Thailand, “The Land of Smiles” images of pristine white sand tropical beaches and incredible postcard perfect scenery come to mind, so why, I hear you ask me, did you choose to visit the mountainous North of Thailand and spend your holidays working as an animal shelter volunteer?
This is the same question my host and co founder of SANTISOOK Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation, Mrs. NamFon Hilgers (Fon) asks me on my first day at the shelter. I will explain my motivations, as I explained them to Fon on that day, at the end of this article but first I should like you to keep reading on to discover a completely different way of travelling, much like I did during my two weeks at SANTISOOK.
Chiang Mai, Thailand’s hip laid back major city of the North is a much visited destination and well established on the hippy backpacker trail.
Famous for its picturesque mountain scenery, holiday courses, outdoor adventure pursuits and incredibly tasty Northern Thai cuisine. Chiang Mai province is home to 1.5 million people, Chiang Mai City boasts 170.000 inhabitants, and it is also home to an undetermined number of stray cats and dogs.
SANTISOOK Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation is one of only two Foundations in the province actively engaged in Animal Welfare initiatives and sterilization programs and the only foundation to care for cats.
Founded in 2009 by a group of Thai people dedicated to helping the cats and dogs of Chiang Mai, SANTISOOK struggles to exist and cope with demands, with no Governmental assistance the foundation relies solely on donations made by sympathetic Thai and foreigners (“Farang”: Thai world to describe anyone of European ancestry no matter their country of origin).
Caring for over 400 dogs and 150 cats across 3 separate shelters throughout the city it’s no surprise that the Foundation readily welcomes volunteers, offering accommodation and helping out with VISA arrangements for longer term (mostly veterinarian) volunteers.
I find out about the Foundation through research on the internet, I find their website to be very organized and presented well (http://www.santisookdogsandcats.org/en/). I also decide to join their Facebook page which provides daily, sometimes heart warming stories but also several heart wrenching ones (https://th-th.facebook.com/santisookdogandcatrescuefoundation),
I am quite shocked to discover less than 8 thousand Likes on the page, in a city of 170.000 people that is commendable but nowhere near enough. After a couple of day’s research I decide to contact the Foundation and offer my services as a volunteer during two weeks in April.
I am not a vet and have no previous experience working with animals so I’m not quite sure how they will respond. I receive inviting, informative and helpful emails back from Lyn (another of the founders of Santisook Foundation) and Renae the resident volunteer veterinarian from Australia.
They both assure me that previous experience is not necessary and that even giving the cats and dogs a cuddle is reason enough to volunteer. I respond, committing to volunteering and eagerly await the beginning of this experience.
Volunteers arriving at SANTISOOK are based in Doi Saket district, a rural area on the outskirts of Chiang Mai City, approximately a 30 min drive north east of the city centre. This is where the cat shelter and the home stay villa of SANTISOOK are located, as well as Derrell and Fon Hilgers residence adjacent to the property.
The neighborhood is a typical Thai muban, meaning residential settlement. It is quiet, peaceful and beautiful, set back from the main road and a safe location for all the four legged residents to be in, away from traffic and less than friendly neighbors.
The dog shelters are located in two other locations, again in rural settings allowing for privacy and far enough from other properties so as to avoid possible complaints from neighbors. This is important, as over the years there have been instances of disgruntled or plain wicked people poisoning the dogs by throwing contaminated meat over the fence.
Arriving at the home stay villa in the evening I am greeted by Fon and Derrel and a host of very happy looking cats and dogs. I am shown to my accommodation, a large villa, with air-conditioned rooms, private bathroom facilities and a large communal area as well as a veranda overlooking the beautiful countryside that surrounds us. I am then left to settle in and recover after my long journey, with instructions to meet Fon at 7am the next morning, when we will feed the cats and dogs of SANTISOOK.
All four legged residents receive two generous meals a day, one at 7am and one at 4pm, as well as the occasional treats. Of course the villa is a pet friendly accommodation and I am soon visited by inquisitive cats wondering who the new human is, two of them (Bai Boon and Ruby) decide I’m alright and I make two new feline friends immediately, who promptly take over my bed and keep me company, I fall asleep to loud purring and I am happy to be here.
Animal shelter volunteers who are not vets are expected to help care for the daily needs of the animals, ranging from feeding, cleaning, grooming and petting them and of course the never ending rescue efforts. Vets are highly desired volunteers as they can assist in the sterilization efforts of the Foundation and help animals that require medical attention and operations.
As an unskilled volunteer I am eager to make a good impression and listen carefully to Fon and her three Thai local staff who put me to work straight away. Though my work may seem menial, cleaning kitty litter trays out, sweeping the cat and kitten enclosures up, washing feeding and water bowls out and changing bedding I know that this work is important in keeping these animals happy and healthy, it also affords Fon and her staff more time to care for the animals requiring medication or recovering from operations.
