Rangoon’s Stray Dogs: Burdens or Companions?

By Tin Htet Paing 23 May 2016

RANGOON — Midnights in Rangoon’s Min Ma Naing neighborhood, also known as U Wisara Housing, are incredibly quiet; usually, there is only the sound of footsteps. But there is one exception: barking. Dogs—both strays and quasi-pets, have free rein at night.

This is a reality for most of Rangoon’s neighborhoods. Some residents value these dogs as guards or even as companions, while others are afraid and want the situation “handled.”

According to the city’s municipal committee—the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC)—about 180,000 stray dogs live on the streets of Burma’s commercial capital, which has a population of over 5 million. Officials from the municipal body say that every day they receive letters from residents, urging them to “cleanse” their neighborhoods of strays.

YCDC’s attempt to “handle” the city’s stray dogs by killing them with poison recently made headlines in local newspapers. But this conflict between Rangoon’s animal lovers and the YCDC is nothing new. The YCDC has been using these “lethal methods,” such as scattering poison-laced meat in the street, for decades. However, the dramatic growth of the city’s stray dog population—from over 70,000 in 2013 to nearly 200,000 in 2016—suggests that the YCDC’s tactics have hardly achieved their purpose.

In early May, a group of Rangoon-based animal lovers launched a petition urging the city’s authorities to stop exterminating stray dogs and to look for a more sustainable solution for managing the unwieldy number of canines in the streets.

“We aim to stop the brutal act of poisoning stray dogs. We want to promote their welfare [so] that they may live their lives free of disease,” May Thazin Swe, an animal welfare advocate and a lawyer, told The Irrawaddy.

She added that rather than poisoning stray dogs, Rangoon city authorities should vaccinate or neuter them to clamp down on overpopulation.

“We want the YCDC to focus on humane approaches,” May Thazin Swe said.

Since July 2014, the YCDC has been investigating the use of a sterilization program that entails anesthetizing dogs so that they can be vaccinated and sterilized. But according to Myo Lwin, a deputy head of the YCDC’s Veterinary and Slaughterhouse Department, logistical and financial hurdles make it difficult for the municipal body to practice this treatment regularly.

“Sterilization is expensive. It costs us between 20,000 and 25,000 kyats (US$17-21) per dog. This includes anesthetizing,” Myo Lwin said.

“We can’t afford to do this for every stray dog in the city.”

The YCDC said that poisoning is an “ordinary procedure” of the committee, with priority placed in public places such as parks, schools, hospitals and neighborhoods. Myo Lwin said that the municipal body can “cleanse” 30,000 dogs per year. However, he also admitted that killing stray dogs is not effective in reducing the population, and neither are neutering and spaying without receiving more financial assistance and human resources.

While admitting that the YCDC should manage the city’s garbage more efficiently so that it will not attract stray dogs, Myo Lwin also called for responsible ownership, referring to people who feed stray dogs out of the belief that doing so will bring them good luck.

“Feeding them without taking responsibility isn’t going to help solve the problem,” he said.

The YCDC official said that poisoning should be done until the population is under control.

“It’s gradually becoming a bigger social burden. We won’t need to do it once people are no longer in danger,” Myo Lwin said, referring to the risk of catching rabies.

More than 95 percent of rabies-related human deaths occur in Asia and Africa, and within that Burma is considered by the World Health Organization to be a “high rabies endemic country.”

According to the WHO, rabid dogs are the source of the vast majority of human deaths from rabies, contributing up to 99 percent of all rabies transmissions to humans.

The disease is preventable via vaccination, and Yangon General Hospital (YGH) has been providing anti-rabies vaccines free of charge since September 2013. In 2015 alone, more than 6,000 people bitten by a dog or a cat were subsequently vaccinated against rabies with the three-dose series.

The WHO says that, globally, a person dies every 15 minutes from rabies. With some 1,000 deaths per year, Burma has the highest number of rabies-related deaths in Southeast Asia. According to the YGH’s deputy medical superintendent Dr. Khin Khin Htwe, 10 people have already died from rabies during first five months of this year—at her hospital alone.

Professor Dr. Myint Thein, a former rector at the University of Veterinary Science Myanmar and a veterinarian with over 40 years of experience in the field, said that vaccinating dogs is the most effective way to prevent people from contracting rabies.

“As long as we don’t vaccinate stray dogs, it’s impossible to eliminate rabies,” he said.

He also points to countries such as India and Nepal that have been successfully stemming their number of rabies-related human deaths through the vaccination and neutering of stray dogs rather than through the controversial method of killing en masse.

The Emergency Animal Rescue Team (EART), a Rangoon-based volunteer group founded by local youth, has been offering free assistance to stray dogs in desperate need of health care. Over 140 dogs are already in the care of the organization. But Nay Lin Tun, one of the group’s founding members, told The Irrawaddy that, regrettably, taking in more stray dogs—even those at risk of being killed by the YCDC—is beyond the capacity of his team.

“In my opinion, what the YCDC is trying to do is 50 percent correct,” Nay Lin Tun said. “But the YCDC shouldn’t just scatter poison. They should cooperate with residents and plan, systematically, how to address this problem.”

“Poisoning is too cruel and inhumane; the dogs suffer too much.”

According to the YCDC, an organization led by Min Lee, wife of former US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell, has signed an agreement with the YCDC to carry out a three-year project, expected to start in June, to confront the issue of stray dogs in Rangoon. The YCDC also plans to open an animal shelter before the end of 2016.

Along with many other advocates, Terryl Just, founder of the Yangon Animal Shelter (YAS), has been campaigning against poisoning stray dogs for nearly a decade. She said that only the TNR (trap-neuter-return) method could decrease the population in the long run.

YAS, which started with less than 50 dogs, currently houses over 500 dogs. However, Just told The Irrawaddy that the shelter could not take in any more dogs due to financial hurdles. Moreover, releasing healthy and “fixed” dogs to make room for other stray ones is not an option as long as the authorities continue to poison all stray dogs, she explained.

“We constantly receive calls from people begging us to take in more dogs,” she said.

“It’s heartbreaking to have to tell them that we can’t, but we’re already struggling financially to care of the dogs already at the shelter.”

Just said that the shelter’s hope is to bring in more organizations that will promote both the TNR method and mass vaccination as ways to reduce the stray dog population and prevent the spread of diseases such as rabies.

“Many of these organizations, however, won’t provide any services until the poisoning stops. Campaigning against dog poisoning is a priority for YAS,” Just said.

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that 95 percent of rabies-related human deaths in Asia and Africa occur in Burma. In fact, 95 percent of rabies deaths globally occur in Asia and Africa.