Walk along the terraced rice fields of Pana, hike the switchbacks to the 17th-century Cheri Monastery in Thimphu or explore the back alleys of Paro and you see the same thing: dogs. In Bhutan, they are everywhere. Some nap soundly during the day, conked out on median strips and sidewalks and in the centers of traffic roundabouts, oblivious to the people and vehicles swirling around them. Others seem to have busy schedules, heading up to the monastery for the morning, then cruising back down to meet friends in the parking lot and head off on afternoon adventures. Near temples and tourist sites, they follow visitors in hopes of handouts, or seek shade under parked cars.
Look a little closer and you’ll notice something unusual: most of them—in fact, about 75,000 of the country’s estimated 100,000 dogs—have a triangular notch in their left ear. This distinctive mark identifies the dog as having been spayed or neutered as well as vaccinated against rabies. It also represents a huge milestone in the world of animal welfare.
Straddling the Himalayas, tiny Bhutan is perched between China to the north and India to the south. It may be best known for its Gross National Happiness index, in which Buddhist cultural and spiritual values are applied to socioeconomic development. The fact that these Buddhist values extend to all sentient beings is one reason Bhutan is now seven years into the world’s first—and arguably, most successful—nationwide spay-and-neuter effort, the reverberations of which are almost certain to be felt well outside its borders.
In partnership with Humane Society International (HSI), Bhutan has now sterilized about 75 percent of its total estimated canine population, hitting the critical tipping point at which most animal welfare experts believe a population stabilizes (meaning that growth stops and overall numbers decline). Maintaining that percentage will require about 3,200 sterilizations per year. The Bhutanese team, which now consists of highly experienced vets, vet techs, administrators and dogcatchers, intends to do that and more—to reach between 10,000 and 12,000 dogs per year and achieve its dream of both reducing the dog population and improving its overall health.
“Because the Bhutanese government was so welcoming and so supportive, we had a huge opportunity to tackle [canine population management] on a scale that was really unprecedented,” says Kelly O’Meara, director of HSI’s companion animals and engagement department. “Now we have this goldstandard model for a program covering an entire nation that we can use as an example for other governments who are looking for a real solution to their dog overpopulation problems.”
Dogs in Bhutan aren’t typically owned, as we define it in the United States. But they aren’t really strays either. Although most households have dogs in the yard, these animals don’t go indoors, wear collars or chew on squeaky toys. Furthermore, Bhutan does not have dog breeders; the few purebreds in evidence likely come from India, Thailand or Nepal.
The majority are “community dogs,” meaning that they hang out in a specific locale—a city block, on the grounds of a hotel, at a temple or bus station—and the people who live and work in that area feed them, in accordance with Buddhist practices. The Junction Bookstore in the capital city of Thimphu, for instance, prominently displays a change jar on the counter to collect money to feed the eight dogs in its immediate area, all of whom have notched ears. Most community dogs are a healthy weight and reasonably well socialized, but that doesn’t mean they have easy lives. Among other things, almost no one takes responsibility for them if they’re injured or ill. (See the sidebar for an inspiring exception.)