A young Lappet-faced vulture tastes freedom of the skies for a few minutes before being returned to his captive state.
This raptor is among the most fear and respected of the many species of carrion feeders that provide an invaluable service to us and nature by being one of the few living things to be able to digest all but the most foul and pestilent bacteria on earth. With their beaks hard as diamond-tips, the huge lappet-faced vulture provides the vanguard role in disposing of a corpse, being one of the only raptors to have the strength and design to tear at tendon, sinew, and even cartilage.
Somewhere, everywhere, in the world, there’s one born every minute. Camouflaged amid rubbish heaps, squeezed under abandoned vehicles or lodged deep inside sewerage pipes – just about any place they can watch our movements without being judged too harshly – they come into this world a bundle of playful joy. To survive a few seasons, each is tasked with dodging the cars, the emaciation, the heart worm, the wardens, or if unlucky enough to be born in SE Asia, the meat traders. Paw pads worn down on the wheel of misery, the average life can be considered so hard as to be endurable for a paltry half the span of their cosseted, houseproud cousins. Set within this Hobbesian world of short-livedness, nastiness and urban decay, the epithet of man’s best friend to them does not apply.
Welcome to the world of canine caste. If coiffed Afghan hounds are the Brahman caste then these scruffy mutts roaming trash-can alley are the untouchables, drowned by weight of numbers, dealt a duff hand by the karma croupier. They might live on the fringes, but stray dogs have since moved into centre stage in the sprawling un-developments of the developing world. The homeless canine population grows unchecked, for the most part. Some estimates put their numbers at upwards of half a billion. Even the thousands of Africans and Asians who die from rabid bites each year, by comparison, won’t put a dent in human population. Like the mange that ravages their pelt, stray dogs won’t start to disappear any time soon, unless we set the trend first. Ranging from Manila to Mandalay, Lima to Lusaka, Riyadh to Rawalpindi, Bali to Bucharest, few places remain untouched by their grim determination to hang on. Fourth place in the Third World, these urban shadow puppets salvage the human wreckage. What feels worthless to us is treasure to them. These lowborn dogs suffer a form of warped dependency on what the world’s poorer quarters have to offer: in rubble and fetid foodstuff, chicken bones and dried sanitary towels; scarred, plastic-strewn urban wastelands where production of waste exceeds the national capability to capture and process it.
Another plump little alley pup was born from the skin and bones of its street mama the other week. At first it hesitated at the mouth of the sewer pipe, then coaxed by its junky single parent, emerged into the dusk. The newest addition to those born every minute had no inkling of what it was getting into: its pariah status; the incipient heat; the parched land and not forgetting the dust devils mocking them for taking a wrong turn on their long trek from wild wolves, proud and independent, to failed domesticity. Aye, it’s tough at the top of the heap.