Rabies Encounters: On Caring for Random Sick Animals in Developing Nations
Asia Myanmar Southeast Asia

Rabies Encounters: On Caring for Random Sick Animals in Developing Nations

Just for the record, this is a photo of a dog that was taken in Mexico not Myanmar. It seemed sacrilegious to photograph the poor dying puppy we worked with last night in Bagan.

So, I have this problem. It’s a sort of an obsession or a compulsion that has to do with sick animals. If I see one, I always think that I can take it home with me, take care of it and it will heal and grow strong and be okay. The challenge of bringing a sick animal, on the brink of death, back to life is almost irresistible to me. I’ll throw a fit about walking up 777 steps to Mount Popa because of the potential for monkey poop and the problem of hookworm infections, but, if I see a starving dog or a sick kitten on the ground in front of me, I’ll stoop down like someone who’s never heard of rabies and start trying to figure out how to save it. 

I don’t learn. John and Lydian tend to stand back because they’ve seen the results of my efforts several times over. I mean, when I was a kid growing up on my parent’s farm, I regularly nursed kittens back to health. I’ve told them stories about it. I would discover some starving little baby kitten in a patch of weeds near the wheat field and I’d bring it back to the house. When my Grandma was alive, she often would help me on these missions. She had a real soft spot for sick animals too and she had a specific way that she’d hold a baby kitten that I always admired. She would wrap her fingers around it’s body in this way that made them feel safe and they would stop squirming and stop crying. She would go with me to heal and to rescue the wounded or sick little creatures that I would find on our farm. I really appreciated this about her and I guess I emulate now, except that I’m not on a farm…I’m in developing nations and I should know better.

But, unfortunately, now, when I see a sick or wounded creature that’s dying, I do the stupidest things. Luckily, when we were in Nepal, John, Lydian, and I all got rabies vaccines. I hadn’t thought much about the value of those vaccines now that we’re stationed in Myanmar for the long haul, but last night, I thanked The Powers That Be many times over for the fact that we got those vaccines back in 2014. Had we not gotten those vaccines, I would have had to have been medically evacuated to Thailand last night. 

Because I get stupid around sick animals.

It wasn’t necessarily that the dog was rabid. We found the poor creature laying in the middle of a sandy road outside of the restaurant where Lydian, Naing Naing, John, and I had just eaten dinner. It had been a long, hot, air-condition-less day at our house so we’d gone out to eat as a fun consolation prize. A couple of tourists had spotted the dog and pointed him out to us. John and I were on our ebike and John drove over and pointed the headlamps at the dog who was so starved and emaciated that you could see every vertebrae in its body. It was missing an eye. I knelt down next to it and looked at it from a couple feet away. I thought that maybe…maybe if I could get it to eat an egg yolk or drink some milk that it might bounce back. Memories of sickly kittens, their heads and bodies limp in my hands from starvation and thirst rolled back through my mind’s eye. Yes, it was possible…maybe I could save this dog.

But I had no gloves. And I didn’t want to touch it. No. I shouldn’t touch it. Drawing from my days back when I worked in nursing homes, I thought perhaps we could find a piece of fabric and slide it through the sand, under the dog and carry it somewhere to tend to it. Naing Naing went off in search of the fabric. Lydian went off in search of eggs. Both returned within a few minutes and Naing Naing knelt down to help me pick up the dog. John wisely stood back and warned me over and over again to be careful, don’t touch it. After Naing Naing arrived with the fabric bag, of course, he and I argued a bit on how to go about gathering up the dog because Naing Naing always has his own ideas and super strong opinions on things, but he knew this was my territory and so he finally deferred to me and knelt down at the head with me at the feet. I suggested we go from the spine of the dog under the sand toward his legs. 

And as he and I readied for this task, Lydian thought about the kitten I had once tried to rescue many years prior and she stood back from the whole affair with John. It had been a tiny kitten of only 6 weeks of age that we’d found in a parking lot in the dead of winter in Ogallala, Nebraska it’s ears frozen off into odd shapes. It came to us begging for food and rather than just let the poor thing eat and leave it, I decided to grab it and try to take it home with us. I nearly lost a finger as a result and suffered for three days with a fever even after taking the antibiotics. I was used to the docile farm animals of my youth, but this…this had been an urban kitten, hardened and unyielding after having spent some time on the streets. I’d underestimated him.

