Michelle / by Thomas-Xavier Christiane

Caution, some images may be disturbing to viewers.

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Michelle is the story of a broken heart. It’s about a small and beautiful thing that was blighted by negligence and selfishness. Four paws, a head and a tail connected to a consciousness.  Michelle is a dog. But mostly… an overdose of cuteness in a brutal world.

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In October, when I was looking for stories in Nepal, I got in contact with Hilary, from "Portland, Oregon (USA)". She wrote me a few emails describing what she was doing in Nepal for a dog shelter: Sneha’s Care in Lalitpur. From paperwork and frequent visit to witness some holy recoveries, she was doing a lot!  « I have been witness to this countless times and I am looking forward to being a witness to more of it when I get to Nepal in early November. » I confirmed that I would visit the shelter as soon as I reached Kathmandu but I didn’t know what to expect. « The dates that you are proposing are going to be very hectic at the shelter due to World Vets coming with 16 of their finest to run a mass sterilization, treatment and vaccine clinic..... You will be thrown into the fire for sure! »

I reached the shelter the 15th of November in the early morning. From outside, all I could see was a big  compound and all I could hear were dogs barkings. I opened the door and I got surrounded by them. There was no escape. Some of them were very big, some were small and some were disabled. One of them had a part of his head missing and one of them was bitting my leg to salute me. All of them were barking or playing or fighting. « They’re like humans, they play » The place was a huge organized chaos. 

So, I went upstairs. On the upper level, it was something else. I was in the middle of an open air industrial surgery session organised by veterinaries from America. All women, except for one. I had never seen that in my entire life. Actually, this was something no one would like to see. I was in front of a dog that had his intestines out of his body. At the same moment the veterinary with his hands in his digestive system was chatting with another veterinary who was sterilizing a dog. « I’m from fort Lauderdale. - Oh! I’m gong there for Christmas! - Amazing! » All of this with speakers blasting ABBA for everybody, dogs included. « You are my dancing queen -WOUF WOUF! » This service was brought to the animals by World Vets. « What’s your favorite Disney movie? » An organisation of volunteers who financed all the medical furnitures and their way to Nepal. The point of this travel was to get to know each other while trekking in the Himalaya. After that they were expected to provide mass cares to a series of dogs. « I hate the shuffle on my phone, it always put random music that doesn’t match together »

On the other hand, the shelter was the property of Sneha. 

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Sneha was from Kathmandu. A few years ago, she had a dog. The dog was always barking and so her neighbour poisoned him. The conclusion was fatal to the dog. Sneha's heart was so broken she didn’t want to go out anymore. Then, she created Sneha’s Care. She declared that she financed eighty percent of the shelter with her own money. The shelter was welcoming more than hundred dogs. Sneha’s Care owned a compound and a dog ambulance. The staff was made of volunteers from across the world and employees from Nepal. It was officially a ngo. Everyday, the ambulance was roaming around Kathmandu to gather dogs in needs.. Sneha was very concerned about the fate of street dogs. « Sometime, people have a meat shop. The dogs come because they like meat. But for the owner, it’s not good because everyone say don’t go to this shop, there are street dogs. So the owner of the meat shop throws boiled water at the dogs. » Sneha’s motto was that people shouldn’t « love animals but they shouldn’t harm them too. » 

At this moment, I had to drop my bag and I entered inside the office. There was a small white dog in a basket and I gave her a stroke. I went outside and met Hilary. After a brief chat about our different origins we visited the shelter. Hilary knew the name of most of the dogs and their characteristics. « This one has been hit by a car. This one has a neurological problem. He looks like drunk all day! This one’s name is Happy, we call him happy because he’s always angry. » The compound was made of a building with two office and a set of different cages disposed around the space. The most dangerous and violent dogs had individual cages and the others had common cages. Some of those confinements had more than twenty dogs inside. « Usually, they’re outside but since the vets are here, we keep them inside to avoid chaos. » Most of the dogs were from the streets. « They used to be seen as rats to be exterminated but now, the mentalities are evolving. Slowly. »

Hilary was very attached to the dogs soI asked her about their origins. « They come from everywhere. Some are domesticated by a family. They didn't want them anymore because they are too old. So their family leaves them here or abandon them in the street. But most of them are street dogs. » She was giving a lot of energy to ensure everything was going well for the vets but mostly for the dogs. « Sneha sayed I didn’t had to do anything but I keep helping. I can’t stay doing nothing when everybody is busy. »

During the whole day, the vets were doing sterilisations and different surgeries to the dogs. Around lunch, they amputated one which mobilised some staff. During the operation, I asked how it would affect the dog mentally and a vet said: « I doesn’t really affect them. They live in the present moment. They just accept it. When this one is going to wake up, he’s going to have a bad time. But after a few time he’ll feel way better than he used to before the amputation and he will play with the others without the pain. » Most the dogs had been catched in the streets. Once in the shelter, they were sterilised, vaccinated and treated if necessary. If they were able to go back to the streets after that they were released exactly where they had been captured. If not, they had to stay in the shelter... forever. I discussed the matter with Hilary and she said: « It must be a special experience for them. They’re in a street, someone come and gets them. They come in a place with many other dogs. They have great food and then they’re back in the streets with their balls off. » During our conversation, the volunteers began to serve rice with vegetables to the dogs.. « It’s way better than what they get out there. »  During the time that they were being served, they fought to be served first. Sometimes violently… « They’re dogs, life is an everyday fight for them. » Simultaneously the vets had their lunch break but they didn’t fight. 

