Walk along the terraced rice fields of Pana, hike the switchbacks to the 17th-century Cheri Monastery in Thimphu or explore the back alleys of Paro and you see the same thing: dogs. In Bhutan, they are everywhere. Some nap soundly during the day, conked out on median strips and sidewalks and in the centers of traffic roundabouts, oblivious to the people and vehicles swirling around them. Others seem to have busy schedules, heading up to the monastery for the morning, then cruising back down to meet friends in the parking lot and head off on afternoon adventures. Near temples and tourist sites, they follow visitors in hopes of handouts, or seek shade under parked cars.
Look a little closer and you’ll notice something unusual: most of them—in fact, about 75,000 of the country’s estimated 100,000 dogs—have a triangular notch in their left ear. This distinctive mark identifies the dog as having been spayed or neutered as well as vaccinated against rabies. It also represents a huge milestone in the world of animal welfare.
Straddling the Himalayas, tiny Bhutan is perched between China to the north and India to the south. It may be best known for its Gross National Happiness index, in which Buddhist cultural and spiritual values are applied to socioeconomic development. The fact that these Buddhist values extend to all sentient beings is one reason Bhutan is now seven years into the world’s first—and arguably, most successful—nationwide spay-and-neuter effort, the reverberations of which are almost certain to be felt well outside its borders.
In partnership with Humane Society International (HSI), Bhutan has now sterilized about 75 percent of its total estimated canine population, hitting the critical tipping point at which most animal welfare experts believe a population stabilizes (meaning that growth stops and overall numbers decline). Maintaining that percentage will require about 3,200 sterilizations per year. The Bhutanese team, which now consists of highly experienced vets, vet techs, administrators and dogcatchers, intends to do that and more—to reach between 10,000 and 12,000 dogs per year and achieve its dream of both reducing the dog population and improving its overall health.
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“Because the Bhutanese government was so welcoming and so supportive, we had a huge opportunity to tackle [canine population management] on a scale that was really unprecedented,” says Kelly O’Meara, director of HSI’s companion animals and engagement department. “Now we have this goldstandard model for a program covering an entire nation that we can use as an example for other governments who are looking for a real solution to their dog overpopulation problems.”
Dogs in Bhutan aren’t typically owned, as we define it in the United States. But they aren’t really strays either. Although most households have dogs in the yard, these animals don’t go indoors, wear collars or chew on squeaky toys. Furthermore, Bhutan does not have dog breeders; the few purebreds in evidence likely come from India, Thailand or Nepal.
The majority are “community dogs,” meaning that they hang out in a specific locale—a city block, on the grounds of a hotel, at a temple or bus station—and the people who live and work in that area feed them, in accordance with Buddhist practices. The Junction Bookstore in the capital city of Thimphu, for instance, prominently displays a change jar on the counter to collect money to feed the eight dogs in its immediate area, all of whom have notched ears. Most community dogs are a healthy weight and reasonably well socialized, but that doesn’t mean they have easy lives. Among other things, almost no one takes responsibility for them if they’re injured or ill. (See the sidebar for an inspiring exception.)
Prior to 2009, Bhutan’s dog population was exploding. Overall economic development, including a proliferation of meat markets, had resulted in new sources of food scraps and garbage. Females were having multiple litters, and their puppies were wandering into traffic, with predictable results. The sight of so many dead puppies along the roadways upset both the locals and visitors flooding the country as a result of its push to expand tourism. Tourists were also complaining that they couldn’t sleep because of incessant nighttime barking; some tour groups and guides even suggested that their clients bring earplugs. (Unneutered male dogs bark and fight over females.)
Eager to appease the tourists and also to have cleaner streets in preparation for the 2008 coronation of a new king, the government began looking for ways to deal with its dog-population problem. As Buddhists, they rejected widespread killing in favor of impoundment, rounding up thousands of dogs and confining them to facilities in which they mingled freely. The result was dreadful; disease spread quickly, fights and injuries were rampant, and adult dogs routinely slaughtered newborn puppies.
HSI had cautioned against impounding, and about a year into the experiment, Rahul Sehgal, director of HSI Asia, did a status check with the government. He asked to tour the sites with government officials and religious leaders, all of whom were sickened by what they saw. “We knew that if they saw the conditions, it would have an impact,” says O’Meara.
Impounding isn’t just inhumane, it’s also ineffective. So is culling; killing dogs does not control the population in the long term. Both simply provide short-term relief from the symptoms “We really struggled,” recalls Sehgal. “But [then] we started recruiting and training local Bhutanese, people who could breathe easier, for one thing, speak the language and climb mountains. And it all began to take off.”
As part of the program, the Bhutanese government launched a massive public education campaign to explain the goals to its citizens. The national cable television network ran public service announcements about the importance of spay/neuter in decreasing sexually transmitted diseases and reducing injuries from dogfights. In television spots and in the local papers, officials described the meaning of the ear notch and announced that Tuesdays were “Love Your Dog Day.” Every Tuesday, people are encouraged to bring their dogs—however loosely that ownership is practiced—to the local clinic for free sterilization, health checks and vaccinations.
At the end of three years, the HSI/ Bhutan team had reached its goal of 50,000 sterilizations. The only problem was that the team’s field experiences had showed that initial estimates of the population size were way off— rather than 70,000 dogs, there were more like 100,000. With that in mind, both parties agreed to a Phase II extension from 2012 through 2014. Phase III followed and is set to end in 2018. Over the years, the makeup of the teams has shifted until it is now almost entirely Bhutanese; Sehgal provides oversight and can board a plane to Paro at a moment’s notice.
