I woke up to the sound of crying yesterday. Roused from surreal dreams that quickly became silhouettes, I peeked out of the curtains to see what creature was making such a piteous noise. The sound was gut wrenching; I could feel it reaching to the bottom of my very being and moving my sleep shrouded senses to fervent concern. Whatever was crying would never be the same. I peered at the landscape until I saw it: at the Norwegian Lutheran Mission next to my house a Mongolian worker was grasping a puppy roughly by the scruff of it's neck. He held a broom in the other hand which he used to hit the tiny animal as soon as he dropped it by the front gate. The puppy's struggles and cries were futile and painfully delicate against the mans blows. Though the puppy tried to get back to the building, its attempts were in vein. The puppy was forced through the small crack between the gate and the dusty earth beneath it. It stood at the gate for some time, its cries growing more desperate. The worker walked away. Then, like a child, the puppy became distracted and forgot it's former troubles. It happily trotted over to some crows picking at a plastic bag. The birds just looked at him, seemingly entertained by this fluff ball who didn't even clear their eye level. The puppy threw a glance back at his former residence padded off, in search of a new life.
It is easy anthropomorphize baby animals. And while the above antidote might seem like the picture-perfect beginning for a child's version of 'Oliver' I am afraid that the puppy's story will end more tragically than it began. Winter is coming and temperatures that don't even brush freezing for four months do not bode well for homeless puppies.
The dogs are restless. I can feel it- something in the air. Long before I watched the eviction and virtual death sentence of the puppy, I noticed it on my morning runs. The dogs uneasily roam the streets, no longer sitting by their hashaa gates Spinx-like. Similar to teenage boys here, the dogs roll around in ominous packs. Sometimes I wonder if Anthony Burgess or William Goldberg ever visited this country before they wrote their respective classics: A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies. Pack mentality is so strong everywhere you look and dogs are no exception. After all, they are pack animals. But their dedication to sticking together is a small wonder- they know what's coming. When the temperature drops, so too will the number of animals left alive. The problem of dogs frozen on the streets gets so bad that there is a rumor that prisoners are set loose with guns every fall to rid the cities of their K-9 problem. I am pretty sure that was confirmed when walking to work last week I saw two police cars escorting a truck with three men in the flat bed, grinning like they were out on a field trip and clutching guns. The dogs who have managed to survive to adulthood seem to know what is in store; an ugly season.
Because of the inability to get pets spayed or neutered in the countryside, there are a great deal of feral dogs throughout Mongolia. But death knocks on the doorstep of even the domesticated. One of my cutest and sweetest students told me she killed her dog on accident when she left it outside last year. I tease her gently about it and we laugh because all four feet of her is so angelic but really it's rather sad. Though dogs die every winter, people still do what they can to prevent the problem of dog overpopulation. The most common method is to slit the throats of the newborns, giving only the strongest one or two male puppies the slightest chance at survival. But really, what else should they do? My friend Laura who lived in Bayan Olgii brought home a dog and her host family kindly took in it; a great and probably unprecedented act, as the dog was female. Within a year Ruthie had a litter and once Laura left for a business trip, her family killed all but one. She was heartbroken, especially as she watched Ruthie search frantically for her puppies. But Laura could hardly be angry; she knew it was a cultural norm and really the only birth control option. What else should they have done? Try to find homes, yes. But no one wanted the girl puppies, leaving the growing family with few options when it is a daily struggle to feed themselves.
I don't want to write about this is upset anyone. I know many people who balk and quail at the notion of any animal cruelty. My intention in airing out what happens here is to both expose a grizzly and silenced side of Mongolia in addition to providing a foil for the Western way of life. The value of life added to the comfort and certainty with which most Westerners live is so easily taken for granted. Both children and dogs will be cared for, provided the systems in place do not fail. And while those systems are far from perfect, here there are no systems. No safety net for abandoned puppies or wary dogs.
Mongolian dogs are different animals from the ones in America. Even the dogs that Peace Corps Volunteers take in and raise always maintain a wild edge. In Mongolia, animals are everywhere- donkeys are set lose to eat trash, battered cats slink around corners, cows amble through the town square and horses graze along side yaks on the outskirts of town. Dogs are not lumped into the 'people' category- here there they belong with the rest of the animals. Our dog trainer at home worked for a company called 'Pets are People, too,' that could not be further from the truth in this corner of the world. Far from the land of no kill shelters and Milk-Bones, I've learned a lot about animals. I know what a dieing sheep smells like, that a cow can survive on a diet of trash bags and dead leaves and the particular shine on the inside of an animals skin. I've leaned about dogs, too. The stance a dog takes when it's about to run at you, the way bending down to pick up a rock sends angry dogs running, what doggie gang-bangs and frozen dogs look like. But perhaps this crucial education and subsequent fear of dogs that I have acquired does not serve me so well in the rest of the world. Shopping for shoes in a posh part of Sydney, Australia the store owner's tiny poodle became indignant at my presence and began to yap. Flashbacks of being lunged at by the hashaa dog behind the library ripped through my mind. I screamed as if I were about to be torn to shreds and bolted from the store. My family was somewhat amused and mildly concerned I think, the shop attendant confused and mortified. It was then that I realized Fido has morphed in my mind from being a fun loving friend and Frisbee partner to one among the horrifying packs that race through the beginning scene of 'Waltz with Bashir'.
So though I wanted to cuddle the put upon puppy into my arms, feed it chicken from America and tell it everything would be alright, I forced myself to turn from the window as it trotted off. I'm not in the position to adopt a dog and letting mother nature take it's course is something I know I can't fight, as much as it hurts to admit. I know the little puppy's cries will haunt me and I will continue to wonder what has become of him. The loss, the destruction, of innocence is something that I continue to write about, as it is difficult to stomach and is markedly different here than at home. But somehow each encounter feels fresh, as I realize over and over again that I cannot save the world one treecat, trashboy or tiny puppy at a time.