WARNING: this post will discuss the animal welfare and rights situation in Mongolia, focusing on the status of cats and dogs in Ulaanbaatar. There are plenty of upsetting phenomena discussed below the cut. If you're sensitive or just don't feel up to ready about heavy issues today, don't read further.
Another feature of the urban environment has changed notably within the last month: where are all the dogs? Usually I see at least a few stray or roaming dogs every day in the city. In my old courtyard we had a few regular dogs, one of whom I'm very fond and miss now that I've moved, who took up residence and patrol in the courtyard for at least part of each day. Near my lab in a poorer, less developed part of town there are several lots I pass through that usually have some stray dogs and/or puppies scrounging for trash, or sleeping in the sun. But in the last few weeks I've seen only one or two dogs not with their owners. So, what's happened to the strays?
Ulaanbaatar has a long-term problem with stray animals, particularly dogs, throughout the city. But starting at the beginning of March the city initiated an aggressive year-long culling campaign to be carried out by its contracted kill groups to destroy cats and dogs found on the streets. Despite pleas from a major Mongolian newspaper to stop the cull, it's very clearly under way. This upsetting practice is by no means new; in previous years there have been bounties on dog and puppy corpses (leading to pets being kidnapped from their khashaa and family by people looking to make a quick tugrik) and culls seem to happen at least once a year in the city.
I can acknowledge that stray animals, especially those that pose a threat to humans, are a real problem for the city. A child was bitten by a dog just this month, causing understandable outcry (I believe the dog was a stray but many peoples's dogs roam the streets unchecked, so it's difficult to say). Many, many Mongolians are very afraid of dogs, as guard dogs (khashaa dogs) are usually trained to be vicious with outsiders and often all humans. On the other hand, most strays are terrified of or at least wary of people. I've encountered lots of strays in Ulaanbaatar and have never felt that even one was going to attack me. But that doesn't mean that stray dog attacks (let alone regular dog attacks) don't happen. Likely out of fear, many Mongolians in UB seem to have at best a wary attitude towards dogs in public, even puppies on leashes (yes, really). For the same reason, Mongolians teach their children at a young age to throw rocks at stray dogs that they encounter in public.
On the other hand, acts of terrible cruelty against strays are not uncommon and the startling indifference to animal suffering so common in UB public life shocks a lot of foreigners (and of course animal-loving Mongolians). For example, in a horrific case earlier this month some jackass kicked a stray dog so severely that it went blind. No one intervened on the dog's behalf and the man was never even reprimanded, let alone punished. There are no legal protections for animals in Mongolia and no penalties, aside from sporadic social censure, for harming them. Of course there are plenty of Mongolians who like animals and love their pets; there are Mongolian animal welfare and rights activists trying to change behaviors and attitudes through hard work and dedication. However, it's impossible to deny that Ulaanbaatar in particular is home to a lot of cruel and inhumane attitudes and behaviors towards animals.
But why are stray animals such a problem in Ulaanbaatar? Based on my experiences over the last 2+ years and talking to folks in the animal rescue communities here in Mongolia, there are three key reasons.
The first is that spaying and neutering of cats and dogs is very rarely practiced in Mongolia. One reason is cost: many Mongolians balk at surgery costs for their pets, especially the relatively more expensive spay surgery. But another is education. I have seen numerous fights in a number of Mongolian pet and animal lover Facebook groups about spaying and neutering. Some Mongolian members genuinely believe that all pets should "have their own families" - father or give birth to litters - without considering the fates of those litters in the long term. A popular type of post on these Facebook pages is the animal "family": mother, father, and young offspring together. Many Mongolians in these groups fall all over themselves with how cute and wonderful a cat "family" is, and it's not difficult to connect this to idealized visions of domesticity in the human realm in Mongolian culture. Having children is seen as a fundamental part of adult life in Mongolia: a joy, a blessing, a right of passage, and even a duty to one's nation and culture. It's not terribly hard to see how this perspective might be uncritically transferred to pets in the same cultural context.
