Thursday, April 22, 2010

Starfish II

A post in December called Starfish ( was about a dog who lived outside my house. She was not a typical street dog, feral and street-smart. Because of the way she acted, people think she has lived with a family sometime in her life. But when I met her last September, she lived outside my home because my host mother fed her every day. When I say “outside our home” I mean on the street. Most Azerbaijani homes are accessed through a gate door. When you enter, there is the yard and the house. So the home and yard are enclosed behind walls. Outside on the street, when it rained, she got wet, and she slept in the mud. She did not hide or go off to remote areas with the other dogs. We think this is because she did not know how to live on her own with other feral dogs. As winter advanced, she slept on the cold and frozen ground outside our door.

In January, she gave birth to 5 puppies and it was difficult for her to sustain them in the cold weather. But the neighbors helped by making a shelter for her in the street and giving her extra food. Of course, the food consisted of whatever food they had that was too old or spoiled to eat, such as old bread, rice and potatoes.

The pups left for who-knows-where, but she remained. Every day for 7 months she came up to me, her tail wagging. I didn’t feed her, as I hoped she would learn how to find her own food like other dogs. They root through garbage bins. But she still greeted me with excitement and a wag every day. She is only about 20 pounds and skinny.

We couldn’t take her in because the family already had a dog and the grandma had moved in and didn’t like the existing dog much. Dogs in the home (even though they live in the yard) are rare in Azerbaijan.

I grew increasingly concerned about this dog and was worried about her getting pregnant again. I saw her eating dirt several times. I decided to take her to the vet in our town. It was difficut because I didn’t know how to get her there. I got a leash and practiced with her for several days, giving her food as a reward. My neighbors stared. No one walks dogs on leashes here, plus I was squatting on the ground talking to a street dog.. I told a neighborhood taxi driver what I was trying to do. He agreed to transport us to the vet. I ended up lifting her into the taxi. She was frightened at first, but got used to the ride. At the vet, she got an immunization. He said she was basically healthy, but was eating dirt because the food she was getting did not have enough nutrition.

At this point, one of our volunteers had to leave because of health issues. Her host family was open to considering having a dog live in their yard. This and the lack of food for me at my home induced me to move there.

One of my fellow volunteers works at the national agriculture university, which is located in my city. She inquired there to see if anyone could spay dogs (the veterinarian I had taken her to for the vaccination doesn’t do this operation). She found that the head of the veterinary department is able to spay dogs. I had the dog come to the new house (using the same taxi routine, scooping her off the street) as a guest and she met my new family. They looked at her dubiously from afar and I soon returned her to the street. Nothing was said until a few days later when it was raining and I remarked that I was thinking about how wet the dog was on the street. They said we could try having her at home.

I didn’t want her kicked out before she was spayed, so the day before the operation, I scooped her off the street for the third time and brought her here. She had the operation over the weekend, and seems to be recovering okay. She lives in a sturdy dog house made out of some junk in the yard. She has eaten some peanut butter, hard boiled eggs and a little dog food. The vet said to give her soup and sweet tea after the operation, but she didn’t want it.

The reaction to the spaying by Azerbaijanis has been interesting. They are pretty horrified by the operation. When I bring up the standard argument that we use in America about limiting the number of homeless dogs and unwanted puppies, people just say that dogs deserve the chance to live. They say that many can find food, that nature wants dogs to be parents and that we should not interefere with that. The owner-pet bond that we value so much in the United States is not well-known here, and Azerbaijanis feel that dogs living on the street are not necessarily unhappy and may in fact, be happy.

While I understand this opinion and have come to accept it, I still think there should be some help for street dogs and cats who are ill and some form of population control other than starvation or sickness. I also think that while the suffering of homeless dogs and cats here there for all to see, we tend to hide our poor treatment of animals.. Chickens who never leave cages, pigs and calves raised in factories in which they can’t even turn around, universities with painful and often unnecessary experimentation on dogs and in my state of Missouri, horrible conditions in puppy mills and a law that does not even allow photos to be taken to document the bad conditions.

In Azerbaijan, many farm animals lead idyllic lives, with large pastures and chickens live outside and can wander about. Azerbaijani farmers feel no need to give the antibiotics and other medications to animals because they normally don’t live in close quarters on factory farms. Azerbaijanis probably eat more mutton and lamb than other meats. Many sheep spend their lives moving from meadow to meadow, going up mountains in the summer to stay cool.

The other thing that interested me about the reaction to spaying is that abortion is the primary method of contraception in Azerbaijan. When I asked why abortion is considered fine and accepted for humans, but spaying and neutering is not acceptable for animals, I got the answer that there is not enough money for large families since the fall of the Soviet Union and there is no choice. Dogs on the street don’t cost anything to raise, but children do. When I asked why humans can’t have operations to prevent pregnancy instead of abortions, the people I asked said that operations were considered dangerous and upsetting, but that abortions are considered safe and common.

Anyway, when I brought the dog home after the operation, my family was upset that I had gone through with it. While I checked on her in her new doghouse, my family, who had wrinkled their noses when I brought her home, tiptoed around to see how she was doing and asked me if she had accepted any food or drink. When she hadn’t after several hours, they began giving me suggestions of what might tempt her and began loudly praying to Allah for her speedy recovery. They were overjoyed when she began eating and drinking.

Now that I have the dog with me, I hope that she doesn’t get kicked out of this house and can spend the summer enjoying not being homeless anymore. But in the fall, I will need to find a home in America for her.