In 2016 I was able to fulfill an item on my travel bucket list, a trip to the country of Myanmar. I had been harboring an interest in Myanmar for several years, and when the country opened up for tourism in 2012, I had put it high on my list. Fortunately my girlfriend Jennifer and I were able to land a spot in Luminous Journey’s “Photographers Gone Wild” photography tour in January of 2016.
Under the guidance of Myanmar native and professional photographer Kyaw Kyaw Winn, we were able to visit and photograph many iconic and photogenic areas of the country. These included the Shwedagon Pagoda, Inle Lake, and of course, the Temples of Bagan. The trip also included an excursion to the rural Chin State, where we were able to photograph the people living in and about their hillside homes. Most interesting were the Chin women, who bore facial tattoos designating their tribal group.
After about the 5th day of travel, some of the group members started noticing my constantly taking photographs of dogs, mostly street dogs, but just about any dog our group would come across. They would smile and say “How cute!” and some even started pointing out dogs for me to photograph. Other group members started giving me strange looks though, probably thinking “With all the iconic and beautiful things to photograph in Myanmar, why is this guy taking so many pictures of dogs in the street?”
“I like dogs,” I told the group. But then I went on to explain my true purpose of taking so many pictures of the Myanmar dogs – that throughout the last several years I have been working on a photo-documentary project on street dogs around the world, and the organizations that work on their behalf.
Prior to departing on our trip, I had researched whether or not Myanmar had a stray dog overpopulation problem. What I found was not unusual, Myanmar does have a homeless dog problem, and a big one. Indeed, Yangon city’s municipal committee estimates about 180,000 stray dogs reside in this city alone. Coupled with this abundance of stray dogs is the dearth of animal shelters and lack of large scale spay and neuter campaigns.
One of the few animal shelters in the country and probably the largest is the Yangon Animal Shelter. This five acre shelter is nestled along a rural road about an hour drive from Yangon and currently harbors over 500 dogs. These dogs are all former strays rescued from Yangon and surrounding areas. The shelter was founded in 2012 by Terryl Just, an American woman and teacher at the Yangon International School.
On our last day in Myanmar, Jennifer and I had the opportunity to visit the shelter, and Terryl graciously sent a driver to pick us up at our hotel for the trip. As we rode to the shelter, Terryl described a tragic event that was a motivating factor for her in starting an animal welfare organization. “I had been feeding a stray dog for a year,” Terryl told us. “I named her Lucy. Then one day I found her poisoned, I felt like I had to do something.”
As in many other countries around the world, the poisoning of street dogs is a common practice to control the stray dog population. With the increase of tourism to Myanmar, these poisonings have been reported to be on the increase.
Arriving at the shelter, we stepped through the main gate, and were instantly surrounded by dogs. They ran around our feet, jumping and barking, all clamoring for attention. As a stranger in the midst of 500 off leash dogs, I initially felt a little intimidated. All the dogs were very friendly though, and after about 10 minutes I walked amidst the field of dogs very comfortably, petting and photographing them.
The shelter is divided into the adult and puppy sections, so of course, we spent a good deal of time in the puppy enclosure. Jennifer was especially attracted to Bowie and Iman, two young siblings with sweet personalities and light color eyes. “These pups are very special,” Terryl told us. “They are the only two survivors of a litter of five.”
Terryl continued to relate how the staff at the shelter had taken loads of food and water to people and animals affected by severe flooding in the fall of 2015. Bowie and Iman’s mother, Suzy was rescued from the flooding and brought back to the shelter. She was soon found to be pregnant and had five puppies. Unfortunately, she died six days after giving birth, most likely from a heart problem. A foster mom was found to nurse the puppies, but sadly three of them also died.
In an effort to find them forever homes, Jennifer and I arranged for the pups to fly to the U.S. for adoption. After several months of planning, Bowie and Iman arrived in Los Angeles from Myanmar accompanied by Natalie Mathiasen, a longterm shelter volunteer. The pups were taken in by a Los Angeles based rescue group, Dogs Without Borders, and appeared at an adoption fair several days later. Bowie was adopted by a dentist from Los Angeles, while Iman is being fostered and still waiting for a forever home.
The shelter operates mostly from donations and the work of volunteers. It also employs 10 local workers to feed and care for the dogs twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. A local volunteer veterinarian is tasked to vaccinate each new dog. She also performs spay and neuter operations, and attends to the medical needs of any sick or injured dog.
The Yangon Animal Shelter’s ultimate goal is to utilize a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program to decrease the stray dog population of the city. As the poisoning of the strays continues however, they are unable to implement this program. Campaigning against the poisoning of the strays is thus a more immediate priority of the shelter.
So if you’re an animal lover and traveling through Myanmar why not stop by the Yangon Animal Shelter? Spend the day visiting and caring for the dogs or just make a donation. Or perhaps make a best friend and take him home with you wherever you may live.
To inquire about volunteer opportunities, fostering, adoptions, or to make a donation you can go to the shelter website here: http://www.yangonanimalshelter.com
Ralph Quinonez is a travel and documentary photographer living in Long Beach, California. His long term project documents the plight of street dogs, and the animal welfare groups that work for their behalf. He has corroborated with organizations as Animal Aware, Island Dog, The Sato Project and Yangon Animal Shelter. Ralph also volunteers for the Los Angeles based rescue Dogs Without Borders, taking photographs of the rescued dogs in the hope of them finding forever homes.