Around 4pm, one of the vets dropped a basket with a small white dog in the middle of the shelter. I tried to pet the dog but she barked at me. « This one is very agressive! » So, I got curious. « She came here yesterday. She’s a breed dog. She was abandonned by her owners. Since no one was taking care of her, her hairs grew up so much she couldn’t see anymore. Because of her urine and the dirt, she couldn’t move her paws anymore. She was also harassed and abused by other dogs. So someone in Thamel (the fancy neighborhood of Kathmandu) called the ambulance. It took three hours to shave her. » I asked the name of this dog and Hilary replied: « They called him Fluffy but I think it’s pretty offensive. Do you have another name for her? - Well… Michelle is good. »

Basically, Michelle was a small being that was supposed to live happy and forever in a family. But since she had become older, they had decided to abandon her. After that, she found herself in the street with the street dogs. The other dogs persecuted her just because she was small and domesticated. « They want to prove their strength by attacking the smallest one » One day, someone found her and decided to call Sneha’s Care. She was in a busy street of Kathmandu. When I met her she was totally broken and had no more hope of joy. All the dogs around were fully livng the day: some were being saved from a disease, and the other ones were screaming of pain because of the surgeries. Finally, all those who weren’t concerned by this butchery were giving support to those suffering or just doing dog stuff. But Michelle… She was just pissed of. « She had enough of this bullshit. »

I wanted to know her. I tried to pet her and she was receptive. She didn’t barked or bited me. « That’s very surprising, she bites everybody. » said a witness. I had just made a friend with whom I was going to hang out with until the end of the day...

Three days after, I was invited to a diner with the volunteers of the shelters and the vets. This diner was on the roof of a big hotel in a busy street. The purpose of this reunion was to recompense the vets for their services. When I arrived, everybody had a glass of wine in his hands and there was an open bar. All the conversations were about dogs: « you can make a blood transfusion of another blood group to a dog. But if you do it once, you can only transfuse this blood group after. » « To anesthetize a dog you give him Ketamine. - So you traveled from America with a bag full of Ketamine? - Yes! » Or about America: « Mississipi is a boring state. You shouldn’t go there. »

After the diner, the attendees decided to finish this with some « Nepali dance music ». All the wine drinked before and during the diner had given them the trust to exercise their best moves on the dancefloor. At this moment, I met Dr. Mandal. He insisted to invite me to his clinic the next day. « I can send you a driver if you want » I tried many times to remind him that maybe it was the wine talking but he insisted.

The next day I headed to Dr. Mandal’s clinic. « You go to Norvic Hospital and you call me it’s in the same street. » I arrived there with my brain completely shutted of because of the wine from the day before. When I met Dr. Mandal he was going through the same problem. He began by showing me a quick visit of his clinic. «  This is the owner of this dog. She came here with her mother. » So, I saluted the mother, the owner and the dog and I began to ask more questions about dogs: « Is there lot of domesticated dogs in Kathmandu? - Everyone has a dog in Kathmandu. Some people have many. » He added that from time to time he was also taking care of street dogs. « Sometimes, people come with street dogs. I take care of them then they go away by themselves. - Who pay the bill? - The people who bring them. They come back after and they pay. » 

After the short visit, we were exhausted because of the wine. So we sat in a surgery room and had some tea on the table. During the tea, the conversation was about the street dogs: « Their good name is community dogs. They are part of the community were they live. If you go somewhere and you see a dog, you come back the next day, he will be there. Usually you find them in small streets and around temples. They like quiet place. » As an exercise during the next weeks, I began to get to know the dogs of my streets. Dr. Mandal was right. When I saw a dog in a street or in a stupa, the next day, he was there again. Every evening when I was passing by a temple in my street the same dogs would bark at me. The homeless man of my street was always sleeping at the same spot… with the same dog.   « The dogs are in the constitution of Nepal. » Dr Mandal added.

