Friends in the animal welfare movement have been horrified at our transfer from Beograd to Dhaka. They assume that, since life for humans is so much worse here than in Srbija, so, too it must be much worse for animals.
Yes, and no. The Bangladeshis are starvation poor, but many share what little they have with the dogs and cats on the street. It might take six bearers, sharing lunches, digging in garbage, and pooling their tea money, to feed one crippled old dog, but the miracle is that those six do share. There is little of the casual brutality that pervades much of Srbijan society.
In Srbija, people will feed bread to their dogs because they refuse to spend anything on dog food. In Bangladesh, people will feed rice to the neighbourhood dogs because rice is all they have to share.
That said, the result of poverty on this scale is malnutrition and hunger for humans and animals. Most puppies and kittens are born to die within days of disease or starvation. But sometimes, a miracle happens.
To go anywhere, we must pass a spot on the sidewalk by a very busy road that is home to a family of five. This family is at rock bottom: father was a rickshaw wallah who was crippled by a truck and can no longer work. He, his mother, his wife and his two sons have been reduced to beggary, quite literally. There is no safety net in Bangladesh.
Despite that, they have a dog. She is scrawny, but she loves her family as much as a dog can love, especially the old grandmother. If there is someone home, the dog is there, too, lying beside them, looking happy just to be there.
Four days ago, Ali and I saw a crowd gathered at the family spot: they were watching the dog and her four puppies dying. The family was off begging. The dog, unable to feed her hidden puppies, had carefully carried them 'home' to wait for help.
It took one police officer, Ali, Zia, our bearer, and two of our security guards to clear the crowd, get the dog and her pups into a box and to the Residence. The veterinarian came within the hour - despite being one of only two dog and cat veterinarians in a city of 16 million, he is not overworked. By this time, we had fed the mother, and she had immediately started turning the food into milk. The vet gave her a multivitamin shot and a deworming shot, and a saline infusion.
As you can see, she is alive, and so are her puppies. The vet said she had not more than a couple of hours left -- she, and her pups would have died long before the family returned. But they are healthy enough to survive if they get food and water.
Rani does not like being away from her old woman, and the old woman was terrified when she found out we had taken her: she thought she would never see the dog again. Fortunately, she knows Ali, and he was able to explain that the dog would be returned when the puppies were weaned, with meat on her bones, all the needed vaccinations, and sterilized, so that they would never again have to worry about how to feed her enough to support puppies, too.
Is it the best thing to do? No. There is no best thing here. But, if we want Rani to be calm and attend to her motherly duties, we have to walk her over to the family spot every afternoon to see the old woman. Once she has seen her, and they have had a half an hour or so just to enjoy each other's company, Rani is ready for another day of motherhood and the old woman is able to bear another night without her dog.
Perhaps readers will think this is a sad story. I prefer to think it is as happy as stories here can be: Rani loves and is loved. Her pups will survive, insh'allah, and she will not produce more who might die where no one can see them. The pups, now two weeks, are opening their eyes onto a world with enough to feed them, a blanket to cuddle on, in a safe space in a store room.
And two of the four are spoken for. Ali has wanted a dog of his own for some time, and he has more than earned the right to one of these pups. Our cook, who is pretty well paid as Bangladeshis go, wants one for her child, who lit up at the sight of puppies and held them gently. I have hopes of placing all of them, in a deal which gets them vaccinations, sterilizations and decent homes with good people.
Is it a happy ending? No. The happy ending would be one that encompassed the economic and educational development of Bangladesh to the point where there were no families living on the sidewalks, no deadly diseases slaughtering children of any species, no tainted water, no global exploitation of the impoverished to produce cheap clothing for the far away developed world.
But, that is my opinion, knowing what I do about the world outside Bangladesh. Rani and her old woman would probably disagree.
And who am I to say they are wrong?
note: There are no animal welfare groups here dealing with dogs and cats: the few concerned people are fighting the illegal poaching of endangered species, and the traffic in exotic pets. They are not doing well, because although there are laws against these things, no one can enforce them. If folk ask about helping, they should give their donations to proven development groups who are working to improve things for the people here. The people will share: it's what they do.