Others are so motivated by how cute puppies and kittens are that they admit wanting a free and endless supply of them in their homes (again, without consideration for the long-term fate of those animals). Above all else, cat owners in Ulaanbaatar regularly post on these Facebook pages, pet shops, and veterinary clinics that their cat is looking for a "boyfriend" or "girlfriend". This is often a response to the female cat going into heat, especially when it's clear that the owner isn't willing to get her spayed or even buy the bizarre Russian "sex barrier" medications available in some pet shops (and apparently used here? It's a novelty to me!). But obviously the result will be kittens, and little forethought given to what will happen to them, especially when they are old enough to go into heat themselves. Some of the animal welfare and rights activists have been working hard to engage the public and discuss the health benefits of spay and neuter, to point out that unwanted puppies and kittens are destined to suffer terribly, and to provide free or low-cost spay surgeries.
I cannot understand why vets here in Mongolia are not more proactive about spaying and neutering, but from my personal experiences the majority are fairly indifferent when it comes to this topic (with, of course, some notable exceptions). Based on what I have been told by Mongolian activists and what I have experienced first-hand, veterinary training and ethical standards generally lag behind in Mongolia. An open secret in the animal rescue world is that the veterinary school in Ulaanbaatar grabs female stray dogs off the streets for their students to practice surgery (particularly spaying) on, then dumps them back on the streets even if the surgery was clearly botched. Lucky Paws/Aztai Savar NGO has rescued some of these female dogs and taken them to proper vet clinics to get them emergency treatment. But if the national veterinary training institution engages in this kind of behavior, it cannot bode well for future veterinarians and the human and animal lives that they will impact in Mongolia. There are obviously some amazingly kind and talented Mongolian vets who devote themselves to animal welfare and do right by their furry patients. But a system that overall adopts that attitude during veterinary training is broken and needs to be massively reformed.
Unfortunately, another cultural factor impedes even this laudable effort to fix pets. As I've also encountered in the US, there are certain (usually male) dog owners who believe that their male dogs absolutely must remain intact. Many of these dudes (this was definitely true in the US) have displaced their own insecurities and hangups about human masculinity and virility onto their male dogs. They do not connect behavioral issues (or sometimes welcome these issues) and suffering of unwanted homeless puppies with their male dog's unfettered ability to impregnate female dogs. This is particularly problematic because female dogs tend to become strays at a higher rate than male dogs. Most Mongolians do not want to have to worry about unwanted puppies in their khashaa, which will obviously occur if the dog is never spayed, and they can eliminate this problem by kicking out any female dogs. Those female dogs suffer, roam the streets, get impregnated, birth litters of puppies into the same hopeless setting, and the vicious cycle continues. Even Lucky Paws/Aztai Savar, the Mongolian animal rescue and welfare NGO, has focused its stray animal reduction campaign entirely on spaying and left out the neutering of male dogs; the campaign is even called "Spay/Spei". Thus, even Mongolians who care deeply and work extremely hard for the sake of cats and dogs in Ulaanbaatar are operating with blindspots when it comes to basic veterinary and animal health issues.
A second key reasons really pertains only to cats: there is widespread dislike, fear, and even hatred of cats in Mongolia. As a cat lover from birth, I can't understand it, but it's undeniable. I've seen a number of Mongolians literally climb walls or run to get away from a house cat. While many Mongolians see the utility of dogs for guarding home and herd, even if they don't feel affection towards the animals (although many clearly do), this attitude rarely extends to cats as mousers. Mongolian culture includes superstitions about cats sitting on a person's chest while they sleep in an effort to suck out their soul(!), and that cats are waiting around for their owners to die so that they can come masters of the home. On the other hand, there are absolutely Mongolian cat lovers (just look on Facebook!) and plenty of Mongolians agree that cats are ideal companions for the elderly and housebound. Thus, while anti-cat attitudes cannot be responsible for all the stray cats, they certainly don't help; in my experience, Mongolians are much more likely to adopt rescued dogs from Az Vet than cats.
