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The Day That Ranji Got Bitten By A Dog


Gyan Fernando

Man bites dog.....Jungle stories

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 bed hospital.

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

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 a dog!

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 opisthotonus.

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.)

Ranji's legs

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 revealed!)

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 it...

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!"

Post 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")

Try 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 page!

Dog bites Ranji | Exploding Elephant | Modern Fables | Incense & Candlewax | Gamarala stories | Punchi Borella | My Father The Ghost

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