As Phase II began, the Bhutanese vet students were completing their educations in India and starting to join the national campaign. To hone their highvolume sterilization skills, they were all trained by HSI vets from India.
These techniques were on full display one Friday last May at a small clinic in Paro, where veterinarians Sangay Dorji and Bhakta Bdr Gurung made quick work of their 10 patients, who had been netted in the neighborhood that morning and soon thereafter, anesthetized and prepped for surgery, which included ear notching and cauterization. Post-surgery, vet techs placed the dogs on blankets in an outdoor recovery room. Each dog also received a rabies vaccination, ivermectin for parasites and skin problems, and a B complex injection. Once the dogs were back on their feet, the team returned them to the area in which they were originally caught.
Ten patients was actually a slow day. These roundups, which take place in every precinct of Bhutan every Friday, typically net 20 dogs, and Dorji has seen as many as 50 dogs come in a single day. He has performed 5,000 procedures since joining the program in 2013—he can spay a dog in less than 15 minutes and neuter one in less than 10. (Compare that to 45 minutes and 30 minutes, respectively, using a traditional method with a larger incision.) With a female patient on the operating table, he demonstrated a technique for keeping the stitches on the inside of the skin to reduce the likelihood of infection.
Dorji says that he and his team spend a lot of time out in the community, talking about animal health and spay/ neuter at schools, temples and hotels, sometimes even going door to door. They almost always have a receptive audience. “We’ll go to a temple and explain it to the monks, tell them it may take an entire day, but in the long term, it will be much better for everyone,” says Dorji. “Then all the monks work with us to bring us their dogs. Once people understand what we are doing and why it’s important, they always agree to help.”
That may be because animal welfare is already an integral part of Bhutanese culture. “As Buddhists, we believe that a dog could have been your parent in a former life, so we feed them and treat them with compassion,” says Dorji. “If anyone is seen abusing an animal, that person would be immediately challenged by other people.”
By now, most “owned” dogs in Bhutan are sporting notched ears. So, the remaining challenge is to target the dogs who have repeatedly evaded even the most expert dogcatchers. Dorji hopes to engage the community in that effort as well. He thinks that the people who regularly feed dogs in certain areas may have enough of a bond with them to be able to bring them in.
Kunzang Choki, who runs the dogfriendly Junction Bookstore, agrees. She and her coworkers have set up crates for the local dogs to sleep in outside the storefront, and dogs are welcome to lounge inside and partake of an occasional belly rub—not to mention regular meals, courtesy of the change jar. “We’re a small country,” says Choki. “If everyone took the initiative to take care of the dogs in their own area, we could solve this problem.”
For anyone worried that this effort is going to deprive Bhutanese of canine companions in the future, never fear. Even an effort as comprehensive as this one isn’t going to catch and neuter every dog in the country. “It will never happen that there won’t be dogs in Bhutan,” says Sehgal. “As long as there is garbage and an ecosystem to support them, there will be dogs, no matter how many we spay and neuter.”
Jamie Vaughan fell in love with Bhutan on a visit in 2005 and decided she wanted to live there. A native of Virginia, Vaughan had been working for the local water district in Colorado, but figured she could take advantage of Bhutan’s incentives for attracting foreign investment to open a hotel. She just didn’t realize that her “hotel” would have long-term guests and that those guests would be animals.
But, these days, as founder and head of the Maya Foundation, which runs Barnyard Bhutan Animal Rescue & Sanctuary in Paro, she takes care of about 240 dogs, 25 cats, 14 horses and mules, 45 goats, 19 pigs, 18 cows, two mice and a pigeon.
“In the U.S., we just aren’t exposed to this kind of suffering. I started seeing dogs on the streets who had been hit by cars or injured in a fight or had horrific skin conditions, and I couldn’t leave them, so I brought them home,” she explains. “And then one dog turned into seven, which turned into 50, which turned into 100, and then I stopped counting.”
An ardent animal lover with no previous experience in animal welfare,Vaughan taught herself basic first aid, such as cleaning and bandaging wounds. She’s trying to secure Bhutan’s first-ever X-ray machine for animals, and works closely with Animal Ortho Care in Virginia, which makes prosthetic legs for her dogs and equines. She even helps build the new pens and enclosures that are constantly being added.
In a country with no animal shelters (as there is no culture of adoption) and no long-term-care facilities, Barnyard Bhutan serves a critical need. Vaughan collaborates closely with the government vet hospital in Paro, taking over nursing duties for animals who have been seriously injured or have had surgery at the hospital and keeping them at her sanctuary as long as needed—even if that’s for life.
Though she tries to return as many rehabilitated dogs as possible to the sites where they were originally found, that often isn’t possible. Dogs with permanent disabilities—such as amputations or brain damage from distemper or head traumas—can’t fend for themselves on the streets. One of her star residents, a dog who looks like the Himalayan cousin of a Bernese Mountain dog, was found at the iconic Tiger’s Nest Monastery by a filmmaker/tourist named Tim Gorski, who brought him to Bhutan Barnyard. The dog, named Tim in honor of his rescuer, is now the picture of health, with a glorious fur coat. Returning Tim to Tiger’s Nest would require him to exercise skills that he’s likely to have lost during his many months of rehab—namely, establishing himself in the existing pack—and Vaughan doesn’t want to risk it.