Buddhist chants calm stray Myanmar dogs

22 July 2019
Buddhist chants calm stray Myanmar dogs
This photo taken on July 4, 2019 shows a stray dog caught before it is sent to the Thawarba Animal Shelter in Yangon. Photo: Sai Aung Main/AFP

Pumped out over speakers, Buddhist chants play for packs of stray dogs at a Yangon shelter in an unusual effort to calm them down as Myanmar struggles to control a ballooning canine population and a deadly rabies scourge.

"We find that the dogs don't mate... when we play Dharma preaching," says Maung Maung Oo, the manager of the Thabarwa Animal Shelter.

An estimated 1,000 people die from rabies each year in Myanmar, one of the highest rates in the world and a conservative estimate according to experts.

Stray dogs are the main source of the problem but culling through poison has stirred debate through the Buddhist-majority country.

Some adhere to the belief that neutering will result in karmic retribution that might render the person infertile in the next life.

Vaccination can be expensive and many rescue centres lack the resources to do it.

But the Thabarwa Animal Shelter, located 45 kilometres (28 miles) northeast of Yangon, is home to 2,000 strays, and says it has found a surprising solution for population control.

It puts on pre-recorded, melodic chanting twice a day to make the dogs "less aggressive", Maung Maung Oo explains.

"What else can we do?" he adds.

Between 10 to 80 new canines arrive daily, and Maung Maung Oo and his 40-strong team -- who also take care of monkeys and Asian black bears -- have been overwhelmed.

The number of dogs in the shelter has surged from 800 to 2,000 in recent weeks as Yangon authorities have stepped up canine control measures.

Some 7,000 dogs have been transferred from the streets to various shelters.

The crackdown comes as public frustration mounts over what to do about the creatures. A 2016 sterilisation programme appears to have not had a long term impact -- there are some 200,000 strays in Yangon.

Many regard them as a menace because of the rabies risk, and because animals foul and block the streets.

- Controversial strategy -

The situation deteriorates in the evening when they form howling packs, leaving some streets inaccessible and residents terrified of being bitten. 

Shopkeeper Theingi Win says many in the city feel under siege by the sheer numbers of the animals and there is real risk of being attacked.

"Stray dogs often bite people when they are angry. Me and my granddaughter were bitten. We went to the clinic to take medicine," the 55-year-old recalls.

Different townships opt for different responses.

Some tranquilise the animals to bring them to shelters. But in a more controversial strategy up to 10 percent of the dogs are being poisoned, according to the Myanmar Veterinary Association.

But neither culling nor removing dogs is a very effective way of tackling rabies -- the World Health Organisation (WHO) advocates for mass vaccination.

Vaccinated dogs act "like a firewall", says Dr Marina Ivanova of Four Paws, an NGO headquartered in Vienna that aims to vaccinate one million dogs against rabies in Myanmar over the next three years.

"Once the animals are vaccinated in one territory, they will not get rabies and they will not spread the virus of rabies to the human population," she adds.

Lacking resources, authorities rely often on private donations from companies and citizens to fund rabies vaccination.

Meanwhile, the Bahan township has decided to go with a more "gentle" route -- netting and muzzling the mutts, and then trucking them to a dog shelter.

Chairman Win Bo explains: "We don't want Myanmar to be seen as a dog-killing country."