In 2018, around twenty thousand dogs were living in the streets of Kathmandu. For hygienical, safety and animal welfare reasons, controling this population had become a political issue. On one side, the animal welfare organisations were lobbying for birth control while the government was more in favor of the extermination solution to control them. « If you kill them, they feel it, they become more agressive and they reproduce more. Birth control makes them less agressive. They don’t need to fight for females anymore. » The biggest challenge for the street dogs, as I was told by people lobbying for the welfare of street dogs, was that only a few people actually liked them. « Today, in schools, they give class about how to take care of street dogs but only in few schools… » And furthermore… the dogs weren’t really helping themselves to gather political support. Some of them were very agressive and attacked people. « It’s in their nature » They were only respected during the « Nepali dog Puja », the dog festival of Diwali. « People put a tika on the dog and give some food one day every year. Then they mistreat the dogs the rest of the year. » 

One week after, I came back to the shelter to visit Michelle. She was wearing a vest this time and she was feeling better. « Her recovery is going well but it’s going to take a long time. » Hilary and I decided to make an experiment. We decided to take Michelle outside to see how she would feel far from the other dogs. We carried the cage and crossed a Nepalese crowd of curious dogs and we reached outside with Michelle. When we opened the cage, she was shy. She took some time to decide if she would go out of the cage or not. After a few dubious steps, she was out in the wild. We started walking. In the meantime she was curious. She smelled everything around and she felt so happy that she shaked her tail. « Look at that! » After five meters, she was exhausted and we decided to put her back in the shelter and I promised to come and visit her again.

My next visit was the 8th of December. This season in Kathmandu was when the temperature would begin to drop below zero degree celsius at nights.  Hilary was there with a group of foreigners that she had invited to visit the shelter and all of them were charmed by Michelle. But none could approach her. « GRRRRRRRRR! » She was still pissed of. 

So I took her outside for a walk and some conversation. There she was feeling good and secure. Because one of her paws was damaged forever she couldn’t walk very fast. Every meters she lost balance and felt... All of a sudden a cow arrived from nowhere. That was usuall in Nepal. Michelle went towards the cow and made herself a new friend.. They hanged out for some time and the cow left. Maybe she had a meeting or something. At sunrise I embarked Sneha’s car with Abhi, her husband, and Hilary. Hilary was going back to America the next day and I was leaving Kathmandu for some days. So we hugged goodbye and then, Sneha proposed me to visit her someday at her office in Thamel.

I did three weeks after. She was with Abhi in her travel agency. Traveling people was very good business in Nepal. I sat on a chair with a dog in my arms and we had some conversations... about dogs. Sneha explained me how hard it was to manage Sneha’s Care. « People call me from everywhere. I can’t save all the dogs. » As the discussion flied, Abhi mentioned a place called the Teku Dump Site. « There, you find more than thousand dogs. If you give them biscuits, they don’t eat them. They were born in the dump and they only know the dump. » I asked for the location and I headed there the next day in the afternoon.

After a thirty minutes walk I arrived at a place full of dump… and dogs. All the folk around was amazed to see a white face in the dump running after dogs with a camera. Personally, I was astonished by how many puppies there were around me. The dump site was in a very poor proximity. All the people were living in streets full of dump bags… and dogs. Those one were hanging around and looking for food. The wildlife in this place was astonishing. Dogs, cows, ducks, goats and chicken were all living and sharing the food together. On the top of some pile, there was a dead puppy. No one would get rid of him while children were playing innocently in the streets. « Ten rupees? - No. - You have chocolate? - No. - This dog, America dog? - No. »

At a moment one of them came alone to me. « Hello, you have ten rupees? - No. Do you live here? - Yes, with my family… One, two, three… four, five… Six! Family Six! - You know the dogs? - Yes! » Nehal was a boy who lived just ‘round the corner. He knew a few words in English and gave me a few relevant informations. « You see this puppies? - Yes… - This dog is the mother. This dog is the father. - How do you know that? - I know it. » About the dead puppy that was just few meters from us he had these words: « This one dead? - Yes dead. - But how? - I don’t know… Death. » The sun was going down and I had to leave. « You have ten rupees? - No. Nice to meet you Nehal! - Nice to meet you sir! You come back tomorrow? - No. - Give ten rupees! - No. »

The last time I met Michelle was a few days before leaving Nepal. As usual she was in a cage barking at every dog that would come close. « WOUF WOUF! GRRRR! ». So, I took her out of the shelter to have a walk. A long one this time… We choose to walk two-hundred fifty meters and she really enjoyed it. Five meters before the end, she decided to stop and have some sleep. Michelle was lazy sometimes… But one thing was sure, she was on the road of recovery. When it was time for me to leave, I put her back in the shelter but not in a cage this time. She had to make new friends now. « GRRRRRRRRRR! WOUF! WOUF! WOUF! » 

Days after I heard about her for the last time. « She’s getting along with other dogs! She has made so much progress! » She had to stay in Sneha’s Care because she was not a street dog and with her paws damaged she wouldn’t survive a week out there! The only option that was left for her was adoption. But she was old and disabled. No one wanted to adopt a dog like that in Nepal. She could be adopted by someone from the USA but not from Europe. « To much paperwork. ». There, she would spend her old days with good food and some love to share.