This incident happened in
1975 when Ranji and myself were young doctors working in the remote Sri Lankan
village of Mahiyangana, as the only doctors for miles around. I was the
District Medical Officer (DMO) and amongst other things was responsible for the
medico-legal work, the Public Health as well as the administration of this 88
Mahiyangana was a
god-forsaken village.The poor villagers were dominated by "business men" from
the south. This was the Srilankan equivalent of a rough Mexican/Texan cow town
(as depicted in "spaghetti westerns".) It certainly was not the sort of place
for newly qualified, naive, recently married young doctors; but we had no
choice. There were several gangland type killings....... These gave me a good
taste of Forensic Pathology.
One of the few reasons that
Mahiyangana was on the map at all was that it was one of the Holy Cities of
Srilankan Buddhism. The temple was opposite the hospital on "sacred ground".
Buddhists are averse to taking any form of life including animal life.
The village and the hospital
were overrun with stray dogs, and dogs of course carried the deadly disease
rabies! For the benefit of non medical readers: there is absolutely no
cure for rabies once you develop it. Even to this day if you are unfortunate
enough to develop rabies you will die within a few days. You will not even get
a chance to have a final fling with your credit card or with your girlfriend
(whichever you prefer!) because of the uncontrollable muscular spasms. Oh, and
by the way it is a rather horrible and unpleasent death! The other name for
rabies is Hydrophobia which is rather an understatement! Dehydration (or over
prescription of sedatives) finally brings your misery to an end.
The first patient that I ever
saw suffer from (and die of) Rabies was a seven year old girl. I was then a
young houseman in the first few weeks of my internship in 1973. I will never
forget her suffering! Westerners, who often seem to look after their dogs
better than their children - as judged by the cases of child abuse I have come
across in Britain - might find the rest of this story rather offensive.
The dogs were everywhere.
They stole food from the patients, they ate discarded soiled bandages from the
rubbish bins and they often attacked the staff, especially those who were on
night duty. They came in all sizes,shapes and ages and were generally of a
mixed breed. Some were fit, the others were weak. Some had the mange, the
others were sleek. Contrary to popular belief that dog does not eat dog there
were frequent dogfights on the hospital premises - especially when bitches in
heat were in short supply! One of my enduring memories is the spectacle of up
to seven assorted dogs trying to mate with the same bitch with varying degrees
of success but mostly resulting in coitus interruptus! It is a tough life being
Every week a new batch of
Rabies vaccine would arrive by post from Colombo and the victims of dog bite
would line up for their vaccines - that is: those victims of dog bite who
believed in Western medicine (which was free). The others went for Ayurvedic or
native witch doctor type medicine with mixed results. Those who were destined
to develop rabies got it anyway. The others survived by sheer luck.
The dogs' lives were however,
considered sacred and no attempt was made to destroy them.
Young doctors are full of good
intentions! Something had to be done about the dogs and so I summoned the
Public Health Inspector (PHI). He was rather apologetic and drew my attention
to the dog-eared (no pun!) copy of the Departmental Manual on my desk. This
item, an obvious relic from our colonial past, and written in the sort of
language that only civil servants could manage, was considered to be the book
of rules or the Leviticus of the Sri Lankan Health Service. Needless to say
that this document was never revised after the British gave us our independence
and left us to our own devices in the February of 1948.
Amongst other helpful rules in
this manual was the interesting section regarding stray dogs which read thus: "
The District Medical Officer may procure a quantity of Strychnine, not
exceeding one ounce, for the express purpose of destroying stray dogs.
Application needs to be made on Form....." That seemed to be the answer! It was
certainly safer, and cheaper, than shooting them and the PHI had knowledge on
how to administer the stuff to the dogs.
Strychnine is an
intensely bitter white powder in its refined state. It is an alkaloid which is
extracted from the seeds of the tropical plant Strychnos nux vomica (
known locally as "kaduru"). The fruits are a vivid orange: An obvious
warning not to eat them. A well known poison during Victorian times and in the
early part of the last century, the use of Strychnine as a homicidal agent has
not been exploited in recent times, although I have seen a few suicides in
Srilanka. The symptoms consist of intense muscular spasms - in human beings
mostly involving the erector spinae group of muscles resulting in a peculiar
bending of the body backwards- this state being refered to as
The symptoms are not very
different from those of Tetanus and death is the result of asphyxia.(
Interested persons might find a lot of information on the subject of Strychnine
in the early editions of "Taylor's Book of Medical Jurisprudence")
The dogs were hungry. They
would eat anything.The answer was tripe. Yes tripe! Raw, smelly, bloody,
uncleaned tripe from the local butcher! Add one ounce of Strychnine, mix and
serve the Strychnine laced tripe to the dogs! Simple! Except that the PHI,
being a Buddhist, was willing to supply the tripe but was not actually too keen
to scatter the strychnine laced tripe amongst the dogs.The only Christian (ie
non Buddhist) for miles around was myself!
Considerable planning was
required. Those of you who have read my story "The Case Of The Exploding
Elephant" (next page) would remember that the ground in this part of the
country was hardbaked for most of the year. The first step was to dig a
suitable pit (grave) for the dead dogs. This was duly carried out-over a period
of several days. The hospital "labourers" were instructed to dig a suitable
grave in an unused part of the hospital grounds. During this exercise they came
across a number of dog skulls!. Obviously, one of my predecessors had had the
same idea many years ago!
