words & images alexandra von arx
Although Myanmar is desperately trying to modernize, it is still hindered by the wounds and diseases found festering in the bowels of underdeveloped nations. Huge abandoned buildings crumble silently, drainage ditches overflow with gray, polluted water, and mounds of trash rot languidly on the side of the road. Crawling through this mess there are hundreds—thousands—of feral dogs. In every sense, I am an animal lover, and for every animal lover, any third-world country is a veritable hell.
Most of Yangon’s canine population looks almost identical due to blind and frantic inbreeding. Almost all of the female dogs, regardless of their age, are either pregnant or show signs of having just given birth. Some dogs are slightly plump and relatively healthy looking, having been lucky enough to stake out a fertile source of scraps or win the sympathy of a local family. The majority, however, are emaciated to the point of revulsion. Their fur falls out in chunks and many drag broken limbs. They stare at tea-shop patrons from the sidewalks, watching them eat their bowls of noodles with their tails between their legs and a steady whimper leaking from their lips. All of them have a look of hopelessness in their sunken eyes, and when you spot one curled up under the tire of a parked taxi you wonder if they have already made the choice not to move when the driver returns and fires up the vehicle.
When I first arrived in Yangon, I felt a deep, innate pity for these dogs; however, as I spent more and more time in the city, this pity began to fade as annoyance and frustration replaced it. As much as I wanted to scoop all these dogs off the streets and give them proper care, I started to feel angered by their persistent sense of submission and fear. They all seemed resigned to decompose silently in the gutters or at the feet of unsympathetic Yangonites. Although one can hardly expect a street dog to have pride or a sense of hope, they began to grow so wretched in my eyes that I soon lost all compassion for them. They became more of an accessory to life in Yangon than a symptom of it, fading slowly into the heaps of garbage, dirt, rubble, and refuge.
On one exceptionally nice night in January, I chose to walk home from the supermarket down the street rather than take a taxi. I was in an irritated mood that was only exacerbated when one of the handles of my shopping bags ripped, spilling some of my groceries into the street. Disgruntled, I continued walking. Gradually the sidewalk narrowed to a small viaduct that crossed above a ditch filled with sewage. Balancing on the haphazardly placed slabs of concrete, I carefully picked my way toward home.
Ahead of me I spotted three dogs lying across the sidewalk directly in my path. I’d seen these dogs before in this area, trotting in a neat line across the street or napping together in the sun. Normally I would carefully weave my way around them as they determinedly ignored me, but given my irritated mood, I was in no state to make room for anything. As I approached them, I echoed what I’d seen many Yangon residents do when a dog is in their way—clap loudly and utter a short, brief snarl. As those sounds cut through the dullness of the night air, the three dogs leapt to their feet in a state of panic. Catching a glimpse of my approaching figure, their terror was instantly heightened. Two of the dogs quickly stumbled off into the ditch to my left, leaping through the sewage and sprinting away down the block. The other, confused and almost hysterical with fear, leapt blindly off the sidewalk and into the road. I turned just in time to watch it run straight into the path of an oncoming truck and explode.
A halo of dark blood burst from the site of the impact, blossoming in the shafts of the truck’s headlights and arcing into the air in a prefect, repellant curve. The dog’s bones shattered into crystalline fragments, piercing the arc of blood and refracting the sanguine light. Strips of muscle swam through the air like a school of red minnows fleeing an approaching predator, while tatters of skin fluttered away more slowly, a pack of moths on the hunt for a purer, more fruitful light. It was the most macabre firework I’d ever seen. This is what a supernova must look like between its radioactive distortions of the rainbow.
In seconds, it was over. The truck didn’t even slow down. As it rumbled away, all that was left of the dog were a few dark smears on the pavement and a small fragment of ear lying near the curb. Everything else had vanished into the darkness. I stood frozen on the sidewalk for several minutes before turning abruptly and walking away. I thought I should feel sick to my stomach or have tears piercing the corners of my eyes. Instead, I felt a deep hollowness that was more painful than sadness or disgust. It was as if a giant stone had replaced all of my organs, sinking me into a morbid state of numbness. This, I realized, was what that dog must have felt in the moments before it died.
When I first arrived in Yangon, my friends and I would sometimes joke about the dogs we’d see hurrying down the street, pretending that they were all late for a very important meeting. Now, as I think about them running across roads, back alleys, or abandoned lots, I’m sure they’re desperately seeking somewhere else, anywhere else, where they find a death that meets them in a swift, merciful blow.