Yangon City Development Committee's dog culling policy is putting its workers at risk of attack from angry residents who oppose the poisoning of street dogs, an official acknowledges.
Animal rights activists, meanwhile, say a more humane way of controlling the spread of rabies needs to be adopted, pointing to international research that shows culling is ineffective unless coupled with a serious rabies immunisation program for dogs.
The longstanding policy, which sees around 3000 dogs killed each month in Yangon, was put in place to protect residents from rabies, said U Thet Wai, a spokesperson for the committee’s Veterinary and Slaughterhouses Department.
But it often provokes confrontations with residents, he said, as it violation of Buddhist teachings that forbid the taking of a life. Some residents also regularly feed the street dogs and develop an attachment to them.
“We don’t want to kill dogs,” he said. “Most of the staff in our department are also Buddhist. But we do it because it is our duty … to clean the dogs and prevent the spread of rabies.”
The department’s teams, which are separated into four districts, go street to street poisoning stray dogs, working every day except Saturdays and full-moon days. They also act on specific complaints from the public.
To avoid conflict with residents, the poisoning is normally done in the evening, he said.
However, this is not always the case. At least three dogs were killed on Bo Aung Kyaw Street on December 23 during daylight hours in front of stunned bystanders. As YCDC officials watched on and took photos, residents managed to save at least one dog by giving it food to counteract the poison.
The officials, who received a barrage of abuse from bystanders, said they were responding to an urgent request from a “VIP” to clean the street of all stray dogs.
Municipal records show that between 2500 and 3000 stray dogs are killed each month. In Mandalay, where culling is the responsibility of the Cleaning Department, the municipal authorities destroyed 3900 stray dogs in 2012-13.
Ma Myat Thet Mon, who in July established a shelter for strays in Yangon Region’s Kyauktan township that is now home to 200 dogs, said most people acknowledge the need to control the number of street dogs. What makes them angry, she said, is the slow, painful death that results from poisoning.
“I can’t stand it when I see poisoned dog because I know they feel a lot of pain before they die. We need to find a more humane way, a way in which they are killed instantly and without suffering,” she said.
The effectiveness of culling is also questionable, according to international health and animal welfare organisations. The World Society for the Protection of Animals says under-resourced communities in developing countries frequently resort to randomly culling strays, by poisoning, electrocuting or shooting dogs, but these methods are “inhumane, causing the animals great pain and suffering”.
“They are also ineffective in the long term as they do not address the cause of the problem,” WSPA says.
This is backed up by research from the World Health Organization, which says that killing stray dogs does little to stop the spread of rabies unless combined with vaccination campaigns
“There is no evidence that removal of dogs alone has ever had a significant impact on dog population densities or the spread of rabies,” it says. “In addition, dog removal may be unacceptable to local communities. However, the targeted and humane removal of unvaccinated, ownerless dogs may be effective when used as a supplementary measure to mass vaccination.
“Mass canine vaccination campaigns have been the most effective measure for controlling canine rabies.”
However, U Thet Wai said the department lacks the funding to immunise stray dogs.
Municipal authorities may also be overstepping the law by randomly culling dogs. Under Myanmar’s municipal act, workers are only allowed to kill dogs if they receive a complaint from the public.
However, until now there has been little public effort to ensure this act is followed correctly or amend or abolish the law, which dates to the colonial era. In other countries, culling has proved more controversial and politicians have even moved to remove the procedure or ensure it is done humanely, said Dr Kyaw Naing Oo, a veterinary epidemiologist in the disease control division of the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries.
“Thailand changed its dog culling system after the issue was discussed in the parliament and a new law enacted,” Dr Kyaw Naing Oo said. “No one has tried to do that here.”
He agreed that a more humane approach should be taken in line with international standards.
“[A] humane culling methodology should be applied and … should be conducted only at the night time to avoid the public seeing awful scenes. It would be better to follow the more humane method in our country not only for the disease control but also for dog population control both in the urban and rural areas,” he said.
Legal change could still be some way off given the busy parliamentary schedule, however. Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, a representative in the Yangon Region Hluttaw, said she had no plan to raise the issue of animal rights because “in Myanmar even people do not have enough rights yet”.
“If I tried to discuss animal rights now other MPs would make fun of me,” she said last week.
For now, the fight has been left to a handful of animal rights activists like Ma Myat Thet Mon. In Mandalay, where dogs not only face the threat of poisoning but also abduction to be sold as meat in China, the Stray Dogs Rescue Group has asked the regional government for permission to reopen a dog sanctuary on 66th Street, northeast of Mandalay Hill.
But Ma Myat Thet Mon said YCDC has so far been reluctant to engage with animal rights activists to reform culling methods.
“I want to give shelter to stray dogs [rather than have them killed], and also try to control diseases and the dog population,” she said. “I cannot afford to do this work on my own alone so I asked the municipal authorities to help me but so far they haven’t even replied.”