SHWE PYAUK, Rangoon Division — In the beginning, they had a bleak destiny.
Clubbed on their heads and knocked unconscious at night, they were thrown onto a cart and dumped in a cage. When their headcount eventually reached 200, they would be shipped again, this time to the butchers’ blocks at restaurants over the border in China, where dog meat is considered a delicacy.
Were it not for Myat Thet Mon, this group of more than 120 mutts from the town of Pa Late, near Burma’s second-largest city, Mandalay, would still be crammed into small wire cages, painfully awaiting their turn for slaughter.
But now, as luck would have it, they are roaming freely around a temporary shelter more than an hour’s drive from Rangoon, in a space that’s nearly 25 meters by 12 meters.
“I can heave a sigh of relief for them now,” says the 35-year old woman as she prepares food for the dogs at the shelter, which she runs with support from other animal lovers around the country. She rescued the mutts from a smuggler in Pa Late who had planned to sell them for 10,000 kyats (US$10) each in China. “Sometimes, I wonder how our nation has fallen so low to become a country that sells dogs.”
Her efforts to save the mutts were heartily embraced by many people in Burma, a country where dog meat is rarely seen on the menu and street dogs are voluntarily cared for by members of local communities. Many people were happy to hear about the canine rescue, although some were also upset to learn where the dogs had been originally destined for sale, in China.
“Don’t they think they have crossed the line?” says Ding Ra Nin, an ethnic Kachin woman volunteering at the shelter. “They have already exploited us with the Myitsone [a controversial Chinese-backed dam in north Burma]. Now it’s our dogs!”
Myat Thet Mon’s efforts became well known in Burma thanks to local media coverage, with online posts about her rescue mission going viral in late July.
The public support for the rescue highlights the resurrection of animal rights activism in the country amid an ongoing transition from military rule. Although the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is now defunct, animal rights activists have begun to network with each in their work.
Still, for Myat Thet Mon, the canine rescue was no easy task.
“It took me 26 days to bring all those dogs down to Rangoon,” she says.
It all started with a post on Facebook. Myat Thet Mon read on the social media site that a smuggler in Pa Late had captured the strays and intended to smuggle them to China. Being an animal lover herself—with 50 stray dogs under her care at home—she visited the smuggler to determine whether it would be possible to rescue the dogs.
She traveled nearly 645 km (400 miles) north of Rangoon to see the dogs. They were in dire condition, she said, with loose skin hanging from malnourished, skeletal bodies. Some had open wounds on their heads after being hit by an iron rod.
“It was heartbreaking,” she says. “Their sad eyes made me determined to complete my mission, as if they were pleading with me, ‘Please, get us out of here!’”
She says the smuggler demanded that she pay 7,000 kyats for each dog.
With donations from animal lovers around the country, she initially gathered enough money to save 60 of 172 dogs, sending them to an animal shelter in upper Burma. The smuggler threatened to ship the remaining dogs to China if she did not claim them within two days.
Rather than meet his demands, she took a different approach.
“Why should I listen to him? He surely knew we were his easy prey. He would recapture the dogs and ask for a ransom again. It would become an endless circle,” she says.
Instead, she reported the smuggler to any authority who might step in and help—including the head of the Buddhist monastic community in Mandalay, the divisional minister, the chief of the Mandalay Police and the local administrator in Pa Late. She urged them to take action against the smuggler for his cruelty to animals.
For a few days, nothing happened. Then she disclosed the case to the media.
“As soon as the news appeared in papers, the Mandalay Special Police Branch called me on August 1,” she says. “An hour later, they threw the smuggler in jail.”
After the arrest, Myat Thet Mon navigated bureaucratic red tape for two weeks before receiving official clearance to ship more than 130 dogs in a 12-wheeler to the temporary shelter near Rangoon. More than 30 dogs had died in the smuggler’s custody.
The shelter in Shwe Pyauk village appears somewhat basic—a diagonal space closed off by a wire fence and roofed with tarpaulin sheets—but it seems spacious enough for the group of dogs.
Dr. Kyaw Lwin, a trained veterinarian who now volunteers at the shelter, says nearly ever mutt at the facility had been malnourished or wounded, and some were disease ridden. Since arriving at the shelter, nearly 10 dogs have died from illnesses or injuries sustained during their captivity.
“Our first priority is making them healthy again,” the veterinarian says. “Then we have to vaccinate them for rabies.”
Meanwhile, Myat Thet Mon is looking for ways to solve another looming problem: Shwe Pyauk village will only allow her to keep the dogs for two months at the current shelter, so she needs to find another permanent space.
“A plot of land is urgently needed,” she says.
She hopes to create another safe haven for stray dogs across the city, where she could vaccinate and sterilize them. Rangoon currently has only one privately run shelter for street dogs.
Her ultimate goal is to promote a law for animal rights and welfare.
“At the moment we can only focus on finding a place for the dogs here,” she says. “But just keeping the dogs safe is not the solution. We need to think broadly.
“Dogs have feelings, like all of us. Stray dogs are more vulnerable to mistreatment. It’s OK if you don’t care about them, but please don’t mistreat them, I plead, because they are living things.”