Many of the anti-cat sentiments have played out before my eyes since I adopted two cats here in Mongolia. Julian was found during an unexpected early cold snap in late September 2013 by a foreigner getting ready to leave Mongolia. Back then he was a tiny kitten, screaming in an apartment block stairwell and unable to walk due to a debilitating limp. This foreigner posted on Facebook that she couldn't keep him and, wanting to help and to adopt a cat, I went to meet him. He was a sleepy, weak kitten unable to walk properly; I figured I would have a lifelong runt with limited mobility. How wrong I was! With proper food, Julian grew into a lithe, rambunctious, affectionate feline acrobat. To my shock, the vet believes Julian was already four months old when I found him (I would have guessed 2.5); now he's a talky, jaunty, snuggly tiger-prince. Sadly, I believe Julian went through some traumatic experiences before his rescuer found him. He remains utterly terrified of strangers, especially men, and has a highly-developed flight reaction. But I do everything in my power to provide him with a safe home, complete with toys and good places to nap.
|Julian stretched out in one of his favorite sleeping positions, with a Sharpie for scale.|
Max (or, more fully, Maximillian) was a slightly different case. When I started my tenure in Mongolia, I came with the mindset that I would absolutely adopt one (one!) cat in Ulaanbaatar and bring it back to the US upon my eventual return. I'm a cat person who had been living without a cat for years, all the while wishing and planning to adopt one. Xena, my poor puppy girl, was a surprise case; I found her on the street as a tiny puppy in March 2014 and gave her to a Mongolian family within six weeks, due to how quickly and completely she had outgrown apartment life in such a short period of time. But originally I only ever intended to adopt one pet while in Mongolia. But within a few weeks of rehoming Xena, a gregarious cat followed me through my courtyard all the way to my building entrance late one night. When I knelt down to set out some cat food, it jumped in my lap! Because I already had Julian, I hardened my heart - this was a friendly adult cat after all, maybe it would be OK - and went to bed. The next morning it was still there, waiting outside the entrance door for me. While it did eat, it yowled when left alone. Worried that someone would hurt it (no one likes a yowling cat), I brought it inside.
My main fear was, once I realized it was definitely a he, that Julian and he would fight. As a child our male cats loathed one another and could only "cohabitate" because we all lived on a farm with plenty of space. An apartment is an entirely different matter! This cat was dirty and exhausted, and not pleased with Julian at first. But for Julian, it was love at first sight; he patiently and playfully showed himself to be no threat, then a friend, then a snuggle-buddy. They were cuddled together sleeping within a few hours of first meeting. Even then, I thought I couldn't possibly have two cats. I took Max, who finally got a name, to the vet (who believed him to be 4-5 years old at the time) for a checkup and to get neutered, but continued to look for a suitable long-term owner for him. Long story short: it was me all along!
Even though poor Max has some behavioral issues, including biting, that have gotten better over the years but not disappeared, he's extremely loving and friendly. Like Julian, I believe he went through some traumatic experiences in his old life; my guess is that he was mistreated by previous owners (he is far too gregarious with people to have been a stray his whole life), who taught him that he needs to defend himself physically from people who should never do him harm. Max also has a bit of an eating disorder: he probably went from a normal diet to starvation when he was dumped on the streets, and never forgot those hungry days, weeks, or months. Now he's pretty overweight as a result of overeating, unlike Julian, who is a very picky eater and, in my opinion, chronically underweight. Also unlike Julian, Max loves people (even when he's biting them!) and would gladly harass all visitors to my apartment with his aggressive affection if I would let him.
|Max curled up with one of many decimated cat toys that litter the apartment.|
While relocating pets from Mongolia to other countries is a stressful process, Julian and Max will be coming with me when it's time for me to move on from Mongolia. When that time comes I'll post more about the process and overall experience, hopefully with happy news of how well it went and how easily both adjusted to their new lives.
