Editor’s note: This is part 1 of a 3-part series. In part 2, Daniela discusses the extreme challenges of veterinary care in Nepal. In part 3, she discusses the medical challenges some of the SAR dogs have faced in recent years. She also tells the story of Chetan, a springer spaniel from one of the SAR dog litters who went blind then had his sight restored!
“Oh nice, you are supporting a dog rescue in Neapel?” [Naples] … “Ehm… no… not Neapel in Italy. It´s Nepal. Nepal in the Himalayas, in Asia. And we do not do dog rescue. We make Search and Rescue with help of the dogs. They are search dogs and we rescue people.”
How many times I explained it in past. Smiling. Some people are satisfied with this answer, but most want to know more about our work. And then, when I feel they are really interested in my story, I start to narrate. I could describe our work for hours. There is so much I could tell you about SARDOGS Nepal, how we started and what happened within the past 8 years since we started this journey.
Why just Nepal?
I am SARdog trainer, examiner and doghandler for 27 years and live in Germany. My profession is veterinarian for small animals. My former SAR unit was involved in international Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) missions after earthquakes. In 1999, we faced two heavy earthquakes in Turkey. For the second one, I was choosen as doghandler with my famous dog Amigo, and as team leader. We were fast on the spot, but we still came too late. Amigo only found dead bodies. After few days, we finished our search efforts. We met a doghandler from Spain who bumped into our camp and asked if we could exchange our uniform badges (emblems). We did, and this was the moment when the story began. We also asked in the neighbour camps of the other international search teams and exchanged our uniform badges.
When I came home, I emailed to many SAR dog units all over the world and started to collect and to exchange more badges. This was when I came in contact with the Himalayan Rescue Dog Squad Nepal. We exchanged some emails and after a while, I was invited to Nepal. This was in December 1999. They asked me to bring a Springer Spaniel puppy, after their own one has died shortly before. Surely… travelling to Nepal… not possible at all. But with a friend, we began to dream. Why not? (We were so naive). The people I talked about it smiled and said “Jaa jaa Daniela… sure…You are crazy. You will never do this.”.. in spring of 2000, I answered. Yes, we plan to come in summer time (stupid idea… middle of monsoon), I wrote back. But then came his answer. “Sorry, we have Civil War here. Many battles and cruelty. It is very dangerous. We are not allowed to move outside our compound. Stay at home. We can´t guarantee for your safety.”
The years passed, and we lost the contact.
Local Disaster Response
Meanwhile, I learned a lot about disaster response and USAR missions abroad. I remarked that it was absolutely ineffective. We would spend huge amounts of money for the training of the teams, their equipment and the airborne transport to the target areas. We would have big problems to reach the disaster zone from the airport with land transports. It simply took too much time. After 72 hours the time window for finding buried persons alive was practically closed. All findings behind this 72 hours would be miracles. But, we would need minimum 20 and more hours after an earthquake to reach the area… mostly more than 48 hours. At last, we would find only few or no persons and would invest so much money and efforts… this became ineffective in my eyes.
But there was another way to solve this problem: Earthquake-prone countries would need local Search And Rescue (SAR) dog units. Locals with local dogs who would be familiar with the climate, the language, with conventions and traditions, with the local pathogen germs. The affected population would trust them more than us. And, they would be on the spot in extremely short time. THIS would be effective.
And after few days, the international disaster response machinery would start and roll over the country. It wasn’t always the best what happens, when thousands of foreign airplanes with foreign helpers (who only want the best and are keen to help) overrun a disaster zone. Mostly it would end in something we call “disaster tourism” and bring some more problems than benefits. This is what I realized.
Meanwhile, it was May 2008. One morning, I read a short notice in my local newspaper: The Civil War in Nepal is over. Nepal is a democracy now, lead by a Maoist party.
I was electrified. I went to the PC, and searched for the email address. Maybe it would not work any more but I wrote a short email to Nepal. “Are you still there?”
Soon I opened the answer: “We are. Still.”
There was nearly nothing left from the Himalayan Rescue Dog Squad. Only two old female German Shepherds were still alive. The Squad was nearly disbanded. A few members were left and they had nothing to work any more.
“You are still invited”, he wrote “and when you come, please bring a new Springer Spaniel puppy for us!”
And we did. Maybe I started a new stage of my life when I made the decision to go to Nepal. I have a talent to organize everything, and I am unbelievable stubborn when I have something in my mind.
And So it Began
We collected donations, and with the help of my own SAR dog group and many friends, we managed to train 4 puppies and young dogs: GSD Aldo, X-Malinois Laxmi, and the Springer Spaniels Helga and Dunston . My friend and me brought them to Nepal in November 2008, as new base for the search dog work and to breed with their own puppies for the future.
The first 3 years we faced incredible problems. By money, but also by the involved persons. My friend and me had severe differences and disputes while we were in Nepal and nearly all the project failed before it really has started. Few weeks later, we started a registered Charity to support the Nepali squad, without my former friend, but with some of our other supporters. We are only 9 full members, and some friends and supporters who help financially and with their skills as SAR dog trainers.
The first few years, we really had to struggle and always when we made a little step forward, we slipped two steps back. We lost dog handlers who had to quit their job by several reasons; we had much trouble with former members of the squad and other people who were involved there before we came. At last, there was a court case against some of them. We won it. And since that, the problems became smaller and we were able to develop. In January 2011 we closed the Himalayan Rescue Dog Squad Nepal and founded SARDOGS Nepal as a private not for profit company. We tried to leave all the trouble behind us.
But we still had two big problems: The money…we were financially broke most of the time and sometimes not able to pay the salaries of our fulltime doghandlers for months… and the dogs. In 2009, a dog trainer from USA visited the young dog squad and teached them in clicker training. We use this kind of training now for nearly everything what we teach the dogs. She brought a couple of young German Shorthair Pointers: Hunter and Maggie. Both of them would become our first mantrailers. They were so talented.
In 2010 we got our first two litters of puppies. Dunston and Helga got 7 puppies. We made huge efforts to get enough money to give them their vaccinations and microchips. But when they reached the age of 4-5 months, 3 of 7 died like flies on a mysterious pneumonia. Our local vet tried every antibiotic but no chance. Only Tina, Turner, Tendi and Tulsi survived.
Then Dunston jumped one day over the fence and mated with one of the old German Shepherd females who was already retired. She got 2 puppies, Uttam and Umesh. Only few weeks later, Umesh was bitten by a poisonous snake and died.
In summer of 2010, my former friend suddenly came to Nepal and kidnapped Helga. Her puppies were only 7 months old. This was a giant loss for us. We tried everything to get her back but it was impossible. In those early years, I got to know the abysses of human beings.
Only few time later, we lost Maggie. She was bitten by a poisonous snake and despite all tries to rescue her she died.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Daniela’s story: she will talk more about snake bites and the state of veterinary care in Nepal. It may be shocking to some of our readers.
Latest posts by Daniela Neika, DVM (see all)
- The Struggle to Keep Search and Rescue Dogs in Nepal Healthy - September 24, 2017
- German Vet Adapts to Extreme Challenges of Veterinary Care in Nepal - June 9, 2017
- The Incredible Genesis of a SAR Dog Team on the Roof of the World - March 17, 2017