But this dog on a sandy road in a Bagan was so sick that it accepted, somewhat reluctantly the efforts that Naing Naing and I made to gather it up on a large, plastic recycled bag. I thought that it was so sick that it wouldn’t move since it had literally no body fat at all. My plan to slide the bag under the dog from behind, through the sand under the dog went well up to a point until the dog got uncomfortable and became unsure about the process. We were so close to having him on the bag. All I needed to do was take one of his paws and roll him over onto it. It was so tempting. I knew I shouldn’t touch him, but…

The second I reached out for his paw, the dog nipped at me. It wasn’t super violent…a half-hearted nip, and thankfully, he didn’t draw blood. But his saliva got on one finger of one hand. Everyone stood back then and stood up and the dog wobbled to its feet like Lazarus coming back from the dead. As with the kitten, the group realized that they had underestimated the animal. I ran into the bathroom in the restaurant to wash my hand and there I discovered a small cut that was on the knuckle of my right hand from when I’d cleaned the house here in Bagan that we’d just moved into. It was a preoccupying discovery, but I decided to keep it to myself and meditate on it privately for a bit. It was then that I remembered, and felt utterly grateful for those rabies shots we got in Nepal.

And I was also very grateful that the dog had nipped at me and not at Naing Naing.

I reviewed my stupidity and went over it and over it, asking myself why…WHY DO I DO THIS SORT OF THING?

By the time I got back out to the dog, the group of concerned people were trying to get it set up with water and food. At long last, after staggering about for some time, it decided to go into one of the many temples just outside the restaurant where Lydian wept bitterly over the unfairness of it all for the poor animal that would surely die and Naing Naing declared that a temple would be a good place to die. He went in, the kind soul that he is, and set the food and water close to the animal just in case it decided to eat (though it seemed unlikely that it would…it had already stared longingly at the food once and refused to eat any).

Then, we all went back to our house, where Lydian and I did an online Burmese lesson with a young fellow from India because we’re doing market research. We did the lesson with the generator running outside and two flashlights on the kitchen table to illuminate our faces since the electricity was still not on here in New Bagan. It was just a trial lesson, but we wanted to see what kind of competition exists for Naing Naing since he also teaches Burmese online (his email btw: [email protected]). The Indian instructor was knowledgeable, but clearly not listening to us. We only spoke actual words a few times during the lesson and so my mind had the opportunity to digress and I thought more about rabies. After the lesson, Naing Naing helped us correct and reconfigure some of the information about the Burmese language that was askew because the instructor was actually Indian and then, when the electricity finally came back on, Lydi and Naing Naing went home and John and I discussed the problem of rabies in greater depth.

John said, “If I had done something like that tonight, you’d be so pissed at me, I wouldn’t live it down in twenty years.” 

I agreed and couldn’t believe my stupidity. I was so uptight about certain things, but I was absolutely a total idiot in regard to sick animals. I reassured him that it was not an emergency situation because we’d had our rabies vaccines, but that I’d probably need to go to the Global Health Center here in Bagan the next day. I recalled that I’d need booster shots, but I couldn’t remember how many and I wasn’t sure if they’d have them. I hoped that they’d have the vaccine in Myanmar somewhere, but it seemed hopeful that Bagan would have them because of its tourist infrastructure.

We’d already been to the Global Health Clinic when we were in Bagan before because we all got vitamin B12 shots there in January on our first visit here. It’s a nice clinic and the doctor is good. They did, in fact, have the rabies vaccines, though they do NOT have the immunoglobulin shots that are necessary if you get bitten by an animal and you have NOT already had the vaccine. As someone who has had the rabies vaccine and got bit (kind of) by an animal, I merely had to get two booster shots, one on day 0 after the bite and one on day 3. The shots are relatively painless although the ones in Nepal did make us sick. It sure beats having to get the immunoglobulin treatment though. 

It probably won’t hurt for me to have another set of boosters given my history of being stupid with dying animals. 

And though I would’ve been pissed at John had he tried to rescue this dog, John was not pissed at me, but rather just worried. I think that neither one of us wants to die from rabies of all things. And rabies can sneak up on you because it can take 12 days to a month or two for the symptoms of rabies to start and once you have symptoms, it’s unlikely that you’ll survive. It’s pretty easy to pass off a little saliva on your hand and say (to yourself) that there’s no need to worry, but rabies is no joke. A tiny cut on your hand and an itsy bitsy bit of saliva in a wound from an infected animal and…it will seem like no big deal…initially, you won’t be ill. Maybe you just have dry skin on your hands and you get some saliva on your skin. It only takes one microscopic cut to get infected with rabies. Often people forget about the cut and the saliva or the blood or whatever and then, all of a sudden, their brain swells and then they’re dead. That’s the rabies trajectory and people do die from rabies pretty regularly in developing countries, especially India, Nepal, and Myanmar. In the U.S., it costs about $350 PER SHOT (there are 3 in a series) to get vaccinated for rabies initially. But here in Myanmar, the cost is $37 per shot (plus the cost of the doctor’s visit which, in this case, was an additional $30). 

Maybe I’ll learn this time. Hopefully I’ll learn this time. I probably need to get myself a batch of healthy kittens to take care of and a pair of armored  “Love Gloves” as one of my friends calls them that I can carry around in my purse for emergency bouts of stupidity regarding sick animals here in Bagan.

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