It's 8 a.m. and I'm already sweating profoundly. The hot coffee to go doesn't seem like a good idea anymore. We wait for our ride in front of our guesthouse in the Thai village of Naiyang, Phuket. Very punctually, a white truck with a big orange "Soi Dog" sign appears. We jump on the back of the truck squeezing in with the other volunteers and enjoy the smooth breeze as we ride through morning traffic. I'm excited for another day at the shelter.
Around 600 dogs and 150 cats live at the Soi Dog facilities. Without any government funding but with generous donations and volunteers, the shelter is a place for strays to get the care they need to get adopted, and a place for many travellers to get a life-changing experience.
While everyone gets prepared for the day at the volunteer desk area, I sneak off to one of the cat rooms in a building nearby. About 20 cats are already waiting for a cuddle. I sit down on the floor and instantly have a few cats on my lap, next to me, and the odd one climbing up to my shoulder. I quickly grow a fur coat just when Kyle calls, "Mal, let's go!" It's time to start the day.
A run with 24 dogs has been assigned to us for the time that we are there. When approaching the gate, the dogs run towards us wagging their tails, barking and jumping in a friendly manner. We squeeze through the gate holding back a handful of escape artists. The Thai staff is busy power- washing the ground and cleaning up after the dogs, not paying attention to us whatsoever. We greet most dogs, with the exception of the few who are afraid of humans. Then, one after another, we walk them. We walk past a dozen other dog runs: the shy dog run, the old dog run, the dog-meat-trade-rescue run, around a lake, past the hospital, and then back to our run.
Many dogs and cats arrive with severe wounds from being hit by cars or from fights, while others end up here as a result of cruel human acts. Unwanted animals are dumped on the streets, or in front of the shelter's gates, and many dogs arrive on trucks rescued from the illegal dog-meat trade. But thanks to the Soi Dog Foundation, they are now on their way to a better life.
Roughly a dozen other volunteers work here at the same time. Everyone comes from a different path of life but we all have one thing in common, that is a love for animals. Every day when passing each other on our walks, we exchange facts about our dogs as if they were our own. We don't talk about much else until we later gather on the beach or at the local bar. It is then we realize that we have met some amazing people from around the planet.
The foundation itself was established in 2003 by a Dutch national, Margot Homberg and a British couple, John and Gill Dalley who saw a significant and growing problem of strays roaming the streets of Phuket that had been left unaddressed.
The trio decided that the most sustainable solution to ending the misery of these animals was a mass vaccination and sterilization program. The long-term vision was to make Phuket a place where street dogs and cats would no longer suffer lives of misery, hunger, pain and rejection. Since 2003, Soi Dog Foundation has sterilized over 100,000 dogs and cats. This translates to over 80 per cent of the stray population in Phuket no longer being able to reproduce, which brings down the stray population rapidly. Since 2011, Soi Dog has also been leading the fight against Thailand's illegal dog-meat and skin-trade industry, where dogs are being exported to China and Vietnam, destined for dog-meat restaurants and for the international demand for dog skin used to make items such as golf gloves and hats. By working with the Thai police and army, Soi Dog has been able to save tens of thousands of dogs.
Over the two weeks spent at the shelter, we have seen animals being cared for and some leave to their forever homes all over the world including Canada, U.S. and Europe. There is a spirit of generosity and care here. The foundation may not be able to help all the strays in the word, but it means the word for the rescued ones to get another chance at life. We feel very grateful for an eye-opening and life-changing experience.
To learn about the projects of Soi Dog or to adopt, please visit www.soidog.org. Without our help, these animals have little chance of knowing what love and care feels like.
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