On the side of a concrete road, a young boy lies cradled in his uncle’s arms, breathing deeply as three orange-clad medics arrive on the scene. As a small crowd quickly gathers, a shaky smart phone captures the action.
The medics dab disinfectant on the boy’s bleeding leg at the knee.
The video makes no mention of Myanmar’s perilous roads or the dangers posed by potholes and open drains. Rather than that, it was uploaded to the Facebook group ‘Free from stray dogs’ last month.
Another video shows a Botahtaung betel nut saleswoman recalling the moment her 11-year-old son was viciously bitten. Her story exemplifies the dangers of stray dogs and how altruism can exacerbate the problem.
“The noodle stall vendor returned him [her son] to my shop, bleeding profusely. We were forced to transport him to the hospital, where he received treatment,” the lady explained.
After describing how the dog attacked three other people at Bogalay Markets, the interviewee explained how the Yangon City Development Committee eventually removed the dog (YCDC).
The lady becomes emotional at this point: “As soon as it was taken off the street, an elderly lady paid K160,000 to the animal shelter and returned it immediately. What a pain!”
Ma Wah Wah started the ‘Free from stray dogs’ Facebook page after a boy named Maung Wai Yan Aung died of rabies following a dog bite. “At the time, the dog problem was out of control, and the council in Kyautdada was actively relocating dogs to shelters. However, some street dog enthusiasts would obstruct their efforts,” she explained.
‘Free from stray dogs’ is led by a core team of twenty people, including local and international veterinarians, who educate residents about dog bites, infectious diseases, and how the government responds to complaints.
Additionally, the group’s Facebook page provides legal and medical resources, as well as a forum for information sharing. The group currently has slightly more than 7,600 members.
The group’s primary target is not YCDC itself, but rather the numerous individuals who obstruct YCDC from performing their duties.
Section 22 (226(b)) of the YCDC Law (2018) authorizes the committee to “capture stray animals and transport them to an animal shelter,” while sub-section 226(d) provides that “[any] officer and the committee shall not be liable for the animal’s death or injury.”
This latter section infuriates many stray dog advocates, who express outrage when problem dogs are removed. Previously, some dogs were euthanized (as is the case in many developed countries), further upsetting pro-street-dog residents and non-governmental organizations.
Without any public consultation, it’s difficult to gauge public opinion on the issue of stray dogs accurately. “Even though YCDC has an effective management system, they are unable to make it work in the public interest,” Ma Wah Wah stated. “This is self-evident if you conduct a survey and inquire about stray dogs, pigeons, crows, and rats in the city.”
Dep those who do file complaints with YCDC frequently feel silenced by a vocal minority of activists, despite the fact that their actions are legally justified.
A recent Facebook post about a conversation between a doctor and Zin Zin, a pro-stray advocate, exemplifies the tension between activists and the general public. “I have no sympathy for YCDC,” the doctor writes. “I truly hope they [YCDC workers] and their families do not contract COVID-19,” Zin Zin responds sarcastically.
Zin Zin continues the conversation by telling the doctor not to treat YCDC employees or their families if they become ill.
The post elicited a variety of responses, but the majority expressed concern that a public health care professional should not be so openly partisan on the issue of street dogs. The post raises an important point about people who place a higher premium on animal lives than on human lives.
The authors of the ground-breaking book Pathological Altruism (2012) describe instances in which people claim to be helping others but actually end up causing more harm. In other words, ostensibly ‘altruistic’ acts become self-defeating.
They define pathological altruism as “any behavior or personal tendency in which the stated or implicit goal is to advance another’s welfare.” However, rather than that, […] ‘altruism’ has irrational and significant negative consequences for the other or even for the self”.
Examples range from suicide bombers who may kill hundreds in the name of a selfless religious doctrine (reaching heaven) to foreign aid programs that, paradoxically, may exacerbate rather than alleviate wealth inequality.
The book’s chapter by Jane Nathanson and Gary Patronek examines the problem of animal hoarding and those who collect or ‘look after’ strays. Though the case studies focus on people who keep animals on their property in North America, the same insights can be applied to Myanmar’s ‘culture of care.’
In Sanchaung, for example, several streets have become impassable as residents feed and ‘care for’ the dogs outside their homes.
Myaynigone Zay Road is one such location, where approximately ten street dogs have taken up residence outside an apartment near the entrance to U Wisayara Road. Dogs have even been photographed proudly perched atop parked cars, claiming the territory for themselves.
“They are a scourge,” one resident observed. “There is a king dog who will bark for hours, eliciting a chorus from the rest of them. Many people, particularly young girls, are afraid to walk down that street. They must avoid that street at all costs,” he added.
Other residents made a passing reference to the issue but were less critical in their responses. A nearby monastery is located at the end of a small street on Myaynigone Zay Road and was reputed to have housed up to 50 dogs at one point.
Zaw Min, a mechanic who works outside the monastery, said that the majority of the dogs were removed last year following a bite to a child. Today, the monastery is home to only a few dogs, who, as territorial creatures, will still bark and growl when approached by visitors.
Such ‘caring’ acts clearly do more harm than good – if not for humans, then for dogs as well. While many pro-stray advocates will argue that YCDC simply despises dogs, this is a strawman argument. The majority of residents simply want to live in a safe and clean environment and are content to share their streets with pet owners who provide their dogs with better care and shelter.
Some might argue that feeding stray dogs is a sedentary form of compassion, requiring little to no long-term commitment. On the other hand, owners of pet dogs must ensure their animals are registered with the council and provided with shelter during the holiday season. Those who ‘care for’ street dogs are free to leave at any time.
Therefore, why do some people prioritize stray dogs over their fellow humans?
According to Nathanson and Patronek, animal hoarding is a form of “self-repair,” a behavior that aides the hoarder in coping with past trauma.
“Potentially predisposing factors for animal hoarding include a failure to develop functional attachment styles during childhood as a result of caregiver absence, neglect, or abuse,” they add.
Myanmar’s education system is strict, and parenting styles can be harsh and controlling at best. These may be motivations for some animal hoarders, but in a culture that values compassion as well, many people tolerate (or perhaps even enable) the behavior by remaining silent.
However, as evidenced by Ma Wah Wah’s Facebook group, not everyone is willing to remain silent. With dog bites and rabies cases on the rise in recent years, ‘Free from stray dogs’ provides a platform for those who simply want a better handle on Yangon’s stray population.