Before I jump into this entry, I want to issue a disclaimer. This is not going to be a happy post. If you’re in a good mood and want to stay that way today, come back and read this tomorrow. Yesterday’s post was about something I liked about Malaysia, but today’s is about an aspect of life that makes it difficult for me to live here.
When we moved to Malaysia, we brought our dog Russet with us. At first, my main worry was the heat and humidity. He’s a cold weather dog, and in Boston he was happiest on a 40-degree day. Here on the equator, in its eternal summer, I was worried that he’d be too hot, but it turned out fine. He adapted about as quickly as we did. Now he runs around in the heat, chases frogs, and pounces on lizards, perfectly at home.
I’d had a second worry, though. It’s no secret that Malaysia (and Southeast Asia in general) has a different take on animal rights than, say, the United States or Europe. For various reasons, cultural and religious, the native population here is typically not friendly toward dogs. We knew this when coming, and seriously weighed the risks of moving Russet, but decided that since we had found a gated community (most middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods are gated here; it’s just how it is) that was friendly toward dogs, he could join us. As I said, he seems at home here, but only as long as we stay inside the community or transport him by car to another person’s house. Outside of these places, his life is forfeit.
That sounds dramatic, but only because it is. Kuala Lumpur’s city center is definitively cosmopolitan. There are women, conservatively covered from head to toe, taking pictures of their families in front of giant Christmas trees in malls that are air conditioned to match the frigidity of a New England winter. Granted there are no nativities, obviously, but who’s counting? We live twenty minutes outside all of that, and the vibe one gets is a mix of suburban sprawl and something else distinctly rural. Drive five minutes up the road from our apartment, and you run out of road. Beyond that is at least fifty kilometers of jungle, with tiny village communities dotting the landscape here and there. In the four months since our arrival, I have seen more starving stray cats and dogs than I saw in my previous thirty years everywhere else I have ever been.
Of course, the amount and kind of poverty I’ve seen here far outstrips anything I ever saw States-side. Our apartment has high-speed internet, hot water, air conditioning, and pretty much any other luxury you’d find in a middle-class American apartment. But walk out onto our balcony, and just across the road you’ll see a small slum built out of plywood, corrugated tin, plastic tarps, cardboard, and occasionally spare bricks from a nearby construction site. It is a temporary home for the construction workers, who are working night and day to build the next high-tech gated community, just down the road. A significant number of houses and apartments in our community aren’t even filled, and the other community on our road isn’t even ten percent full, but the Tiger Economy demands more buildings. Build it and they will come, or so it goes.
As a westerner, walk by that shantytown, and you’ll get some pretty intense stares, doubly so if you’re a woman. In the city, you get used to that kind of thing, but out here it’s hard to shake the vibe of hostility. Even within our community, when I’m walking Russet, people will stare at him like he’s vermin. I could never walk him down the road outside the gates. I get it, though. It’s a clash of cultures mixed with a lack of education and a staggering disparity of wealth. It’s not uncommon for dogs to be beaten, chased into the road, and purposefully run over. The people I have encountered here are typically very pleasant, though, which makes such cruelty hard to parse.
But Russet is no stray, and for that, he and the other pets in our gated community are incredibly lucky.
A month ago, I saw a dog lying dead on the grassy median of a road near our house. It had been killed, but clearly not by a car. A stray plastic bag had caught on its paw and billowed in the wind. I never told anyone about it.
But there is some good that has come of all this. I recently learned about a shelter in Langkawi started by foreigners who had seen too much. There is even an online campaign (that link is 100% not for anyone who doesn’t want graphic pictorial evidence, by the way) to stop the country’s horrendous treatment of strays. Granted, the wording of the petition is a little bombastic, and there is a woeful use of ALL CAPS, but the sentiment it right, at least.