It rains. It rains hard. It rains…(OK, read the title)
’Tis the rainy season here in the south of Thailand. The rain comes in torrents, billowing downpours. It rains intemperately for ten minutes, twenty minutes, a half an hour. It stops as quickly as it starts. An hour later, two hours later, five hours later, it rains again. Not every day, but most. Sometimes the sun makes an appearance to shine light on how thick the air really is.
I carry my umbrella whenever I leave the house now, for the rain, and for the dogs. In those interludes between downpours, I walk around my village, to the market, to buy water or simply to try to get into the habit of walking for exercise. Not all the dogs know me and carrying a stick, albeit one that makes me feel like Mary Poppins, helps give me the allusion of being able to ward off attacks. But mostly the dogs bark and follow for a few minutes just to make sure I’m actually passing through their territory.
On one walk I passed a monk coming up the road along the backside of the wat (Buddhist temple) near my house. He looked like the Pied Piper of Hamelin in orange, a Buddhist St. Francis. He was walking slowly up the road to his hillside shack and was being followed by 10 dogs and almost as many cats. After we passed each other I rounded the corner to spy 3 more cats slowly making their way, pulling up the rear, lagging behind. You know how cats are.
Most households here have pets. There are many cats, dogs, chickens, some caged birds and a few monkeys around town. Some folks keep their pets indoors or behind closed front gates, but many are left to stray. They don’t stray far, only to wander back and forth across the road to scrounge for food. My neighbors to the right have a little toy-type dog that stays indoors and yips and yaps at every little noise. My landlord across the street has two larger dogs, Husky or Malamute-types, the kind with thick white coats completely out of place in this tropical forest. They usually lay in their cages in the shade of the front patio but when let out they bark and bully.
There are a few abandoned dogs that have taken up residence on the backside of the temple’s hill, near the building where the funeral and ordination celebrations take place. They appear to be a mother and three of her pups, long ago weaned but still seeking her attention and comfort and food. They scrap and fight like (insert title), and their barking and yelping, in chorus with others throughout the neighborhood, can go on for hours, sometimes through the night. These pups haven’t been accepted into the congregation of dogs who reside further down the hill among the monks and the buddhas. They wander the streets nightly looking for food and shelter. They upend trash cans and steal things to amuse themselves. I’ve opened my front door on several occasions to find a shoe missing, only to retrieve it a hundred feet down the road, each time a little worse for wear.
Coming from a country that spends almost $60 billion a year on its pets (according to a 2014 report by CBS Money Watch), it’s surprising to see such unfamiliar sights as swaying testicles, sagging teats, and dangling dew claws. The older dogs all have sad red eyes, their bodies missing patches of fur due to mange. The younger dogs and cats fare no better, their ribs showing, their bodies covered with red marks from scratching and gnawing at fleas, open wounds, torn ears, deformed tails.
The vast majority of pets aren’t spayed or neutered. Veterinary services are expensive and not readily available. Along with that, Buddhist tradition rejects the idea of taking away a being’s reproductive ability (although for humans they do believe in certain types of birth control that specifically prevent conception.) With all these cats and dogs left to their own devices there are many unwanted litters, many cast off mouths to feed. Euthanasia isn’t considered, there’s a belief that this dog’s life may be someone’s reincarnation and therefore sacred. I’ve heard of abandoned puppies being bagged up and throw in the ocean, or old, sick dogs left along busy highways. More often they are simply dropped off at the local wat, befriended by the monks. Tossing a pet into a river or onto the highway is not viewed as killing but rather as allowing the animal to fend for itself. If the dog lives or dies, it is the will of Buddha.
In no way do I suggest that Thais don’t love and appreciate their domestic animals. Buddhists have a reverence for all living things. Their perspective is different from mine. I read somewhere that the first animal shelters/sanctuaries were started by Buddhist monks. And that can’t be bad. As this world becomes smaller and cultures adapt and change, Western ideas on animal care are entering Thai society as well. Organizations are taking root that rescue abandoned pets and offer free or low-cost veterinary services. Here are a few: