Saving strays

8 min read
19 May 2017
8 min read
1830 words
VMAG talks to Romi Lama about how she has adopted saving stray dogs as a way of life

Romi Lama's home has been completely taken over by her dogs―there is not a square inch of her home that is not occupied by a dog. "I'll walk with my dogs until I drop dead," says Lama, when asked how she envisions her retirement.

Speaking with Alok Thapa of M&S VMAG, Lama shares that just like it is wrong to judge a person by the colour of their skin or nationality, the same should apply for animals―a dog is a dog, no matter what its breed. And the best way to tackle the stray-dog situation, she says, is to adopt a stray. Just like she has―16 of them.

What kind of childhood did you have?
I was born Chandra Maya Lama in a well-to-do family in Boudha. My father was into business and my mother ran a popular restaurant. We were nine siblings, and we had a comfortable life. Looking back, the only thing I missed out on was getting a proper education―I only studied till grade two. In those days girls were appreciated if they were shy, stayed at home and helped with household chores.

So the shy girl developed an inclination towards animals?
I was not shy. Not really. I was a free-spirited teenager, and animals were the last thing on my mind. I often got into trouble for doing things that a 'normal' girl was not supposed to do. I had short hair, rode a bike, and once, I even crashed my father's car. I was going through the typical 'teenage revolt' phase. And I deliberately defied adult restrictions as a way of asserting my independence. I got married pretty early―it was an inter-caste marriage―and life took a completely different turn within a few years.

Did you not have a happy conjugal life?
My husband died in an accident seven months into our marriage. The incident was the start of a challenging phase for me. I can't really answer your question as to whether I had a happy married life because my marriage came to an abrupt halt. But there's not a day that goes by when I'm not grateful for having my daughter from it.

And from where did your love for dogs come into the picture?
I didn't get along with my in-laws, and during a family spat, I just walked out of the house with my daughter. I ended up at Pashupatinath Temple, the one place I always go to whenever I want some alone time. It was there that I met this dog that kept following me; it was almost like she was there to protect me from the curious glances of strangers and their advances. Nobody cared enough to ask why I was sitting by the road with a baby. But this dog kept me company the whole night, and when I woke up, she left. I had just five rupees in my pocket, had left my husband's home and had spent the night at Pashupati. I vowed to myself then that I would live for my daughter, and do something for street dogs.

What were the struggles you faced after you left your in-laws' home?
I started working in a carpet factory. Even after six months, I barely managed to save Rs 5,000. My only aim was to get my daughter the best education I could possibly provide for her, so I put her in a boarding school. But it turned out to be a challenge to find a job for a single mother. Through my friend, I finally got a job at Hotel Annapurna, where I used to sell tickets at the disco. I used to lock my daughter in my rented room to do the night-shift at the hotel. My family was not happy with my work, so I stopped any kind of communication with them and changed my name to Romi. Later, I got involved in some export business from Khasa (Nepal-China border), but it didn't do well. Eventually in 2000, I opened a restaurant. It was during that time that a stray black dog (Michael) ended up at my door, and suddenly I was reminded of my promise. I started taking care of him, and before I knew it, the number of dogs at my home started increasing.

How did people react to your love for dogs?
Everybody thought that I had gone mad―they still do. I would feed every dog that would turn up at my door, and I got attached to every single one of them. In a couple of months, I had five dogs visiting me. My family didn't approve of the dogs, and my family stopped coming to my place altogether.

How long has it been since you started keeping dogs at your place?
For the past 17 years, I have been taking care of street dogs. And it's been three years that I have started keeping them at my place. Right now, I live with 16 dogs that I rescued from various places-the latest one is from Bhotekoshi.  

This is a full-time job, and then there's the money factor. How do you manage?
On average, I rescue around 21 dogs per year; that's the most I can do individually. My only steady source of income is through the rent money I collect from my house and through our Facebook page-Street Dogs of Kathmandu Nepal. I also do get some sort of financial help from time to time. I'm also blessed to have met like-minded people who care for these dogs-people like Shri Krishna Ranjitkar, Shova Gurung, Ritu Thapa and Dr Sushil Kumar Paudel.

When was the last time you took a vacation?
People go on vacations to relax, but for me, nothing's more therapeutic than being with my dogs. I work seven days a week, and I haven't had a holiday in years. Even during the earthquakes, I was living in my house while everyone was in tents because nobody was ready to share their camp with my dogs. I was in my home through the many tremors that shook Kathmandu valley for a year. I was even attacked by people during that time: they blamed me for bringing in street dogs to their toles and streets.

What frustrates you?
The plight of these animals is a horrible thing to witness; it saddens me most when I see a heavily pregnant dog or litters of puppies struggling to survive. I have noticed that most stray dogs in Kathmandu are disowned pets who become sick, pregnant or develop aggressive behaviour. I have seen hit-and-run cases where the dog is still alive and the passersby do nothing. I have seen dogs with broken limbs because someone decided to teach them a lesson for not obeying them. What bothers me most is how easily we turn a blind eye to such cruelty and turn away from taking responsibility.

I wish the government would focus on starting animal birth-control centres instead of spending money on eradicating stray dogs (poisoning them). It is estimated that there are nearly 25,000 stray dogs in Kathmandu. They should also focus on opening spaces for rescuing and keeping the diseased and sick animals to control epidemics. Another major issue is the abandonment of pet dogs. Irresponsible pet ownership adds to the burden of the already huge population of street dogs.

I wish the government would focus on starting animal birth-control centres instead of spending money on eradicating stray dogs

And what gives you hope?
When I see a previously sick, injured dog healthy and fit, that gives me immense joy. Meeting people from everyday life who share my sentiment also gives me hope. I have been able to send a couple of my rescued dogs to the United States and Germany, and they are happily living in their new homes. Working with people like Daniela Drees―of Don't Panic Nepali Dogs, We'll Find You a Home―and Julia Karepska―of The International Dog Adoption Nepal―also gives me hope.

What are your future plans?
I want to sell my house, help my daughter finish her PhD, and move to the outskirts and open an animal-friendly place. Like I said, all the money I make from rent goes into feeding and caring for the dogs, so I don't really have any savings. Also, I'm very realistic about my ambitions. I know I can't take care of every stray dog in Kathmandu, so for now I'm focusing on the strays in my area―Bagbazar. You don't have to wait for an organisation to intervene; it can be done at an individual level. I wish more of us were tolerant and accepting of animals. The worst a dog can do is bite; humans are capable of much worse.

What do you want to say to dog breeders?
I'm against the pet shop and breeding industry, which is unregulated in Nepal. When a female dog can't produce any more puppies, breeders throw them out. If you call yourself a true dog lover, then you shouldn't be supporting the breeding trade. Don't breed or buy while there are still many homeless dogs dying. Adopt a stray.