Economic value of dogs for Mongolia

An article addressing strays and the potential benefits of canines for Mongolia. Link to original article is currently unavailable.

I recently went to Gandan Monastery to take photos with a couple of friends. There, we befriended a stray dog. She served as a model for our pictures and as a new friend. However, upon exiting the temple, we were dismayed to see several locals come up to the dog and scream at her. One man even started looking for stones to pelt at her.

I was told that this sort of attitude is common in Mongolia. The general perception amongst the public, especially in rural areas, has been that dogs are carriers of disease and health hazards to both humans and livestock.

However, recent years have seen a gradual change in attitudes towards dogs. Organizations have begun to advocate for specific animal regulations. In particular, two non-profit NGOs, Lucky Paws and the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project are aiming to reform public perception of canines. Not only does this serve to improve Mongolia’s ethical standing, but it actually has long term economic benefits.

In many developed countries, pets are extremely versatile in their uses. Companion dogs, for example, are suited to both emotional support and a range of tasks that include leading the blind, rescuing people, or locating dangerous substances. According to Federation of European Companion Animal Veterinary Associations, there may be a correlation between hospitalization costs and pet ownership as well. When hospitalized, Canadian pet owners spend on average 38 percent less time in the hospital, leading to 32,267,200 MNT (about 13,400 USD) in savings per person on medical costs.

Additionally, psychologists say benefits of dog ownership include increased socialization, increased physical activity, quicker recovery after heart surgery, and better quality of life in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, and day care centers. Though Mongolia currently does not have an expansive mental health program, benefits of dogs potentially impact related costs in this sector as well.

The Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project (MBDP), first founded in 2011 by Bruce Elfstrom, aims to curtail desertification of the Mongolian steppe, reduce poaching, and preserve traditional herding practices by reintroducing the Bankhar dog to herders.

Zoe Lieb, project manager at MBDP, agrees that the attitudes of Mongolians towards dogs, especially in the rural regions, can be limited. Nevertheless, she feels they are changing as the nation develops.

“More people are owning pets,” she said. “Additionally, herders are interested in reintroducing the Bankhar because of the historical tradition.”

The hostility towards dogs is somewhat of an enigma, but Lieb and her colleagues at MBDP believe that it stems from Soviet times.

“During the Communist era, […] Bankhar dogs were let loose or exterminated when nomads were forcibly relocated in socialist-style settlements,” says the Bankhar Dog website. “Additionally, Bankhar dogs were targeted because of the mistaken idea that the dogs spread illness to people and livestock. Bankhar pelts became fashionable for stylish Russian coats, and the largest dogs were killed to feed the growing dog coat industry. In general, the Soviet-based Communist education system lead to a loss of knowledge of how to breed, train and employ livestock protection dogs.”

Bankhar dogs, however, have historically been integral to the nomadic herding lifestyle. MBDP works with researchers at Cornell University to reintroduce these dogs. They undergo extensive genetic examination to ensure that strong, healthy, even-tempered dogs suited to herding are bred.

Even if the dogs are genetically selected, they are readopting their former ecological niche. They prevent predation by barking at wolves, territorial exclusion (claiming territory as a canine), and cleaning up things like afterbirth or stillborns left out on the field that might attract predators.

“The most important factor is that they’re reducing loss,” said Lieb. The dogs reduce livestock slaughter without herders resorting to retaliatory or pre-emptive poaching of predators. Predators of livestock are often endangered species as well, such as snow leopards, so Bankhar dogs contribute to ecological conservation.

While no metrics have formally been published yet, herders have received Bankhar dogs warmly and the initiative has improved herding quality. “So far, herders deemed as successful have seen a 75-90 percent reduction in loss from year one to year two,” said Lieb. “A herder who lost 30 animals now loses two animals.”

Though mostly hands-off in approach — simply providing pairs of dogs and a general protocol — MBDP routinely checks up on herders to ensure they are following protocol and evaluate the dogs’ performance. Only one herder thus far has reported a moderate level of dissatisfaction. In the event that the dogs are found unsuitable for the herd, they are moved out.

“The last thing we want to do is contribute to the stray dog population and problematic cross-breeding if the dogs aren’t being used for their purpose,” said Lieb.

Overpopulation of strays is largely a result of unspayed or unneutered guard dogs in ger districts and rural areas breeding freely with other canines. It also results from “breeders” meeting demands for “purebreds” at a cheap price.

Lucky Paws was founded in 2011 originally as a shelter for stray puppies collected from the streets in the winter. In 2013, due to overcrowding and maintenance issues, the organization reoriented their goal to promote humane management of strays instead.

Zoriglon, the director of Lucky Paws, discussed treatment towards stray dogs.

“If a child wants to have a certain kind of puppy to play with, the parents can buy a dog from a so-called ‘breeder’ in a ger district for 20,000 MNT. That’s about eight USD,” said Zoriglon. “Once the children get bored, they just throw the dogs out into the streets, creating strays.”

Dogs are also subjected to a number of other cruelties, such as being skinned, pelted by stones, or decapitated.

The primary method of stray overpopulation control used is shooting, which is cost ineffective in addition to being unethical. Every year, the government shoots 60,000 to 90,000 dogs in the street. Each individual shooting is estimated to cost 12,500 MNT, leading to a cost of up to 1,125,000,000 MNT (approximately 500,000 USD) per year. Furthermore, this solution has proved unsustainable as animals continue to procreate.

Lucky Paws NGO partners with around eight private veterinary clinics and two governmental veterinary clinics to promote spaying and neutering as the more sustainable solution. They spay approximately three to five dogs daily. This prevents an estimated 67,000 dogs from proliferating on the streets over the span of six years. Each spay costs approximately 50 USD, but will provide savings of over three million USD.

Lucky Paws has expanded to several soums throughout Mongolia. These places have also seen a significant reduction in both stray population and cost.

While many Mongolians may still feel ambivalently or even hostilely towards canines, it is in the nation’s best interest to rekindle its traditional bond with dogs. Not only does this bear an increased ethical standpoint for the nation, but it potentially entails greater quality of health and long-term economic advantages.

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