Building off of Max's story, a third key reason for the city's stray population is that people here dump their pets. Whether people become overwhelmed with animal care or grow tired of their pets, it is not uncommon in UB to see what is clearly a house pet scrambling through the daunting urban environment in terror. My old courtyard was a popular pet dumping ground - I'm 90% certain that's how Max came into my life - and I personally saw a number of cats (clearly well-groomed, clearly used to living inside, clearly scared out of their wits) end up hiding under cars or in hidey-holes in that courtyard. Dumping is certainly not reserved only for cats.
The Mongolian animal lover and welfare Facebook pages often have photos of pure-bred dogs - Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, German Shepherds - running loose in the city. Purebred dogs are, as in most countries, much more sought after than mixed breeds in Ulaanbaatar. Fads centered on different breeds have also swept through UB; everyone is gaga over Cocker spaniels, then it's Huskies, then it's Dalmatians. Pets as toys or luxury objects is a world-wide problem, but the added problem in Mongolia is that so many of these breeds cannot possibly survive the winter outdoors. When the short-haired breeds interbreed with strays, they produce puppies that also rarely survive the winter (and stray puppies go through massive die-offs during winter anyway); the pure-bred adults definitely don't stand a chance. All of this makes the dumping phenomenon even worse, not to mention the lack of spay and neuter. Sometimes the pure-bred dogs roaming the streets animals have simply gotten loose (something that most pet owners here don't connect with the fact that these animals are usually not fixed) but, more often than not, these animals have been turned out of their homes to face the streets completely unprepared.
Even if these animals have temporarily gotten loose, if they are unfixed (see above), they are contributing to the stray dog population because, one way or another, their shenanigans will result in more unwanted puppies. Coupled with the dumping of pets, this means that there are tons of puppies and dogs that could be trained and taken into someone's home that just can't catch a break. Personally, I'm convinced that both the "pet as toy/luxury object" mindset and the behavioral problems associated with not fixing and properly training your growing puppy or kitten are largely responsible for the dumping. Based on the conversations in numerous Mongolian Facebook groups devoted to pets, it's pretty clear that a lot of Mongolians have no idea how to raise and properly care for cats and dogs, that there isn't available literature or information in Mongolian, and that many pet owners are totally unprepared for what's involved. Many cases of mistreatment are probably due to ignorance and I am confident that many first-time pet owners mean well; they just don't have the necessary support.
Sadly, I can say from personal that plenty of vets here (although by no means all) have incorrect and sometimes even dangerous ideas about animal nutrition and care. If vets are traditionally the best resource on caring for your pet, what happens to you and your animal when you're getting bad advice? Unfortunately there are no real animal shelters in Mongolia. The closest is Az Vet, the clinic run by Lucky Paws/Aztai Savar NGO, that provides low-cost veterinary care and rehabilitation for rescued animals. But this facility has low capacity and limited veterinary services. I won't even address pet shops here aside from saying that, if you need to buy pet supplies, DO NOT buy from any shop that also sells cats and/or dogs (and I would apply this anywhere in the world); frankly, in Mongolia, don't buy from a shop that sells any live animals under any circumstances.
When I first moved to Ulaanbaatar, I constantly wished for someone to swoop in and save the poor cats and dogs I saw on the streets what felt like every day of the week. I used to frequently wonder why someone wasn't doing something. But having actually gotten involved and having seen what it takes, I've realized that if you can't or aren't willing to intervene and save the animal yourself - to take it to the vet, to find it a foster and then forever-home - then you can't expect someone else to save that animal. I struggle with this attitude in myself and other foreigners to this day; it's understandable to want someone else to fix things, but it's ultimately unrealistic and unhelpful unless you're willing to get involved yourself. Unless and until more services and resources become available thanks to financial and logistical support from more powerful and capable organizations and institutions operating in Mongolia, that's just how it's going to be. Certainly all the suffering cats and dogs simply cannot be saved in the current situation. Money, human resources (rescuers and foster homes), and space at Az Vet cannot possibly stretch far enough to accommodate all those in need. Plus, any rescued animal eventually has to be adopted into a safe, happy, permanent home; otherwise, an animal's been rescued and cared for only to be dumped on the streets again.
