Think of Thailand and you might conjure up images of golden Buddhist temples, monks in procession, white sandy beaches, paddy fields, spicy Thai street food and happy, smiling people. Less commonly associated with the country are severe animal welfare violations, a thriving illegal trade in dogs for meat and skin, and the huge problem of stray and abandoned dogs that blights every beach, village, town and city in the country.
Welcome to the land of the street dog, writes Martin Turner from the Soi Dog Foundation.
Feeding street dogs at the temple
Conservative estimates suggest that Thailand is home to upwards of 10 million street dogs, many of which were born on the streets, and many of which are former companion animals cruelly rejected and abandoned by their owners and left to fend for themselves on the street. Every year, millions more unwanted puppies are born onto the streets. Most will not survive their first month of life. But those who do are sadly destined for a life of hunger, pain, misery and rejection on the street.
It’s a very tough life for all of the street dogs, young or old. Food is scarce, and the dogs have to fight almost daily to defend their territories. Sickness and illnesses are rampant because few of the dogs have had vaccinations, and the threat of being poisoned or attacked by humans in their neighbourhoods is ever present. Those dogs whose territories are around hotels or restaurants are the most at risk as owners of these establishments don’t want them bothering their guests. Methods used to get rid of the dogs include dowsing in scalding water or oil, poisoning, and attacking with machetes.
This is Thai street dog, Hero, a victim of machete attack to shoulders and front legs
Here's Hero, pictured after treatment
The lucky ones are those who find their way to one of the many Buddhist temples in the country. Here they will be fed left-over’s from the monks meals, and will be relatively safe. However, they will receive no medical care, and will remain unsterilised and unvaccinated.
The Thai street dog problem stems from two main issues: Firstly, because of cultural and religious beliefs, most Thais do not sterilise (or vaccinate) their dogs. The Buddhist philosophy is that nature should take its course, meaning that interfering with nature is against most Thais principles. Unfortunately, this does not just relate to sterilisation and vaccination. When companion dogs fall ill, they are frequently left without treatment. The philosophy is known locally as “Buddha’s Will”. Or in English,“ what will be, will be”.
The second reason for the huge number of street dogs is that whilst the Thais love puppies, they are less keen on fully grown dogs. Once the puppy becomes an adult, many are simply cast out onto the streets to fend for themselves, and replaced at home by another puppy.
Quite apart from the animal welfare issues surrounding street dogs, and the environmental problems caused for humans by the presence of stray dogs, there is also the issue of the spread of disease from stray dogs to human beings. Between 15 and 25 people each year die in excruciating pain from rabies in Thailand, almost exclusively from dog bites. It is estimated that in Bangkok alone, around 10% of the street dog population carry the rabies virus. Rabies is also a significant problem in several other South East Asian countries, notably Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
So is there an effective solution to the street dog population problem? The only proven sustainable way to control populations of stray dogs is mass sterilisation of the animals, coupled with education programmes to teach the general public how to properly care for animals. Sadly, more often than not in countries that have significant stray dog populations, it is left to NGOs (non government officials) to assume responsibility for addressing the problem. Governments will too frequently complain of a lack of resources.
This was precisely the situation that British couple John and Gill Dalley found themselves in when they retired to Phuket, a province of Thailand, back in 2003. They were shocked by the sheer numbers and more importantly the plight and welfare of Phuket’s street dogs (and cats), and became determined to do something about it, given the lack of public sector action. John and Gill joined forces with a lady called Margot Homburg, who had started a charity called Soi Dog in 2002, and who had a similar vision for a street dog and cat-free Phuket. Using their own pensions and retirement funds, they employed vets and dog/cat catchers, and set up a series of spay/neuter clinics around the island. So began a very long journey to fulfil their joint vision of creating an island free of street dogs and cats, through an on-going programme of mass sterilisation.
Sterilisation operations at the Soi Dog clinic 2014
In September of 2004, Gill Dalley was attempting to bring a tranquillised stray into the clinic for treatment. They had tranquillised the dog and it had escaped into a flooded buffalo field. She knew she could not leave the dog there and waded through the water to save it. Shortly afterwards, Gill became ill and her legs began to ache and turn a bluish-gray. She had developed septicaemia, infected by an unknown organism in the flooded field she had carried the dog through. Doctors treating her realised the only way to save her life was to amputate both her legs below the knee.
A few months later in December, the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami ripped through the island, destroying everything within the waves’ reach. One of the organisation’s most impassioned volunteers, Leone Cosens, was killed in the disaster. However, what seemed hopeless actually helped Soi Dog become even stronger. The months following the tsunami saw the arrival of volunteer veterinarians from around the world. Because of Soi Dog’s strong community presence, these organisations were able to get to work quickly and efficiently. It led to an award by the Humane Society International and another organisation, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), thought so highly of Soi Dog that they agreed to finance the sterilisation programme for the next two years. During this entire ordeal, Gill Dalley worked from a wheel chair as she recovered from her double amputation surgery. She didn’t let the loss of her legs stop her from helping Phuket’s animals. Using prosthetics, she now walks and is Soi Dog’s Global Ambassador, representing the Foundation to the world.
