Georgia’s dogs: Meeting the challenges of overpopulation
By M.E.Chatwin, Tbilisi
Photos: Nino Khundadze
Friday, October 30
Georgia is bordered to the north by the majestic Caucasus Mountains where Catherine the Great of Russia made a ‘door’, today known as the Jvari (Cross) Pass, to descend towards the fertile territories below. Heavy trucks from Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as Turkey and Iran, pass through dozens of Georgian villages dotting the road up to the border. The road also offers perfect places for abandoned animals.
Every spring and summer, dozens of puppies and dogs roam the sides of Georgian roads, hiding on the long stretches between villages, hoping for handouts. Often they are reduced to ‘roadkill’. In larger towns and cities, under bushes in the parks, female dogs give birth each year, swelling the ranks of puppies that will be taken away to municipal facilities that have no options yet for adoption. In the early 90s, when I first came to Georgia, gunshots could be heard in the night—it was the former Soviet way that continued for a while after Independence, to eliminate homeless animals in the city.
Fortunately, in the 90s, the organization, World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), based in London, came to Tbilisi at the invitation of the City government, to demonstrate humane ‘catching’ methods, and help organize a first, more humane City Shelter for stray dogs, in Gldani. Fortunately, the dire methods of night-time shooting stopped, but the animal control services were soon overcome by the sheer numbers, still without the means of finding owners or homes. The shelter remained a ‘half-way house’ to rapid elimination unless a distraught owner showed up, looking for a lost dog. Online identification will hopefully become a more successful option in the future; the introduction of the ear chip now helps municipalities to identify some owners.
Last summer at a village shop on the Military Road, near Natakhtari, I pulled in just as the shopkeeper was putting a thick white plastic bag into the trunk of his old car, tied tightly, with what sounded like a panicked puppy inside. I asked,
“Is that a puppy?”
“Yes,” he said. “It was out here on the road. I don’t want it to get run over.”
“Where are you taking it?”
“Oh, to Tbilisi.”
I doubted it. Why was the bag tied, like it could be thrown into one of many dumpsters that line the highway?
“Where in Tbilisi?”
“To one of those places they have dogs,” he said vaguely.
My heart was heavy, but I couldn’t take on another puppy after just going through the red tape of rescuing two other pups I took to the 'no-kill shelter' near Lisi Lake. This shelter, founded by expats in recent years, has been a light in the dark story of abandoned dogs, but they are also solicited by many people who find animals, and cannot accommodate them all.
The problem is so huge that no one dreams of tackling it alone; if I had taken the problem off the shopkeeper’s conscience (he seemed to have a pang of guilt) I would again be overcome with the technical, physical problems of solving an enormous matter on a ‘puppy-by-puppy’ basis. It can’t be done that way.
This was first revealed by the Georgian organization NACRES, experts on wildlife preservation and animal behavior: eliminating strays from their 'public space' produces a 'call' effect, so another dog will come and take over the 'empty' territory. This brings in animals even from outside the city, with the potential for more infectious disease, if the municipality cannot find a way to control the flow. NACRES helped put into place the 'ear-tag' system that we see today, where a dog (male or female) is sterilized, given immunizations for disease, and put back into 'their territory' but without being able to reproduce. This way, they keep away 'invading' animals from elsewhere. It has meant hundreds of homeless puppies are avoided through sterilizations.
However, the problem is not solved yet, mainly because of human misunderstandings and a lack of public information. During the Covid crisis, many have abandoned their pets in places far from their homes, a practice that was frequent even before the pandemic, especially if they had puppies. Also, sometimes dog breeders cause problems by abandoning puppies they can’t sell. Hopefully, dog breeding will become much better-controlled.
However, deeper problems are human, economic, social-psychological issues. Cynophobia, or 'fear of dogs', is rampant in Georgia. Most people lack reliable information about dogs; their fear and anxiety are passed down through generations. Parents teach their children to cross over the street when they see a dog—leashed or not; even adults sometimes change sidewalks when they see a dog. Partially due to a lack of training by dog owners, dogs are seen as 'unclean' or 'dangerous', and unconscious attitudes make many people irrationally afraid. They pass this fear to their children and grandchildren. Other dysfunctional attitudes, even by some veterinarians, include the belief that male dogs shouldn’t be neutered: Somehow the sexual life of dogs seems to override science and professionalism.
Modern public information and professional training are now more systematic in schools and especially higher educational institutes, including veterinary training. Animal behavior, human attitudes, and scientific advances in understanding human/animal interaction should urgently become part of the curriculum.
Recently, a new and welcome initiative was brought to Georgia by Mayhew UK: See https://themayhew.org/working-hard-to-protect-the-dogs-of-georgia/. In keeping with the success of the ‘ear tag’ system for identifying animals who are safely vaccinated and neutered, Mayhew Georgia offers free neutering & vaccinations for both free-roaming and community dogs and to some pet owners who cannot afford to pay. The program is called “Trap-Vaccinate-Neuter-Return” (TVNR). Volunteers have been carrying out a program concentrating on west Georgia, bringing dozens of dogs to Tbilisi veterinary clinics that are approved by Mayhew, with Mayhew-trained vets.
After the dogs are vaccinated and neutered, they are taken back to their original ‘habitat’. At the same time, Georgian volunteers identify local people who can help feed the animals, even if they can’t offer them a permanent home. Such dogs are rarely aggressive, and are often known as “courtyard dogs” and cared for by several families in the same building or group of houses. The dogs help guard the building, and are a good way to show children the positive sides of good human/dog relations.
In Georgia, Mayhew’s vet, Dr Ana Metskhvarishvili works out of New Vet Clinic in Tbilisi, and delivers the TVNR program in three other clinics. Mayhew’s Georgia Coordinator helps vet clinics book the dogs for neutering and vaccination. All dog-lovers and volunteers can become involved in helping to re-educate society and find permanent, humane solutions like other countries have done.
Note: See a video at https://www.facebook.com/mayhewinternational/videos/253126649405953. Mayhew Georgia is a registered NGO in Georgia and has its own website: https://georgia.themayhew.org/. Since the program is dependent on donations to operate, the website gives details on how everyone can donate to this cause.