A Wonderful Home for Three Weeks
I flew from Dehli to Leh with the most incredible view of the Himalays and Korakoram mountains. Leh is the second highest airport in the world at 10,000 feet elevation.
I was greeted by Kunzang, the director of the Ladakhi Animal Society, and by Dr. Ruth and Dr. Janet, coordinators of the Vets Beyond Borders Ladakhi program who are supporting Kunzang’s important program. It is a long trip for anyone when traveling to Leh and the elevation affects most people so VBB’s rule is for volunteers to take at least one day off before being active.
Kunzang drove me to his home which he generously shares with many of the volunteers. The volunteers, mostly veterinarians and some veterinary technicians, sign up through Vets Beyond and do their work sterilizing and vaccinating dogs at the Ladakhi Animal Center. Their home was a wonderful place to stay. Although I live in Montana and hiked in the mountains to prepare for the elevation, I could certainly feel the change as well my weariness from the trip. I spent alot of time along the stream just below their home and had a nice meditation to the sound of the stream and with the wind singing in the trees. I walked a short ways down a trail following down the creek, but everyone warned me be conservative. It was very good advice. I went to work the next day, joining Kunzang and his team catching dogs and had so problems. Other volunteers and visitors on their first 3-4 days struggled with headaches, weakness, jet lag, or diarrhea.
Kunzang’s home was a remarkable place. Part of the home is over 300 years old. In Ladakh, the people live intimately with the land. It is high above the stream and surrounded by a beautiful mosaic of stone walls, irrigated fields, and stands of poplar, willow, apple, and apricot trees. All of these are connected by the life force of the narrow winding water channels. Beyond the irrigated valley, above where water can be guided, are the parch desert mountains only sparsely covered by the small plants which can survive such harsh conditions.
To reach the house we passed through several gates which kept the free ranging cattle and donkeys out and which kept the family milk cows (and new calf named Mark!) in. The first level, the stone foundation, was for the livestock, so we walked up the steep steps into the house. The traditional Ladakhi doors have a low top so it is important to alway bow when passing through. It took me a few days of hitting my forehead, before it became unconscious. Except, unfortunately when I got in a hurry, and at least once I was knocked back on my butt remembering my mistake. It is good to bow to express our humility and our gratitude for such wonderful comfort and abundance.
If the home was special, Kunzang and his family were magical. They were so incredibly generous with sharing their home. They taught me a new level of generosity as they made us feel very much a part of the family.
When I was not down at the stream on that first day of rest, I was up at the house drinking tea and visiting with the family. Kunang’s wife, Rinchen, was watching over the baby, Gigdal, and as she was doing chores, she asked me to watch over the little boy. He was always full of smiles and he became entranced when I sang Lakota songs to him. The essence of the entire family was that of kindness and gentleness.
Kunzang’s parents, Mother-le and Father-le, held a wisdom and a quiet strength which you could feel was deeply embedded in faith. Each morning, Father-le would walk through the house at 7am after his morning prayers in the prayer room and smudge each room with a fragrant juniper incense. He was a walking prayer who warmed my heart whenever I saw him. I dearly wished that I could have spoken Ladakhi so that I could have learned from his wisdom and strong Buddhist practice. One of our special times together was when I brought home a Ladakhi-English book and Father-le and I took turns teaching each other as we joked and smiled. Language typically was not a problem and everyone’s english was so much better than my Ladakhi!
The Ladakhi Animal Shelter
Finally on my second day I visited the animal shelter. It was a beautiful walk from the house as I passed traditional homes, free roaming donkeys and cattle, lush grass, trees, and crops (this was June), and Buddhist shrines and prayers wheels. To get to the shelter, we drove through a state forest of willows and locust trees, then along the winding dirt road to the open area of the shelter. The shelter was a single room mudbrick building, maybe 40 feet square in the open sandy base of a tall ridge. This was the surgery room with two surgical tables where veterinarians from all over the world spayed and neutered and dogs which were then held then later returned to their place of capture. A parachute was set up near the building to provide shade since there is very little clouds or rain and temperatures were easily 80 degrees F.
One (blue) building had room for storage and a few of the dogs. Most of the dogs were kept in a larger mud brick building which was divided into three rooms. Each room was completely open and had a half roof of poles and branches which gave perfect shade. There could be up to 15 dogs in each room running loose and with the old ways of doing things it was emotionally and physically challenging to gather the dogs so they could be transported to their capture location and released.
Another mud brick building was under construction. The four walls were up but they waited for my arrival before deciding how to finish it. The program definitely need smaller kennels to separate the dominant males from the other dogs. During my visit, we decided to use mud brick to divide the area into 11 kennels with an aisle down the middle and metal gates. We designed the kennel size and door layout so the animals could be easily handled with Y poles and moved into transport crates.
Kunzang started with humble beginnings and with VBB has had incredible accomplishments. They are sterilizing 900-1000 dogs a year. One case of rabies has recently popped up in Ladakh and so they are also vaccinating for rabies. (India and central Asia have about 80% of the world’s rabies cases. But high in the mountains in Ladkah, rabies is very rare, though important.) He and VBB have a wonderful vision for an even stronger shelter and animal care center. Since I have left, they have built a new building for the prep room, surgical room, and a kitchen for both people and dogs. Kunzang has been donating his own truck to capture and transport dogs, run errands, and gather supplies in addition to using it for his own family needs. They are working hard to get a vehicle from the government or from donations.
Next entry… The feral dog workshop and capture strategies.