The appointed day for the
"Slaughter of the Dogs" dawned bright, clear and hot; as most days do in that
part of Srilanka. At around 8 am, the usal time to start the working day, I
walked the short distance from our Health Department provided house to the
hospital. Ranji was still getting dressed - an elaborate procedure as she used
to wear the sari in those days (she also had waist length hair which needed a
lot of attention.)
I was in my office with the
PHI going over the finer details of the "campaign" (I used to read a lot of war
story books as a kid which explains my fondness for the word "campaign"!) when
a nurse burst in to say that Ranji had been bitten by a dog! I rushed in to the
so-called "dressing room" of the hospital (for dressing wounds, not the usual
kind of dressing room!) to see Ranji with her sari lifted to reveal her right
knee, an image which will remain in my memory forever! (There is something
erotic about sari wearers revealing their knees! No doubt Victorian men had the
same sort of frisson when a little bit of Victorian feminine ankle was
Ranji had been walking her way
to the hospital when she came across a group of dogs trying their luck with a
lone bitch in heat. A large black sinister looking dog in the group - who if he
had the right sort of connections might have been invited to act in the "Omen"
series of films - had bitten Ranji! In spite of the fact that she was bitten
through several layers of sari and her petticoat, she did have a small
laceration on her lower thigh. This was vigourously scrubbed with various
antiseptic agents including Hydrogen Peroxide, so vigourously that she still
has a rather prominent cheloid type scar on the outer aspect of her right thigh
just above her knee (I will post a photograph of it and her present day legs if
she will permit me to)
One thing she didn't do was to
cry. In 25 years of marriage I have never seen her in tears!
This unforseen development of
Ranji being attacked by a dog on the very day that I planned to slaughter them
(the dogs) in large numbers, might have been construed as a bad omen by the
locals. The PHI paled visibly when he saw that Ranji had been attacked - and by
a large black dog at that. He clearly did not want to proceed with the
slaughter. Ranji and myself, however, were adament that the dogs had to go! By
this stage Ranji had a very good and personal reason to get rid of the dogs!
She ran the risk of developing rabies and eventually did have to undergo the
painful course of 21 injections around her umbilicus.
The dogs get
By about 9 o'clock that
morning, Ranji's injury having been sorted out, I personally scattered the
poisoned tripe amongst eagerly yapping dogs.
The results were remarkable
to say the very least. It was the usual survival-of-the-fittest scenario. Dogs
fell over each other to grab what they thought was Manna from dog heaven. The
fact that the Manna that they received probably tasted exceedingly bitter did
not seem to bother them a bit!............. The results were rather
interesting: Having swallowed a mouthful of Strychnine laced tripe, without
actually tasting it, the leaders of the pack became rather thoughtful for a few
seconds or so immediatly following their rather unwise decision. In the next
few seconds there was a visible change in their demeanour. As P.G. Wodehouse
would have put it: the dogs took on the appearance of " a man who had been hit on the occiput
with a heavy blunt weapon". Their ears stood up.
Their backs arched: upwards, ie they flexed (opposite of what happens to human
victims of Strychnine poisoning who extend. Why?) They then stood very briefly
on tip toe before falling sideways in a stiff manner with their legs stretched
out, underwent a few tetanic spasms and then died.The whole business, from
swallowing the poisoned tripe to death, being over in a minute or so. Rather
humane I thought!
Some vomited just before their
death and their vomit was eagerly grabbed by the also-rans. Some of the unfit,
who had to wait their turn to eat and therefore got only small scraps, had
enough time to run across the road to the temple premises to die on grounds
considered to be sacred by the Buddhists.
Altogether, on that day a
total of 42 dogs died. They were collected by the hospital labourers, including
my two mortuary labourers, and were carted (literally!) in a pushcart (usually
reserved for carting unclaimed human bodies to the local cemetery) to the
pre-prepared mass grave. By the time the sun set over the Mahaweli River
on that day 42 dogs had met their maker, Ranji had a sore leg and we had
managed to alter the future statistics for Rabies - in that part of the country
at least.The black dog that bit Ranji that morning was amongst the casualties
but nearly survived the experience.
Whilst most of my staff and
the locals were supportive of my (our) efforts not everybody thought the same.
Certainly not the chief Buddhist monk of the Sacred City of Mahiyangana. In due
course a "petition" was sent by the Buddhist clergy to the Director of Health
Services. In a totally bureaucratic-steam-powered-system such as the Sri Lankan
Health Service (It was certainly that at that time, and no doubt worse now than
ever before) I shouldn't have lost too much sleep about the impending inquiry.
Nothing much happened until I
happened to bump into the Director of Health Services many months afterwards.
He confronted me and with a twinkle in his eye said "I have received a
complaint about you regarding the dogs! Well done Doctor Fernando!"
script: I hope you liked the story and
I hope that I did not insult anybody's beliefs or sensibiliities. As far as bad
taste and bad language go, there is worse stuff on the net! (By the way "dog"
spelt backwards is "god")
where you can see old Marilyn Monroe as well as the(dead)Kennedys and Ernesto
"Che" Guevara on the slab! I haven't provided a link as this is a family