Gill in December 2004, looking after some of the dogs and cats saved from the tsunami
Soi Dog currently employs six full-time veterinarians and has around 40 people working for the Foundation in one capacity or another across two sites in Phuket and Bangkok. They house up to 400 dogs at any one time at the shelter in Phuket, and are responsible for the futures of a further1,500 dogs at the shelters in northern Thailand, all saved from the illegal dog meat trade. All these dogs need a loving, forever home. Soi dog also has an education programme in schools to teach children about responsible pet ownership.
Gill was selected as “Asian of the Year” in 2009 by Channel News Asia, the first non-Asian to receive the award. She said she was just doing what needed to be done although she hopes that her story will help inspire other amputees. She was also honoured with the Asia Canine hero award in 2012.
“It is very much highs and lows,” says John, “but seeing a dog or cat with horrific injuries that most people would think should be immediately euthanised, transformed, and in some cases re-homed, makes it all worthwhile. Also knowing that if we had done nothing then there would be a colossal problem here and the suffering would be enormous.” The Soi Dog Foundation and the Dalleys continue to make their adoptedd country a better place for street dogs and cats. To date, over 71,000 street dogs and cats have been sterilised and vaccinated, and by next year, 2015, the population of street dogs and cats will be officially under control in Phuket, as the percentage of stray animals sterilised will have reached 80%. The programme will continue, but at a scaled down level, and the resources freed up will be diverted to Bangkok, where Soi Dog will expand its sterilisation and vaccination programme of the estimated one million stray dogs and cats there.
The clinic at the Phuket shelter has also treated literally thousands of street dogs and cats over the years for a variety of ailments, illnesses and diseases, providing much needed medical care that the animals would not otherwise get on the street. The shelter has a regular flow of street dogs arriving with injuries caused by road traffic accidents, with mange, distemper, cancer, machete attack wounds, boiling water/oil burns, and a range of other ailments.
One example is “Marley”, a female aged around two years, who was brought to the shelter in March 2014. Aside from the cigarette burns to her face, she had machete wounds on both back paws. It was suggested that the wounds were deliberately inflicted, as each paw had a clean criss-cross cut which had severely damaged the nerves. It meant that the paws pointed backwards, rather than forwards.
Marley on arrival at the Soi Dog clinic
The wounds were cleaned, and the paws were bandaged daily in order to keep them in the correct position whilst the nerves repaired themselves.
Another change of bandages for Marley
It took over two months of steady, patient treatment at the Soi Dog clinic for Marley to start making a recovery, and fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the people in charge of adoptions at Soi Dog, she was adopted by Heather and Mike Jess from Seattle, USA in July 2014. Marley’s adopters were made fully aware of her condition, and knew that she would need a lot of expensive specialist vet treatment in the USA before she could walk again, yet they selflessly welcomed Marley into their family. Thanks to the expert medical care she has been receiving, Marley has now learnt to balance and walk again, but still needs to wear special “boots”.
Marley relaxing at home in Seattle on her favourite couch
That should be the end of the story. But unfortunately in early August 2014, Marley was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Heather and Mike are determined to beat the illness, and Marley is currently undergoing eight rounds of chemotherapy, costing US$360 per round. There will also be continued workup, which starts at US$1,300. The Jess family have started a fundraising initiative on the GoFundMe website (Saving Marley by Heather Jess) to raise enough money to cover the treatment, and are hoping to raise US$4,100 to cover the cost.
Meanwhile, Soi Dog’s work continues at a frantic pace, both the sterilisation and vaccination programmes including on-going treatment of sick street dogs and cats, and several new initiatives. Soi Dog is drawing up plans to build a new, state-of-the-art dog hospital at its shelter in Phuket to cater for an anticipated influx of patients rescued from the dog meat trade, and from Bangkok when the sterilisation and vaccination programme expands. Experience dictates that these programmes always identify lots more dogs that need treatment. The new hospital will also have a range of equipment and facilities that will enable the treatment of a much wider range of illnesses and injuries than was the case in the past. “It’s heartbreaking when we can’t immediately treat a sick animal because of lack of capacity or lack of specialist facilities” added John. “The new hospital will be able to accommodate up to 150 dogs at the same time, and will be equipped to deal with every single type of injury, illness and disease that we see here”.
