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Ama-sonam-tibet-2012Dharamshala: - It is easy to spot Ms. Sonam as she walks through the streets of Mcleod Ganj; she's the one with pack of dogs surrounding her every step. For the longtime Dharamshala resident, these constant companions ranging in shape and size have replaced human connections long-since lost.

The 70-year old arrived here after a string of personal tragedy struck while living inside Tibet. A nun from the age of 16, her parents both died at a young age before her lone sibling was killed at the hands of the Chinese army. She later developed a serious illness and her community could not adequately care for her while also resisting China's reckless destruction of nunneries and monasteries.

She nursed herself back to health, and when she fully regained her strength, she fled Tibet for Nepal, staying with her religious community there until leaving for Dharamshala more than 20 years ago.

No longer a nun, Ms. Sonam soon cultivated a number of devotees herself. When she had food to spare, she would offer her scraps to strays. Mcleod's canine community quickly learned of her generosity and her pack steadily grew, once reaching as many as 45 mongrels. That staggering figure has fallen over the past few years, as she suspects some died due to poisoning and others in leopard attacks. "I don't know how many I have now," she said outside the scattered one-room apartment where she sleeps with her charges.

Those that remain are well looked after. Certainly their place is hardly a palace and the every inch in the tight space they all share has some kind of clutter, but it does serve to protect the pooches from somewhat regular roundups of strays. The dogs' diet sometimes even includes intestines and offal bought from a butcher in Lower Dharamsala. And they never lack for attention, with Ms. Sonam always attending to spots that the dogs can't scratch.

Though fiercely independent, both Ms. Sonam and her four-legged friends do sometimes rely on the generosity of others to survive. When her plastic tarp tent burned down, neighbors helped her build the small room off Tippa Road where she now lives rent-free.

She collects bottles, boxes and other recyclables for a modest income, but when cash for food is hard to come by, residents and tourists often pass on generous donations, sometimes in the form of 500 and 1000 rupee notes. Her butcher has also been known to make deliveries when times are tight. As for shots and checkups, "when the veterinarians come up, there first stop is always right here," she boats.

More than just kindness from the wider community, Ms. Sonam and her dogs live on the love they share together. She hugs one of her more colossal companions as she reflects, "My dogs are my family. I wouldn't have it any other way."

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