by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Just a few weeks ago I returned from a visit to Nepal. It was quite an adventure. Wherever you travel in the world you are greeted by new sights, sounds and experiences. This was certainly the case in Nepal. The Himalaya Mountains are spectacular in size and majesty. The street sounds of Kathmandu, the busy capital city, unforgettable. The opportunity to meet some of the people of Nepal, travel with them and learn how they live, an experience of a lifetime.
However, is there not an old adage about a busman's holiday? It says something, I believe, about a busman being likely to go on a bus when on vacation. Well, I can assure you when veterinarians travel they are likely to be very interested in the animals they encounter. I want to write this time about some of the animals of Nepal.
One of my business partners, Ron Fox, and I arrived in Kathmandu on the same day that both the American and British embassies closed and their ambassadors left the country. Canadians were being advised not to travel to Nepal, and if they were already there, to get out. All this was the result of a ten year old Maoist revolution that was heating up, leading to curfews and protests that were causing countrywide chaos and disruptions. Ron and I decided we had better see some of Kathmandu at least. It is a city with a population of just over one million.
For over 4 hours we walked the streets in and around Thamel, the old city central district. The streets are winding, cramped, narrow and pot-holed. They are part asphalt, part dirt and without sidewalks. Actually, I should say we shared the streets with a mass of other pedestrians, all of us trying to avoid being struck by the cars, bicycles, motorbikes, motorcycles, and rickshaws that were zooming at us and around us. A constant barrage of honking horns warned that someone, maybe you, was about to be run over. There were no traffic lanes, no stoplights, no stop signs, no pedestrian crossings, and no policemen directing traffic. Complete chaos seemed about to erupt everywhere.
In the midst of this mass of humanity, transportation and commercialism there were animals. In fact, they were the most calm, relaxed and quiet features in the entire landscape.
First we saw dogs. Without exception, it seemed, they had found tiny islands of safety as life swirled around them. They were lying flat on their side, often in a group with 3 or 4 others, sound asleep, totally oblivious to the surrounding madness. Someone told us they sleep all day so they can bark all night. The dogs of Kathmandu are quite an eclectic group of canines. Of course, they are not the well cared for pets familiar to us. Many, perhaps most, are street dogs, living largely by their own means, usually with only a loose or semi-formal relationship with a specific person or persons.
Probably the majority weigh between 10 and 20 kilos. They have a medium length haircoat and are in the familiar colours of brown or brown with black highlights that they share with dogs living in such conditions around the world. However, we saw other dogs of quite a different conformation, stature and colour. Only a bit taller than a basset hound, they had long haircoats in a variety of colours. Their coats were matted and straggly as one would imagine. Most of the dogs from a distance appeared in reasonably good flesh. I fear this may say something more about the limitless access to the garbage laden streets where they live than to anything else.
Durbar square, where once the city's kings were crowned, remains the traditional centre of the old city. Here, as equally relaxed as the dogs, hanging around the necks of elaborately gowned fakirs were six foot long pythons. For a small fee you can have your picture taken with the snake and receive a blessing from the holy man at the same time.
As we left the square, lying on one of its busiest corners, just outside the reach of passing vehicles, peacefully chewing his cud was a yearling bull. He had no ropes or chains to bind him, he was free to rise and wander off at his choosing - his position and status secured by the majority Hindu population of Nepal.
In the late afternoon, on top of a hill just west of the city limits, we visited the Buddhist temple Swayambhunath, commonly known as the 'Monkey Temple'. Here a large tribe of handsome monkeys guards the hill and amuses visitors. Monkeys of all ages could be seen sitting and resting in all states of repose on the Buddha and on the long double banisters of the main stairway up to the temple.
We had been in the country only a few hours yet already we had found the people and animals of Nepal sharing temples, homes and lives. Next we begin our trek to Everest Base Camp and then travel south to Chitwin National Park and you can be sure there are more animal stories to tell.