Our Guest Blogger: Nicole Knapp - volunteer at SOI Dog Foundation Thailand
That night while I scrolled through my newsfeed a link appeared and above it was the picture of a scruffy, dirty dog, its face crammed against the side of a cage. I decided it was time to stop hiding my head in the sand—just because I turned away did not mean that they problems didn’t exist. So through tear-filled eyes, I watched the video. The images I witnessed and the condition of these animals is not something I ever WANTED to see. But I NEEDED to see it. And it has changed my life.
The video had been posted by The Soi Dog Foundation of Thailand. After donating some money and following the organization on Facebook, I decided I had to do more. “I have to go there” I told my husband. He supported me full. And so it began.
I spent the next few months planning my trip, reaching out to local veterinary clinics and suppliers of animal products in the hopes that they could donate so of the much-needed items such as Flea/Tick treatments and slip leads. A number of incredible companies came back to me with generous donations including Eezapet, Paws and Claws, Masterpet NZ and The Cashmere Veterinary Clinic. This past May I packed my bags and headed to Phuket.
On my first day I, along with the other volunteers, were picked up in a UTE with a cage on the back. Following the lead of volunteers who had been there for some time, I clambered gracelessly into the back of the truck bed and plopped down on one of the bench seats. Introductions began and everyone was more than welcoming and the 20-minute journey from the guest house to the grounds went quickly. When we finally arrived and piled out of the UTE, I was overwhelmed with excitement and an earnest desire to begin helping. It’s a very interesting feeling to arrive at a place you have been thinking about for so long and I felt very emotional as I walked to the volunteer’s area.
The first day at Soi Dog is really an orientation day. You are given a tour of the extensive grounds and explanations about what you should and shouldn’t do, how the place operates, who is who and what is what. The first day is really all about settling in, meeting the dogs you will look after and beginning to understand what you have decided to dedicate the next two, three, four weeks to.
The Soi Dog Foundation has a number of areas: The main runs of which there are eight and can house anywhere from 17-22 dogs each; The “C” run which is more for injured dogs, ones who have had operations done, newly vaccinated, new arrivals; The shy dog run, which is just as it sounds; The puppy run which is again just as it sounds (a run full of awesome cuteness); The OAP’s (Old Age Pensioners); The OAP’s with skin problems (like severe mange); The hotel run (dogs saved from the dog meat trade trucks) and a building set up just for cats.
The Soi Dog Foundation absolutely astounded me. The amount of work they do and the number of animals they care for is staggering. A lot of dogs that are brought in get vaccinated, sterilized and then are put back on the street or beach where they came from. At first this sounds awful, but the reality is that there is just not enough room at the foundation for every dog they have ever brought in. If a dog comes from a location that is safe and they have a person who feeds them, it is in the dog’s best interest to be put back. Many local people feed and care for “their” street dogs and love them just like they would a pet. We saw this on a daily basis. In places where a dog is in danger (ie a place with a community that tries to poison or kill dogs, or regularly physically abuses them) they will be kept at the shelter and if possible adopted out. Of course this isn't the perfect system but they do try their hardest to get it right every time.
So you may be wondering, “What did YOU do while you were there?” Well, every day was different but in a way it was also the same. For instance, a standard routine would be to arrive around 9am, have a quick coffee, head to your run, say “hi” to all of your pups and try to calm them down and then start the walks. The ideal situation would be to walk each dog for anywhere from 20-40 minutes, depending on what they want to do. This time is their time…the time that they can get out of the pack, have a sniff around, explore or run or walk or just roll around in the grass. It is their time to do whatever they want…for the most part. (For instance, we did have a dog attack a duck one day…it was what she REALLY wanted to do…but we had to stop her in the end! Don’t worry, the duck survived). While that process is typically what we would each day, all sorts of things would happen: A rain storm would delay our walking schedule, a dog would get hurt in a fight, a new dog would arrive, a new volunteer would arrive, etc, etc. Plus, the dogs are VERY wary of you the first few days and it wasn’t until my second week that I could see bonds starting to form. This would all effect how things would go on a daily basisi.
I know it sounds easy, but man is it hard work. Imagine, you’re in 35 degree heat, 90% humidity, 20 dogs all desperate for attention…it’s anything but a walk in the park (excuse the pun). The hardest part of the day was actually getting a single dog out of the run at a time. Try to get one dog out and 7 others will certainly see a chance for escape. I can recall a few time that I was knocked over and 8 or 9 sets of paws ran over my face to “freedom” (which was really just the second caged area of the run—someone was thinking when they built that kennel system!)
There were other hard times, when a fight would break out or a single dog was ganged up on. Very hard to watch. Some of the dogs were so submissive they had to be carried into and out of their run. Some dogs would be beside themselves with excitement to get out of their run only to realize once they were out in the open how scared they were and immediately wanted to back in. There was a LOT of coaxing, carrying (up to 50kg of dog sometimes), cuddling and even singing to with some of these dogs.
If we were able to get all of our dogs walked (or at least all of those that wanted to) we then had time to go play with the cats, the OAP’s, the puppies and more. My first time in the run with skin problem dogs had me in tears—but the more time I spent with them I understood that they were, for the most part, happy where they were. A few had been adopted out and those that were too old or too sick to go anywhere just lounged in the shade and enjoyed their daily meals and cuddles from the volunteers.
Every evening before we left, I would head back to my run to say “goodnight” to my dogs. It was probably more for my benefit than theirs as it was always hard to leave each night. By the end of my second week, I could feel a bond developing between me and many of the dogs in my run. They weren’t just happy to see me because I was a human, they were happy to see me because I was me. Because they knew me and trusted me. Dogs that wouldn’t come near me in the first few days were eager to walk with me. They would sit on the side of the pond and let me pat their bellies. They would cuddle up next to me and give me kisses (and yes I did see them eat some disgusting just moment before). I could finally understand why the foundation recommends coming for at least 4 weeks and I was gutted that I was only able to come for two.
Before I left for Thailand, a lot of people asked me if I was worried about seeing all the sad and injured animals and if I would find it hard. I have to say that the only time I felt awful was my last day at the foundation and the dogs knew it. I said goodbye to each dog individually and was doing a really great job of holding back the tears. Then it came time to say goodbye to the four siblings I had grown very close to. The four siblings used to be five: Heinz, Heineken, Heidi, Hedda and Henni. Heinz was adopted on the Friday of my first week by a local ex-pat and needless to say, I was pretty sad for me but happy for him. I spent a great deal of time with these five that became four and when it came time to say goodbye to them, I got very emotional. They could sense this and began crowding around me all pushing to see what was wrong, which is when the tears came. Unlike their normal push for attention this was different—they were very clearly comforting me and as I cried they licked away my tears with their (probably very dirty) little tongues. It was one of the most special experiences I had there and I will never forget it. I have since been told that Hedda is off to Scotland to live with another volunteer who fell in love with her too!
So that’s it, but it’s not really. I have already booked my trip to return next May and could not be more excited. The experience I had was like nothing else I have done in my life and this blog in no way does it justice. Thank you for taking the time read this and I hope that if anything, my story about Soi Dog has inspired you to become involved in animal welfare. Whether it’s helping out at a fundraiser for your local animal shelter, fostering a dog in need or heading overseas to volunteer at a foundation like Soi Dog, every little bit helps.
Thanks Nicole for this great insight into Soi Dogs in Thailand - this may well be my next trip abroad - hope it has inspired you guys too.
We are only one but every 'one' can make a difference!
We need to keep fighting for those who have no voice.