Ethical and Sustainable Vountourism and…Puppy Training!

by Mark Shackelford

Maple Leaf (Mission) hospital is located in the northern India province of Himachal Pradesh tucked between the Himalaya Mountains, Punjab and Cashmere. It was built on a prominent hill top overlooking the Kangra valley following a devastating earthquake in 1905 by Canadian medical missionary doctors and nurses. Remaining the only hospital in the whole northern region of India for decades, it has in recent years become more and more a poor hospital with the growth and expansion of national Indian health infrastructure. Operated completely by national born medical staff since the 1970’s, Mission hospital today serves patients who routinely walk for days to receive care.

As a radiologic technologist working a health informatics degree, I jumped at the opportunity to earn some clinical credits while volunteering to help cross train a local OR tech tasked with providing all the x-ray services for the hospital. Since becoming a radiologic technologist seven years prior, I had an abiding desire to volunteer to support radiologic sciences in developing countries.

One of the legacies of India’s former relationship with Great Britain is a complex and well organised government bureaucracy. Responding to a medicalmission.org ad to help with short term radiographic training, I had to obtain a temporary work visa which required several documents, affidavits, and fees that required about two months to complete.

My plan included flying from Seattle through Tokyo to Bangkok where I would overnight before flying to New Delhi. An unexpected blizzard over Tokyo added 10 hours to an already long trip abruptly taught me the value of having an external phone battery. Foregoing the nap in Bangkok, I arrived bleary eyed in New Delhi in the morning local time where a local guide met me with a car. After touring this amazing city for several hours, I arrived at the bus station for the eight hour-overnight bus ride north to Kangra.

After recovering from the long trip, I joined the Doctors for a family meal in their home within the hospital campus.  During the meal, a little puppy bounded into the dining room which caused some laughter from the family – apparently it is very unusual to have a dog in the house.  It happened that the puppy belonged to one of the current patients who is from a hill tribe that uses this breed to herd and guard sheep and goats.  The family had a long walk and brought the puppy with them as they believed it may not survive their absence otherwise.  The doctors volunteered to keep the puppy with their other dogs in their yard to help the family support their loved one in care as the dogs hit it off with each other very well.

There are pythons and panthers in northern India and having dogs is an effective deterrent against unwelcome encounters.  Turns out the dogs spend a lot of time barking at the monkeys – and with good reason:  they can be quite large and aggressive if one gets in their way. Hindu peoples worship monkeys as well as cows and a lot of other animals so when they become a nuisance they carefully trap them and then drive them out to a remote place and release them. The problem was that Kangra is one of these remote places and as such is absolutely crowded with competing bands of monkeys.

Over the past three years the population of monkeys has exploded in the region causing a lot of territorial fighting among the monkeys and occasional attacks on humans who get in their way. As these animals can reach 80 pounds and have fangs, precautions in the hospital include every substantial room in the hospital containing a charged an air rifle leaning against a wall ready for use.  Doors are always closed as the monkeys will calmly walk into an open house and help themselves to whatever they want out of the kitchen refrigerator, table, or bedside.

Not surprisingly, the doctors have two adult dogs who bark a lot at the monkeys. What happened a couple days before I arrived was the barking must have become an issue of annoyance with the monkeys.   When it came time to feed the puppy – it was nowhere to be found…Dr. “A” then heard a whining sound from above, looked up, and saw the puppy way up at the top of a very large tree within their fenced yard.  I was amazed to learn that one of the monkeys had taken the puppy and had apparently very carefully perched it there. That the monkey didn’t simply attack the puppy is amazing to me. The older dogs must have been mortified because they were mute and subdued without any of their former barking.

Upon arriving home after several hours in the hospital, the doctors had decided that they would have to use a ladder to attempt to retrieve the puppy.  But as they stood in the kitchen gazing out at the yard, a large bull monkey sauntered up to the tree. Apparently reassured that his point was made, the monkey (in the sight of the dogs and the perplexed doctor) calmly climbed back up the tree and retrieved the puppy and then gently deposited it on the ground in front of the tree.

Now I know that monkeys can (and indeed do) train dogs.