A Vacation Like No Other
A volunteer experience helping stray, homeless, and abused dogs on the gorgeous Thai island of Phuket transforms the lives of dogs and volunteers alike
It’s 8 am and I’m already sweating profusely. The hot to-go coffee doesn't seem like a good idea anymore. We wait for our ride in front of our guesthouse in the village of
Naiyang, Phuket, an island in Thailand. 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 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, which are run by the Soi Dog Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping, the homeless, abused dogs and cat of Asia. Headquartered in Phuket, Soi Dog operates in Thailand, the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, France, and Holland. Without any government funding but with generous donations and volunteers, the shelter is a place for stray animals to get the care they need to get adopted, as well as a place where many travelers have a life-changing experience.
While my fellow travellers get 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 three cats on my lap, four next to me, and the odd one climbing my shoulder. By the time Kyle, a another volunteer, calls "Mal, let's go!”, I’ve grown a fur coat. I reluctantly say goodbye to my feline friends; it's time to start the day. A run with 24 dogs has been assigned to us for the duration of our volunteer stay. As we approach the gate, the dogs run towards us wagging their tails, barking and jumping in gleeful greeting. We squeeze through the gate, holding back a handful of would-be escape artists. The Thai staff is busy power-washing the ground and cleaning up after the dogs, so we get on with our business too. We greet the 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 dogs run, the old dog run, the dog-meat-trade rescue run—around a small 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 dog fights, while others end up here as a result of cruel human acts. Unwanted animals are frequently 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 are here at the same time. Everyone comes from a different path of life but we all have one thing in common, the love of animals. Every day when passing each other on our walks or during lunch time, 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’s then we realize that we have met some amazing people from all around the world.
The organization itself was formed in 2003 by a Dutch national, Margot Homburg, 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. With over 70,000 strays at the time, the trio were spurred to take matters into their own hands, deciding 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, sickness, pain, and rejection. With Soi Dog’s efforts, over 150,000 dogs and cats in both Phuket and Bangkok have been sterilized to date. This translates to over 80 percent of the stray population in Phuket no longer being able to reproduce, which is reducing stray population numbers rapidly. Since 2011, Soi Dog has also been leading the fight against Thailand’s illegal dog meat and skin trade industry, in which dogs are being smuggled to China and Vietnam, destined for dog meat restaurants or the dog skin market, where their fur is used to make items such as golf gloves and hats, and then illegally exported. The fur source, of course, remains unlabeled. By working with the Thai police and army, Soi Dog has been able to save hundreds of thousands of dogs from entering this cruel and despicable trade.
Over the two weeks my fellow volunteers and I spent at the shelter, we saw animals being cared for, neutered and spayed, and put up for adoption. We saw dogs leave the shelter to go to forever homes all over the world, including Canada, the US, and Europe. And we saw our own spirits raised through the opportunity to co-create good in the world. The organization may not yet be able to help every stray, but for the ones rescued, their world is changed. And the animals aren’t the only ones with their lives transformed. Leaving the shelter, we volunteers felt truly grateful for an eye-opening and life changing experience too.
To learn about the wonderful projects of Soi Dog or to adopt, please visit soidog.org. Without our help, these animals have little chance of knowing what love and care feel like.