The challenges of keeping Yangon’s street dogs alive

The Yangon Animal Shelter recently opened a second shelter, however support is desperately needed and culling continues unabated.

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Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 14 May 2014

Yangon street dogs. Photo credit: Terryl Just
Yangon street dogs. Photo credit: Terryl Just

The Yangon Animal Shelter was founded in December 2012 and since then it has provided refuge for hundreds of street dogs who were injured, at risk of poisoning or simply young and motherless. However despite the recent opening of a second, larger shelter, co-founders Terryl Just and Daw Roza Win, both of whom work full-time at the International School Yangon, said they are struggling every month to raise enough funds to feed and care for the dogs, who currently number around 250. They are assisted by a small but committed group of volunteers.

“The dogs end up at the shelters primarily because members of the public have called us pleading to take them in because they are in danger of being poisoned [by Yangon City Development Committee], or their neighbours are throwing rocks at them, or they are sick or injured,” Terryl Just told Mizzima Business Weekly.

“I realise I can’t help every street dog,” Terryl, a self-professed animal lover, concedes.

“My original plan was to help as many dogs as possible by taking them in temporarily, spading or neutering and vaccinating them, or providing any necessary veterinary care, and then to return the dogs to where they’d been found, provided it was safe enough – or to have them adopted. However that whole idea was blown out of the water because of the ongoing poisoning.”

Terryl Just
Terryl Just

Authorities have long used poisoned meat bait as an attempt to keep the number of strays down and thereby reduce the public health risk posed by rabies. However sources told Mizzima Business Weekly that in the lead up to the SEA Games hosted by Myanmar last December, the culling campaign notably intensified.

According to Terryl, an increase in tourist numbers is also a factor in poisonings occurring more frequently than in previous years, as authorities are naturally keen to present Yangon in the best possible light. However it seems the goal has backfired, as public outrage is mounting.

“Tourists have written to me saying, ‘I feel so bad for the street dogs here. How can I help? Can I send money? Many are aware of the poisoning,” Terryl said.

According to Humane Society International’s Asia Director Rahul Sehgal, culling is an ineffective means of controlling the number of stray animals.

“Culling has never eradicated an entire population of street dogs in any given city or country. The amount of resources needed to do that is something [developing] nations are not equipped or disciplined to do.”

He also said that scientific research has established that killing street dogs has no impact on the number of human deaths caused by rabies.

Puppies and dogs rescued by Yangon Animal Shelter
Puppies and dogs rescued by Yangon Animal Shelter

“Dogs move in packs and when certain pack members are culled, it creates an imbalance within their environment. The surviving dogs come together and quickly form new packs. With the temporary decrease in the dog population, there is less competition for food, which allows the new packs to eat and breed more. More puppies are born to the surviving animals, and more of them survive, and more dogs migrate into the area recently rendered dog-free,” he explained.

A far preferable alternative is what is known as animal birth control (ABC) – this involves dogs being briefly captured in order to be sterilised and vaccinated before being released in the same area they were found. However it must be carried out on a wide scale to succeed.

“Within a breeding season, you have to target 70 percent of the existing population of street dogs,” Rahul explained – because if one pair of dogs is allowed to breed successfully, they can produce up to 55,000 dogs within 5 years.

“If the long-term experiment of culling hasn’t yet solved the problem, other options should be considered,” he added.

India is considered the pioneer of animal birth control and in 2000 its parliament passed an amendment to the Dog Management Act, which stipulates that the only way street dogs are to be dealt is by sterilisation and vaccination. Any other method is illegal.

Humane Society International has been invited by the governments of Bhutan, India, The Philippines and Mauritus to carry out sterilisation campaigns, and Rahul said that the concept of ABC “is now widespread across many developing countries, including Bhutan, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal.”

Fortunately for Myanmar’s street dogs, a glimmer of hope has appeared on the horizon. In late April the Bridget Bardot Foundation contacted Terryl Just to express interest in funding a sterilisation and vaccination campaign, as well donating money for necessities such food – which alone amounts to US$3,000 a month.

“However the foundation said that they won’t do anything until the poisoning stops,” Terryl said.

Terryl has since met with representatives from the French embassy in Yangon and a meeting has tentatively been scheduled with relevant YCDC personnel to discuss the idea of using sterilisation as a substitute for culling.

“It would be wonderful if other embassies here could get on board to lobby against it,” she said.

In the meantime, however, both shelters are “completely over capacity,” Terryl said. The first shelter, which is on a third of an acre, was built to accommodate 50 dogs but now has 120. The dogs at this shelter, which is located in Pele, Mingalardon Township, some 23 kilometres from the city centre, are mostly puppies and those with a higher chance of being adopted due to having affable personalities.

Dogs at the new shelter. Photo credit: Terryl Just
Dogs at the new shelter. Photo credit: Terryl Just

“The second shelter is a lot larger but it’s another 30 minutes drive away, which is why we keep the wilder dogs there – it makes it easier for those interested in adopting to come and meet them.”

When asked how many dogs have been adopted since the shelter opened at the end of 2012, Terryl – who herself owns 11 dogs – replied, “Nowhere near enough. Only 40 or so.”

She said there’s a common misconception among expats that it’s not possible to own a pet unless they are living in Myanmar permanently.

“But it’s perfectly possible to export pets – and I’m willing to do the paperwork for anyone who adopts a dog from the Yangon Animal Shelter. I’ve been teaching overseas for 25 years and I’ve always had my dogs and cats with me.”

She also pointed out that for those who live in apartments, older dogs make ideal companions.

“We have an old dog called Sadi who is blind but very sweet – she can work her way around but she gets picked on by the other dogs. Sadi would be ideal in an apartment – she just needs a walk every once in a while.”

And for those who for whatever reason cannot commit to ownership, Terryl said there’s a “desperate need” to find people willing to fostering a puppy for a short period.

She explained that puppies below the age of six to eight weeks can’t be immunised so the risk of them contracting illnesses is high, along with the fact that young puppies without a mother need more TLC than older dogs.

“We’ve lost a lot of puppies due to the fact that some [dogs] carry diseases but don’t show signs – notably canine distemper virus. Sadly it’s very common,” Terryl said.

Needless to say, funding remains an ongoing challenge for the not-for-profit Yangon Animal Shelter, which is a registered NGO in Myanmar and the United States. Donations of any amount are gratefully received and can be deposited at Royal Veterinary Clinic, which is located at 221 Shwegondaing Road in Bahan Township. Phone: 0986 160 037

Help is always needed
Help is always needed

The clinic’s vet, U Myat Oo, is one of two vets who provides treatment to the shelter’s dogs – and he does so free of charge.

For more information, visit the Yangon Animal Shelter’s Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Yangon-Animal-Shelter/323142894458502?fref=ts

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