Soi Dog is also currently fighting to stop the country’s illegal trade in dogs and dog meat from Thailand to Vietnam, destined for Hanoi’s “fashionable” dog meat restaurants. Every single stage of this illegal, horrific industry, from sourcing to transit to preparation for death inflicts the most unimaginable pain and suffering on the animals. Dogs are stolen from the streets right throughout Thailand. Many are pets or temple dogs, as these are more trusting than strays, and therefore easier to catch. They are crammed tightly into small cages, often 10 dogs per cage, and loaded onto adapted pick-up trucks, often 10 cages per truck. When they arrive at the temporary holding centres in the north of Thailand, many will already have suffocated to death.
Adapted pick-up trucks for transporting stolen dogs
The holding centres, which may host up to 2000 dogs, have an air of death about them. Somehow the dogs seem to sense the fate that awaits them. Here they are graded. The Chinese prefer big dogs, so the large ones are packed tightly into small cages, and shipped north overland. For the small and medium-sized dogs, those in the best condition are earmarked for Vietnam, and the remainder stay in Thailand to be sold to local butchers and tanneries. Those going to Vietnam are stuffed into small metal cages, often ten or more in each cage. The cries and the whimpers are heartbreaking. Limbs and even heads stick through the gaps in the metal bars as the dogs struggle to get breathing space. The cages are slammed next to and on top of each other as the trucks are quickly loaded, resulting in severely injured limbs and terrible head injuries.
Often over 1000 dogs per truck would be smuggled across the border via the Mekong river into Laos, before embarking on the long and arduous road trip, sometimes taking up to four days to arrive in Vietnam. During this gruelling journey the dogs would not be fed or watered once.
Dog smugglers truck at the banks of the Mekong
And it’s sad to admit this, but the lucky dogs would be those who died on route as a result of suffocation, thirst, or injuries sustained during loading the trucks. Because the fate that awaits those dogs who did survive the journey can only be described as hell on earth.
Force-fed by pumping rice into their stomachs to increase their weight and value at a village south of Hanoi, a village where the only commercial activity is the dog meat trade and which in effect serves as a huge wholesale centre, most of the dogs will eventually end up in Hanoi, at one of the city’s many sadistic and grizzly slaughter houses. Some people in Asia mistakenly believe that inflicting pain on dogs releases adrenalin which tenderises the meat and improves its flavour. Beating, burning, boiling and skinning dogs alive is not uncommon. Even in countries where eating dogs is not illegal, they are not considered livestock, hence no controls exist to ensure they are killed humanely.
The Thai Veterinary Association estimated in 2011 that around 500,000 dogs per year were involved in this trade from Thailand to Vietnam, a figure more than confirmed by villagers at the wholesale centre in Vietnam. That would make this illegal industry worth over US$25 million per year to the organised crime families that run it.
In 2013 Soi Dog formed the Asia Canine Protection Alliance (ACPA) along with fellow charities Animals Asia, Change for Animals Foundation and Humane Society International. Following conferences with representatives of the governments of Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia in Hanoi and Bangkok, a five year ban on the importation of live dogs was imposed, based on the risk of transmission of rabies. The result of this has been a really huge decrease in the number of dogs being trafficked, to such an extent that the trade at one point had almost been wiped out. However, undaunted the smugglers continue to find other ways to profit from man’s best friend. The dog skin industry is thriving, supplying amongst others, manufacturers of golf gloves. New smuggling routes have opened up through the far north of Thailand into Laos and then on to China. It is also believed that the smugglers have established routes from Thailand through Cambodia and then into Vietnam from the south. Dogs are also being killed in Thailand and their carcasses smuggled into Laos in ice bins for processing, before being forwarded on to Vietnam.
Soi Dog’s mission to stop the trade therefore continues. 1000 large posters have been erected throughout north east Thailand, offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of traffickers and butchers, which is proving highly successful. A further 1000 will be erected in the far north, and more will go up wherever smuggling routes are being established.
Poster campaign north east Thailand to stop illegal dog smugglers
So what happens to the dogs rescued from the illegal dog meat trade? With no government budgets to care for them, Soi Dog has built shelters at a centre four hours north of Bangkok, and provides all food and medication for the dogs. It is a costly but necessary exercise, as otherwise the dogs would simply die of starvation or disease, with euthanasia not being an option. Attempts are being made to find loving, forever homes for these thousands of dogs. Hundreds have already been adopted overseas.
A typical run in one of the Burinam shelters
Soi Dog is also working with the Vietnamese border authorities to ensure that no trucks or lorries with live dogs or dog meat are allowed into Vietnam. And in 2015, Soi Dog and its partners that make the Asia Canine Protection Alliance (ACPA) will launch a major campaign in Vietnam to eliminate demand for dog meat. Initiatives are also underway to stop the dog meat trade in South Korea.
There is clearly a lot more work to do before the welfare of dogs and cats in Thailand is raised to an acceptable level. But thanks to people like John and Gill Dalley and the Soi Dog Foundation, huge strides are being made in several key areas.