For reasons I have yet to ascertain, the Mongolian Fulbright administrators do not advise their grantees to get rabies vaccinations before we arrive. Instead, they include as part of our in-country orientation a lecture from representatives at an American-operated, privately run medical clinic whose services you cannot use unless you are member, and whose membership fees even we well-paid Fulbrights cannot really afford. These representatives begin with the assumption that we have all been vaccinated and are subsequently horrified to learn we have not.
“You didn’t even get the immunoglobin?!” they ask, wide-eyed. “The vaccine itself is easy enough to come by here, but you need the immunoglobin first, and they don’t keep it to hand in the hospitals here.”Well, that would have been good to know before I arrived.
It’s not that rabies is rampant here, but rather that conditions are ripe for any outbreak to spread like wildfire. While apartment-dwelling pets remain rare, most residents of the ger districts keep khashaa dogs to protect their animals and homes. Spaying and neutering being mostly unknown here, this means that cities and soums alike teem with packs of strays. They congregate at the edges of town and around garbage bins, prowling the streets by day and night. One dog, even an aggressive one, is not unduly frightening; most will turn tail at the motion of a human stooping to scoop up a rock, even if there are no rocks to be had in the vicinity. But a snarling pack is bolder and rather more difficult to dissuade.
The main method of population control is to round them up and shoot them, typically at the beginning of the winter. It’s thought to be more humane to deal with them this way than to let them starve and/or freeze to death, as many of them will. Not for nothing do the local Peace Corps Volunteers know November as the advent of starfish babies and pupsicles. (Happily, my Mongolian winter involved many of the former and none of the latter.)
Even out of their enclosures, khashaa dogs are usually distinguishable by the same means as pet dogs in the States: the presence of something bright around their necks. Lacking proper collars, Mongolians will use fabric, belts, even the bows from chocolate boxes. Without these markers, no dog is safe; after rescuing her from outhouses not once but twice, our friend Mike lost his dog, the aptly-named Tumpin, to the cold-weather roundup when she got out without her collar.
But even khashaa dogs are not really pets as we think of them; being more like guard dogs, they’re not conditioned to be friendly to every passerby. As such, the message impressed upon all Westerners as soon as we arrive is clear: Don’t pet the animals. You’d think by now I would have learned to heed that message.
Not that I’ve been bitten, mind you; the sole “bites” I’ve ever received have been from cats, and they’ve been of the warning kind whereby the cat grabs hold of you with claws sheathed and applies enough pressure for its teeth to be felt, but not to break the skin. But that’s a cat for you: purring and friendly until it suddenly isn’t. I do have the sense to let them approach me, rather than the other way around; no matter how low my kitty-love quota may run, I know I’ll get nothing but grief from a frightened cat.
But dogs present other problems. I typically stick to puppies, as they’re less likely to have learned to fear man. And really, who could resist faces like these?
Yesterday, however, I actually petted adult stray. A bad choice, I know, but I couldn’t resist – he was wriggling! I spotted him from across the street; he was curled up in the grass, his head on his paws.
“Aren’t you cute,” I crooned as I walked past. He perked up his years and thumped his tail. You said something to me!, I read in his new attentiveness. And you said it nicely and didn’t yell at me or anything! I took a step closer. He remained on his belly but thumped his tail enthusiastically. I took another step. “Well, hello there.”
At this, his excitement surpassed the level expressible by simple tail-wagging. In its place, he began the full-body wriggle I’ve seen from so many strays desperate to belong to people. There’s so much emotion conveyed in that wriggle: restraint, joy, desperation, suppressed longing, anticipation of disappointment. He wriggled harder as a I took another step closer, torn between bounding up to me and running away. Will you play with me? he asked with every fiber of his being. I want to play and you look like a nice person but maybe you’ll chase me away like all the other people they shout at me like I’m a bad got but I’m a GOOD dog and I want to play but I’m afraid oh won’t you pleasepleasePLEASE be my friend?!
I closed the gap between us and crouched slowly, extending my hand. He inched close enough to sniff it and gave my fingers one cautious lick, but pulled back when I tried to pet him. He did not bare his teeth, however, and so I allowed him a few more sniffs before slowly, cautiously stroking his ears. He permitted it, having abandoned his wriggling for the absolute stillness of caution. Knowing that these few skritches were as much as he’d permit, I rose and turned to leave. He stood as well, wagging his tail in my wake.
I turned back to him. “Sorry, love. You can’t come with me.” He continued wagging his tail, his eyes alight with the hope he’d found himself a person. I sighed; while I’ve had puppies aplenty trail after me, I hadn’t expected that instant attachment from a fully-grown dog. I stamped my foot. “Shoo.” He backed away, but after my first few steps, proceeded to follow me once more. I raised my voice and my arms in the single upward flap I use for herding horses, startling cattle, and dissuading dogs. “Go away. I can’t keep you. Shoo.” Mongolian passersby chuckled at my predicament, but I stood firm.
After a few more attempts, the dog remained while I continued my determined march away. I tried not to think of the roundups to come in the next few months, the fate that might await this dog and so many others. I hoped he’d find himself a human, a permanent resident more able to take care of a sweet and trusting creature so desperate to belong.