A Vacation Like No Other

A vol­un­teer ex­pe­ri­ence help­ing stray, home­less, and abused dogs on the gor­geous Thai is­land 0f Phuket trans­forms the lives of dogs and vol­un­teers alike


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 lifechang­ing 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 pow­er­wash­ing 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.

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