One weekend, my friend Pema and I took a walk down the valley from RTC into Ngabiphu, the village below the college. She was taking me to the dog shelter to spend some time with the animals and just see what was what. Pema is doing her capstone project on the treatment of stray dogs in Thimphu and on RTC campus. The dogs are a big “problem” in the eyes of the administration and the staff of the mess (dining hall). There are a dozen or so dogs that live pretty full-time on campus, in various states of health, but who are generally regarded as pests. The dogs of RTC are consistently well behaved and friendly compared to the packs of dogs that roam Thimphu-town, many of whom are very fierce looking. I actively avoid the dogs in town, but have befriended many of the campus dogs. My favorites are Roger, a mange-y tawny-colored old boy in sore need of attention, and a tiny black and white half-blind yet eager and affectionate girl named Henry.
We are instructed not to feed the dogs on campus, partly because they have the status of rats, but partly out of the more compassionate view that, like bears at campsites, they become dependent on the humans and have nothing to eat when school is not in session. This compassion aside however, I’ve been pretty surprised by people’s behavior toward these animals. The most common reactions are annoyance or disgust, but aggression is pretty common too. My friend Ana actually saw one of the mess workers kick a dog in the head, completely unprovoked.
These kinds of incidents are a big part of Pema’s research. She is an animal rights activist, and tells me she is motivated by her views that animals experience feelings and pain just like humans do. This stems from Buddhism, and the respect and empathy extended to animals because of their position in the wheel of life as sentient beings. She explained to me that even the tiniest fly tries to get away from you if you swat at it because it is afraid that you will hurt or kill it. Animals, she says, may not express pain the same we do, but they do experience it, and we should do our best to help them, or at least not harm them. It is the Hippocratic Oath of kindness.
One positive part of RTC’s relationship with the strays is that much of the leftover food from the mess is sent down the road to the shelter that Pema and I visited. This shelter is right above the road I walk on my way to my internship at the National Biodiversity Center. It is divided into two sections, one of which is owned by the city, and the other which is owned privately by a Lama, who is currently abroad in India. In the meantime, the caretaker whom Pema and I called “Uncle,” is in charge of the facilities. Over 100 dogs live at this shelter, and most were very friendly. Like the dogs on campus, many were partially blind, or had injured legs, or patchy fur. Many of the injuries come from car collisions, especially among the dogs rescued from the city. The shelter is mostly composed of small shanty-like buildings where the dogs stay, as well as a few larger buildings and a small clinic. Many of the dogs have been spayed or neutered, and they are marked by either a clipped right ear, or a number tattooed inside an ear.
The shelter also has a pen to the side of the complex which houses four pigs. These muddy, fly-covered, big-eared pigs had incredibly expressive faces. In Bhutan, raising pigs can be pretty controversial, because they are not raised for any other purpose than their meat. This is a big conflict among many Buddhist Bhutanese, even though eating meat is largely acceptable, it seems better in their eyes to raise livestock who have a purpose in life (cows and sheep for milk, cheese, etc; chickens for eggs) aside from becoming dinner. Additionally, while it is typically seen as ok to consume meat, it isn’t seen as ok to do the killing of the animal oneself. The traditional method of slaughtering pigs is really brutal too–the pigs are essentially beaten to death. I was happy to see these pigs alive and snorting pleasantly. The biggest of the four, named Nado, was particularly lively. I oinked and snorted with him, which made Pema laugh. “You can’t speak Dzongkha, but you can speak Pig!”
Although I had had a scary encounter with dogs earlier in the semester, when two farm dogs had chased me and one bit me (it mostly just caught my pant-leg, and didn’t break my skin), playing with these dogs at the shelter dogs reminded me of how much kindness and joy exists in people and beasts, if those two things are separate categories.
– Carrie Decker