I love dogs. I grew up with a gentle giant of a yellow lab named Ben. He was a part of the family. Mongolia, like many developing countries, can be a heart-wrenching place to be a dog-lover, but things are changing fast.
A bed with a view!
Stray dogs are a common sight in Ulaanbaatar but they’re not nearly as common as they once were. Over the last twenty years numerous extermination campaigns have been launched to rid the city of feral canines, which can pose serious threats to humans. Dogs are not viewed in the same terms here as they are in the West. Attacks by rabid strays as well as the transmission of other dog-borne diseases and parasites makes man’s best friend a much larger risk to humans than in the developed world. While it’s a bit difficult at times to shed my bias, understanding the Mongolian cultural context is crucial to appreciate the complex relationship people here have with dogs.
Largely owing to Mongolia’s nomadic pastoralist heritage, there is a culture of viewing animals as commodities to be bought, sold, or eaten. Dogs have important traditional roles like guarding their owners’ gers (yurts) from raiding parties, helping with herding, and, most importantly, protecting the livestock from predators and thieves. The archetypal Mongolian dog, the massive, fearsome Mongol Bankhar, is even used to hunt steppe wolves that may prey on the herd! (Actually, it’s illegal to export the Mongolians’ prized canine, a close relative of the Tibetan Mastiff.)
(Photo courtesy of : http://www.dokhyi-bhairubshakti.nl/newsa.html)
Majestic, but don’t mess with it!
Although revered for their loyalty and usefulness, dogs aren’t viewed with the same degree of anthropomorphism found in the West. In an environment without modern veterinary medicine, and, more recently in the countryside, where access to adequate care is difficult and treatments are expensive, injured dogs are killed with the understanding a new puppy will replace it in its duties.
Dogs are often sighted roaming the sidewalks of UB.
However, in the quickly-modernizing capital city the traditional roles of dogs are absent and thus their utility is much less. On the contrary, they can be a major public nuisance and are often treated as such. Tales of animal rights abuses in Ulaanbaatar (as in many places in Asia) are not uncommon. Fellow foreigners have told me horror stories of drunken owners throwing massive rocks down from apartment windows onto tied-up dogs, killing them. Others have seen dogs kicked for fun by children in front of their parents. It appears reporting and enforcement of these offences is not a priority.
Most dogs here are very wary of people.
In fact, it’s believed that numerous illegal dog fighting rings operate in Mongolia. In 2013, there was a scandal for Heineken when pictures of a dogfight at a Mongolian club, where its banners were prominently displayed, went viral. Company representatives said there was previously a promotional event at the venue and the club owners negligently failed to take the materials down afterwards. Heineken cut all ties with the establishment and publicly denounced the animal rights abuses. Dog fights have been taking place in Mongolia for centuries for entertainment and gambling.
Aside from hostile humans, dogs in Ulaanbaatar must confront extreme cold. “Pupsicles” is a term coined by expats in Ulaanbaatar to describe the frozen dead puppies found occasionally on the dirt sidewalks, back alleys, and main streets during the depths of winter. Temperatures in December, January, and February routinely hover around -30 to -40 degrees Celsius, virtually the same as in Fahrenheit. For this reason, dogs are known to travel in packs in order to survive, taking shelter anywhere they can find in sewers and abandoned structures. Sadly, they compete with the homeless population at times leading to further human-animal conflict.
These puppies are just fine!
Still, there are plenty of reasons for hope! Cultural attitudes and norms towards dogs and pet ownership are changing very fast. Owning a dog is seen as a status symbol in the city. Many affluent Mongolian owners shy away from the brutish Mongol breeds, instead favoring lap dogs. While a decade and a half ago there were virtually no shelters or clinics for animals, there are now a handful of NGO-run establishments that provide veterinary services. Rising levels of wealth among the upper echelon also means owners will spend money to pay for the healthcare of their pets instead of choosing to euthanize them and adopt others.
How could you NOT want to feed this guy?
Neighborhoods collectively adopt strays, particularly puppies, and care for them. During the frigid winter months, locals deposited food scraps and old torn clothing for a pair of puppies that had made their home in a crevice in a concrete wall along a popular walkway. Mysteriously, the two disappeared one day. I’m hoping that a kind soul adopted them until the warmer weather returned; an increasingly common occurrence. There were dozens of puppies I wanted to adopt for the winter but I knew my landlord would have thrown a fit!
Wish I could take in a cute little guy like this one!
Right now a litter of pups is yipping outside my window from their home in a small stand of trees near our building’s dumpster, where their parents teach them to scavenge. Springtime is here and the nights are much warmer; the river next to our building has thawed and is running. Locals continue to donate food scraps and even a jacket that serves as a bed for the cute youngsters. They don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon!
To contact a rescue shelter in Mongolia please see the information below:
Foundation of Protection Animals of Mongolia
For more information on Mongolia from other travelers, check out a favorite travel website of mine with some great articles from the land of the Eternal Blue Sky: http://www.gonomad.com/destinations-worldwide/asia-tags/tag/location-mongolia