This vibrant bustle of organised chaos is the handiwork of Street Dog Care, an organisation Katharina has been working with since just after it launched in 2008. She divides her time between helping the pups in Nepal and working in hospitals in India and Africa. A physicist and physician who’s allergic to dogs, Katharina is a strange fit for a non-profit dog-bathing enterprise. She laughs when I point this out and asks if I’d like to know why she’s stuck with it for almost a decade. Her offer is impossible to resist. 

When she first saw Street Dog Care and its founder (Andrea Bringmann) in action, Katharina was impressed in the vague way most of us are when we see people in the world doing good things. “Then I saw she was vaccinating the dogs against rabies. As a human doctor, that convinced me. I’ve worked with patients in India who were dying of rabies and it’s…” she shakes her head and runs a sun-beaten hand across her eyes. “It’s a horrible death.”

I venture a question about the possibility of survival. She shakes her head. “You have a very small window to get the vaccine. If the first symptoms start, you’ve missed it. Then there’s no chance.”

This is where the vaccination of street dogs becomes important, not just for the pups but for the humans they share their world with. “It’s not possible to vaccinate all the people against rabies. And the disease is mainly transferred by monkeys and rats. If you vaccinate the dogs, you create a natural buffer between the humans and the diseased animals. Because if the dogs are accepted by the community, they build territories and they chase away the monkeys.”

Integration of the dog and human communities is key. And it seems to be working. Kathmandu’s dog territories are a remarkable living feature of the city. During the day, they’re less apparent as the dogs sprawl out on sidewalks or curl up in stairwells.

puppy bundle
Puppy bundles can be found in the doorways of most Kathmandu shops

But at night, the streets empty of people and Kathmandu becomes dog town. They roam in packs, defending the borders of their territory. I’ve been followed by many a pup on a late night stroll and there’s always a specific point at which they stop. An edge, invisible to humans, beyond which they dare not venture. 

In Boudha, the monastery-filled region that spirals out around the iconic stupa, this sharing of space between humans and dogs is remarkably peaceful. The pups can be seen walking the kora (circumambulation of the stupa) with as much meditative serenity as humans. 

Puppy doing kora with the people
Morning kora at Boudhanath Stupa: featuring serious prostration practice and puppies

While the sight is as common as it is beautiful, Katharina says it wasn’t always this way. “In the beginning, the dogs here were not in good shape. People would chase them away. But now they look healthy and people accept them. Slowly, they became community dogs. They stay and they protect these areas.”

Street Dog Care’s combination of cleaning and vaccinating the dogs adds to the safety of Kathmandu’s unique urban ecosystem. They align themselves with the World Health Organisation’s ‘One Health’ concept which recognises the interconnection between humans, animals and the environment, and encourages a unified approach to treatment. However, they find themselves surprisingly at odds with the ethos of Mahatma Gandhi. In a 1926 article in Young India, Gandhi said:

“a roving dog without an owner is a danger to society and a swarm of them is a menace to its very existence.”

He advocated the culling of street dogs whenever a home could not be found for them. While the article is nearly a century old, Gandhi’s words are still regularly quoted in India as justification for the killing of street dogs. While this may seem cruel compared to the compassionate work being done by Street Dog Care, it’s important to remember this is not a simple situation. The Kathmandu Animal Treatment Centre estimates there to be more than 22,500 street dogs in Nepal, responsible for around 35,000 bites requiring medical treatment each year.

Katharina agrees there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. As we’re speaking, a group of Nepali men shuffle over to us with a large, open duffle bag. In it lies a black dog, eyes shut, breathing heavy. I watch as the veterinary nurse checks it over and then sends the men off. It doesn’t look good. Katharina explains they will take it to Street Dog Care’s clinic. “If it’s treatable, he can stay there until he’s strong enough to return to the streets. Handicapped dogs, who can’t survive on the streets, they stay in the dog centre.”

I wonder how they have the resources to continue caring for handicapped dogs while also taking in new ones. Katharina smiles, “they don’t stay with us long. Handicapped dogs are almost always adopted. Usually by volunteers.” 

“Locals?” I ask. “You’d be surprised,” comes the reply. Katharina explains how a few of the injured animals found their forever homes on the tail end of a long-distance plane ride. For some dogs and their humans, love really does know no borders.

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