Chiang Mai, Thailand – The Animal Kingdom in our Human Metroplises

January 2012 – Cities are often referred to as the epitome of human civilization or as humankind’s greatest accomplishment, yet the city isn’t just a place for humans. People share the urban environment with a diverse group of other creatures in the animal kingdom that also play a crucial role in the urban ecosystem. From insects and vermin to birds and cats, animals from all spectrums of the animal kingdom live in our cities, interacting with both our built environment and with us. Depending on the region of the world and the time in history, animals have played different roles in our urban lives but the simple truth remains the same – we don’t live apart from the animal kingdom, we inhabit this earth alongside them, even in our great human metropolises.

On a conceptual level, the health and well being of our earth and the living things on this earth are a reflection of our own human health – the way we treat the earth is the way we treat ourselves. Embedding this idea within the world of urban planning, it’s important that we keep this in mind as we  develop our cities and our human civilization. This means expanding our empathetic awareness to become more in-tuned and in-sync with natural systems so we can better harmonize with the earth. To move away from lofty words – we have to be smarter about how we use the earth’s natural resources and how we treat other living things on this planet.

I think a discussion about stray dogs in Chiang Mai would give us a practical narrative to this broad conversation. The unhealthy condition of stray dogs is an issue in many developing countries and even developed nations as well. I believe the problem stems from domestication which dangerously plays with the idea of treating living things as personal possessions. When humans disregard or ignore domesticated dogs like they would an unwanted material item, it leaves the dogs in a terrible mental state. They lack the wild instincts crucial to survival while also having nurtured a habit of dependency which nearly shackles them to becoming scavengers in the human built environment. In many developed countries, we have intensely crossed bred dogs to give them the features we want, like we would a toy doll, and now these dogs are more successful at looking cute than surviving in the wild.

Some say that cross breeding and genetic modification are unethical because they cross some sort of moral line where humans are overstepping their boundaries. Others say that everything from physical things like chemicals and DNA to conceptual things like ideas and emotions are all pieces found in our natural world and it doesn’t matter how we arrange these pieces because no matter what, it’s always going to be natural. Regardless of the philosophy, the way we treat this earth and the living things on this earth has consequences that affect the way we all live.

Stray dogs in Chiang Mai, and all of Thailand for that matter, live a particularly odd life because of the role of Buddhism within society. They live a life of both rejection and acceptance. Stray dogs that aren’t welcomed as domesticated pets are rejected from the household, but at the same time, they are accepted as creatures of this earth. This means that people are okay with their presence in the urban environment but are unwilling to give them refuge which results in a multiplying population of stray dogs. This can be detrimental in a society where motor vehicles are supreme on the urban landscape. Motorbikes and cars speed through the streets and winding alley ways without the highly structured driving rules of developed nations. The streets become dangerous places when both people and dogs hold a relegated rank in the sidewalk-less streets of Chiang Mai. Dogs, with little conscious awareness of motor vehicles, often fall victim to the massive hunks of moving metal and can commonly be found lying lifeless along the roadside. The life of a stray dog isn’t easy and they face constant problems in our human built environments.

Buddhist temples provide the only refuge that stray dogs can find from this dangerous and unhealthy situation. Packs of stray dogs can be found lying upon the open campuses of Buddhists temples where they can at least receive some form of care. Just like dog pounds, temples provide refuge for stray animals but do nothing to solve the larger problem.

Unhealthy stray animals can be detrimental to both the built environment and to the humans living there. Sickly animals, whether dogs, birds or rats, can pollute water ways, carry filth and transport disease. The depressing imagery of unhealthy animals roaming our streets can also infect our mental well being. The sickly animals engage our empathetic side making us feel sad, dirty or even flat out disturbed. Humans don’t operate outside of the animal kingdom, we are part of it – when other animals are sick, including other humans, we feel their pain and suffer with them.

Stray dogs are usually malnourished, sick, beaten and often become aggressive toward humans. Unhealthy stray dogs aren’t good for the urban environment and aren’t good for their own existence.

Some people in the Chiang Mai community are putting forth an effort to address the issue but the task is so large that no real progress will be made until the issue has reached a tipping point within the Chiang Mai community and people  genuinely feel compelled to solve the problem. I’ve been talking with a key member of Lanna Dog Welfare (Lanna in reference to the historic Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand) who has mentioned various committees dedicated to addressing the issue and several neutering drives aimed at limiting the future stray dog population. As in many cultures, killing, even in ‘humane’ ways, isn’t acceptable in Buddhist culture but neutering is considered okay. Never the less, stray dogs still present a real problem within the Chiang Mai urban environment.

We’ll need to find more harmony with nature if we are to prolong our human existence on this globe. This means tapping into a deeper consciousness within our own human species, with other living things on this earth and to the greater universe. We can begin this process here in Chiang Mai by addressing the state of unhealthy stray dogs within the city.

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