After a few days of performing these routine tasks, the job truly becomes meaningful as the animals recognize you, look forward to you coming around to care for them and you start to realize you are making a difference.
Whilst most mornings are early morning affairs of cleaning, feeding and playing with animals, most afternoons are taken up by visits to the local vet clinics caring for SANTISOOK patients and on rescue missions throughout the province. During my relatively short stay at the Foundation I was involved in 8 rescues, that’s roughly one every two days.
Fon is permanently on call, and people hearing about the Foundations work readily call her to report on animals in danger. No matter what time of day it is and how far the location is, Fon always responds. Unfortunately even though many Thai people love and care for animals a hugely disproportional number of these calls still come from “farangs”, tourists on holiday or members of Chiang Mais expatriate communities.
Rescues are a costly affair, both emotionally and financially, the emotional cost is you never know what state the animal is going to be in when you get there, most are severely ill or injured and always almost in a state of malnutrition.
All animals brought into the shelter must first be checked out by a vet, blood tests must be carried out to ensure the animal is not carrying any disease that may spread to the other SANTISOOK healthy population, and this is all done using foundation funds and the occasional donation made by the person reporting the incident. No government funding exists to help whatsoever.
Rescues are brought back to SANTISOOK shelter and put in quarantine until they have received inoculations and sterilization, slowly allowed to recover they are then introduced to the rest of the animals and spend the rest of their lives in safety and comfort at the shelter. A few, lucky ones, mostly young puppies and kittens, stand a chance of adoption and a new loving family.
Spending time at SANTISOOK is not all work and no play, although there primarily to work and care for animals, Fon and Derrell understand that volunteers want to also experience Thai culture and life. Always hospitable and accommodating they bend over backwards to show volunteers a good time arranging local excursions for sightseeing and opening up their house to guests for traditional Thai meals and a few evening beers or whiskeys.
I was lucky enough to be invited to accompany them on a trip further north to the border town of Mae Sai and they were kind enough to take time out to show me the elusive Golden Triangle, we took a longboat out to Laos for some retail therapy where I got to sample local delicacies and try cobra whiskey.
We then had a lovely fish meal by the river and proceeded to rescue one cat and six kittens we found in a bad way by the local restaurants. So we went up north 3 humans and returned with a car full of cat and kittens, listening and singing along to Derrell’s excellent music collection – humanity at its best.
During my time there, Fon also drove me to Doi Suthep mountain to visit the famous temple at its peak and experience panoramic views of Chiang Rai. I am also introduced to great Thai cuisine and I soon develop a taste for good Khao Soi soup, Northern Thai coconut curry noodle soup.
The Foundation holds regular adoption events, to try and find the cats and dogs new homes and also to raise awareness about the Foundations work in Chiang Mai.
I was fortunate enough to attend one of these adoption events on my last day in Chiang Mai, out of 13 puppies, 8 were lucky enough to go home with a loving new family.
SANTISOOK follows up on the adoption process, offering the families advice and also assistance with sterilization/inoculation of the puppy.
People are also welcome to visit the shelters at any time to adopt cats and dogs, older cats and dogs are all vaccinated and sterilized but people usually tend to adopt kittens and puppies as opposed to the adult animals.
All the SANTISOOK animals are happy and sociable; during my whole time there I did not see or have to deal with an aggressive animal. At the adoption event I got to meet the humans of SANTISOOK, compassionate and caring, it is evident that the people that work and offer their free time up for the Foundation are truly passionate about what they do. Mrs Luckana Benjaniratana the Foundations President is an admirable and kind Thai lady who has spent almost her entire life caring for animals in Chiang Mai Province.
So why did I choose to spend my holiday time at SANTISOOK? My motivation was a simple one, having worked abroad for almost all my adult life it has been impossible for me to have a pet in my life. Having grown up with animals around me, I missed the companionship and love animals give to human beings.
During one of my more recent work assignments abroad I became quite close to a beautiful pure white young cat, I called her Princess, Princess became my pet away from home, she would keep me company and we’d play for hours each day. Unfortunately Princess passed away; I believe she ate something rotten and got food poisoning. I did not expect her death to affect me as much as it did, but the bond between animal and human is a strong one and I missed her dearly each day.
I decided to look into volunteering with animals in order to honour her memory and to try and give something back to stray cats and dogs who give their love so freely to us humans.
My time at SANTISOOK went too fast and my work there was just but a small drop of water in a massive ocean. As I told Fon my experience there was exactly that – an experience. But my experience in her daily reality and the reality of those who choose to work for the animals’ full time, at their own expense, receiving no funding and little support.
I hope that this short article can help raise awareness and inspire others to volunteer and keep SANTISOOK a safe haven for the cats and dogs that desperately need our help and love.
This is dedicated to all the stray cats and dogs I have met worldwide throughout the years. I wish the World could be kinder to you.
El Mitropoulou, May 2015, Thailand