Orphaned Sri Lanka Dogs Seen as Danger

Many canines were left to fend for themselves after the tsunami. Fears of deadly rabies trigger a government plan to exterminate them.

By John M. Glionna

Los Angeles Times

January 16, 2005

ULLE, Sri Lanka — They are perhaps the most overlooked victims of last month's devastating tsunami, increasingly desperate creatures existing without shelter and little food or even clean water. And under a new government program, their days are numbered.

They're dogs of all sizes, color and character, former pets that have been left without masters after the tsunami flooded this eastern Sri Lankan village, killing at least 1,000 of its 6,000 residents.

For three weeks, hundreds of dogs have wandered through the rubble of Ulle in search of food, puddles from which to lap and often just a reassuring pat on the head.

The animals are too timid to compete with humans for the food that arrives at refugee camps every day. Yet in Ulle and across this poor island nation, some dogs are slowly getting meaner, howling at night, joining wandering packs, snarling at one another over the animal carcasses that wash up along the beach.

Last weekend, Sri Lankan officials began planning a dog eradication program after one person in Ampara province, which includes Ulle, reportedly contracted rabies, presumably after being bitten by a dog. The victim's condition was not known. In Ulle, more than half a dozen people — including two foreign relief workers — have also recently been bitten by dogs. None has been diagnosed with rabies so far.

"We really don't want to do this, but dogs are becoming a big problem," said Maj. Shene Gunawadhane, a local army commander. "Our country is at a critical point…. We simply cannot afford a major rabies outbreak."

Officials say the canine eradication program will start in the next few days and could soon be extended to other regions. They plan to poison the dogs with cyanide-laced meat, although they've had problems finding enough cyanide.

Rare in the United States, rabies is a feared killer in much of the Third World. A vaccine exists but is not available in many places.

"In most of the world, you get rabies, you're dead because there is no cure," said Neil Jayasekera, a San Francisco-area doctor dispensing medical aid through Relief International. "If you have one diagnosed case in the Ampara region, that is really scary. Because if we know about one, there must be many more."

Rabies is a virus that grows and spreads along nerve cells. It can bring about an excruciating death marked by fever, spasms, delirium and coma.

Rabies can be present in animals such as skunks, raccoons, bats, foxes, coyotes, cats and dogs. With Sri Lankan officials concerned that stray dogs may spread rabies, efforts are underway across the nation to vaccinate many canines left homeless by the tsunami.

Danajaya Karunaratna, a veterinarian from the capital, Colombo, heads a team that has traveled across Sri Lanka since the tsunami to immunize wandering dogs that are increasingly scorned.

He arrived in Ulle on Jan. 8, when he vaccinated what he described as 300 "free range" dogs — luring them with food and then injecting them with a needle attached to a 3-foot stick.

"They need to do something here, because there are far too many dogs for a community of this size," he said.

"In all my travels throughout Sri Lanka, I have never seen so many dogs."

Karunaratna said that many animals were weak from malnutrition and others suffered deep gashes and bruises — presumably from fleeing the tsunami, run-ins with debris or fights with other dogs.

"These dogs are starving," he said. "It's hard enough for people in these refugee camps to find food. One can only imagine the plight of these animals. They rely on the leftovers from humans. But now there are no leftovers. And the dogs will get desperate."

The vet, whose efforts are sponsored by the Humane Society International and other donors, said that most of the dogs were undoubtedly former pets because they looked well-fed and had healthy coats of fur.

"They're very nice dogs, most of them. This is not their fault that they have lost their owners. It's very tragic, actually."

The veterinarian said that French Red Cross doctors in Ulle asked him last Sunday to stop vaccinating stray dogs and concentrate only on those that were identified by owners. Many dogs now wear bright red collars, signifying that they are not to be euthanized. Officials have spread the word that people must identify their dogs or the animals could be killed.

At the Hideaway hotel, a small, brown mutt named Kella — the Sinhalese word for girl — lay in the dust under a towering tree, one of the lucky animals to wear a red collar.

"She's a good village dog," said hotel owner Vernon Tissera. "She's not much to look at, but she certainly deserves to live. So do the others. But what can we do?"