I won't pretend that observing the suffering of cats and dogs in Ulaanbaatar hasn't been extremely difficult to take. It's also extremely likely, from what I've been told by Mongolian animal rescue activists, that the cull workers won't differentiate between strays and pets; not that I think strays should be killed, but it's extra upsetting that a government-sanctioned program would be so negligent as to kill family pets. Recently I've pulled back from my involvement with animal rescue and welfare activities - partly because of the terrible defeat that is the city-wide cull - because being that close to the suffering and feeling like things are actually getting worse is just so depressing.
There have also been several scandals in recent years over the consumption of dog meat. A widely-circulated photo on Mongolian Facebook shows a half-eaten khuushuur - flat fried dumpling filled with mutton or goat meat - with a dog tooth sticking out of the lump of ground meat in the middle. While some believe this photo was faked, partially to discredit a chain of restaurants here in UB, the photos and videos of the luring/capturing, selling, cooking, and consuming of dogs in the poorer areas of the city add up to a wider phenomenon that's likely representative of things that actually happen here in the city.
Part of the scandal is that many of these videos and photos show Vietnamese people (usually mechanics) engaged in these practices, although by no means exclusively; adding fuel to the scandal-fire in some photos and videos was the presence of Mongolian women at what appeared to be a dog-meat feast at a Vietnamese mechanic's shop. Give the widespread and often virulent xenophobic attitudes toward other Asians living in Mongolia - and Vietnamese people are hit particularly hard by this - and the long-term trend of verbally and physically violent misogyny against Mongolian women who "fraternize" with non-Mongolian men (honestly, plenty of white North American, Australian, and European men get hassled or even assaulted for their romantic relationships with Mongolian women but! In my experience the Mongolian woman in the couple gets it ten times worse) mean I took the online backlash against dog-eating with a massive grain of salt. How much of the outrage is really about the suffering of animals, how much is about revulsion at eating the 'wrong' kind of animal, and how much is just a new way to shit all over vulnerable outsiders or women whose behavior certain people would like to police?
Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project has for several years worked hard to promote, train, and reintroduce the heritage breed of guardian dogs in Mongolia. They've been a great success, placing bankhar dogs with herding families throughout Mongolia to protect livestock, reduce stress on herders, and reduce violent retaliation against big predators like snow leopards. Their website and Facebook pages have lots of information, as well as videos and photos, of their progress and their wonderful dogs. However, their mission focuses solely on this breed and they are not involved in other dog rescue or welfare activities. As of writing, only Lucky Paws/Aztai Savar NGO is working on cat and dog rescue and welfare in Mongolia; no international NGOs are involved with such efforts in Mongolia at the time of writing this.
I cannot emphasize enough how much incredible work the Mongolian animal welfare activists have accomplished trying to save suffering cats and dogs (and sometimes wild animals!) in Ulaanbaatar and beyond. The active rescuers, fosterers, and other volunteers are amazingly dedicated and deserve tons of respect. Despite having no reliable external funding source, instead donating from their own pockets and working for free, and only one NGO run by volunteers, the active rescuers and fosterers have saved dozens of cats and dogs over the past few years. For Lucky Paws/Aztai Savar in particular, these include animals with terrible injuries needing expensive surgeries and long-term rehabilitative care. Most of the daily care for cats and dogs fostered at Az Vet is done by volunteers, and the food and supplies for these animals are largely donations from a small number of committed Mongolians. Currently Lucky Paws/Aztai Savar is providing free spay surgeries for female dogs that it has rescued, and plans to expand the program if possible.
I would love to be optimistic about where things are headed for the cats and dogs of Mongolia, for their owners and for the general public. I would love to see governmental and international organizations step up and help the current animal welfare and rights activist communities in Mongolia. I would love to see all the dogs and cats currently fostered at Az Vet adopted into loving forever-homes. After a long harsh winter, maybe a little optimism can take root on this quiet spring morning in Ulaanbaatar and blossom like the yargui (snowdrop) on the surrounding hills.