My last trip to Thailand was planned around a stint volunteering at a spay/neuter clinic run by the Soi Dog Foundation, on the island of Phuket, Thailand. There were a total of 5 vets, 4 of them from England, and myself, as well as 1 RVT. We were travelling around to different villages to set up our "hospital" where ever possible, school auditoriums being a popular choice. We'd then "surgerize" everything we could get our hands on. Stray dogs were darted, feral cats from the local shops absconded in burlap sacks and the locals cajoled into bringing in their own pets. Soi Dog's ultimate goal was to sterilize 75% of the local strays, a magic number at which the population would actually start to fall.
A day of down and dirty surgery in barely sterile conditions would follow. The animals were kept under with topped up injectable anesthetic, the instruments were scrubbed quickly then briefly dunked in rubbing alcohol before being used on the next patient, and hands were washed with diluted betadine in buckets of blood tinged water.
This time back I found that things have changed for Soi Dog. First off, about two months after we left the island, Phuket was slammed by the tsunami. The small hotel where I had stayed in 2004, then again this year, was devestated, but has been mostly rebuilt since then (though you can see from the picture how badly the huts had been damaged).
As a side note, after leaving Phuket the last time we headed up north to the town of Kho Lak in order to stay at a beautiful resort. This was probably one of the nicest places I've EVER stayed at. It had a pool that was over 4000 square metres big and stretched for more than a kilometre around the entire hotel. Since then we had heard this resort was no more, though we had a hard time understanding how a concrete building could be completely destroyed. Turns out Kho Lak was one of the hardest hit areas in Thailand. Talking to one of the locals, John, he explained that he had gone up to Kho Lak just after the tsunami to help with body retrieval. He knew exactly the resort we were talking about, based on the description of the pool. Apparently when the first wave hit the sand under the hotel was ripped out, causing the foundation to crack. The power of the water then pushed several people under the hotel. The second wave buried them by refilling the hole with debris and sand. According to John, you could smell the decay all over the hotel, but just couldn't get to the corpses........
With the world's social consciousness raised by the unrelenting images of people being swept away in the waves, money poured into areas like Phuket. Donations to organizations like Soi Dog increased by a hundred fold. The government of Thailand was understandably overwhelmed by the humanitarian crisis, and had no time to deal with the numerous stray animals that had previously been fed and cared for by the local populace (interestingly, almost no animals were killed in the tsunami, some sixth sense telling them to get out of the way long before the first wave hit).
So Soi Dog Foundation took over the island's dog pound. They worked in conjucntion with the local government employees and a barrage of foreign vets who showed up to volunteer. Together, amongst many other amazing stories, they managed to spay and neuter the feral cat population (as in every single one) of PhiPhi Island, whose entire human populace was either deceased or relocated. They distributed over 2000 pounds of dog food a week to various volunteers who fed the local strays. By the end of 2006, Soi Dog had managed to sterilize over 15,000 dogs and cats in less than 3 years. For its efforts in the tsunami, Soi Dog Foundation was honoured by the Humane Society International.
Even driving into town I could see the difference. There were no longer the obvoius numbers of mangy looking strays on every street corner, but rather several well cared for, contented dogs hanging out in much smaller numbers.
This time Soi Dog was housed in a permenant location, having taken over the care of the local dog pound for good. The present compound houses over 400 dogs in various stages of health. But the tsunami funding was running out, and the last time they had a volunteer vet was over 2 months before I showed up.
Theoretically I was there for the week to sterilize dogs. The reality is that my time was more valuable to them trying to get things organized. Recently they had been having several dogs die suddenly of unknown causes. My first day there saw four deaths.
Several dogs had runny noses and eyes, coughing and were having problems breathing. A lot of the pups and older dogs had bad diarrhea. The worst though was the ticks. A very wet year meant a population explosion. Bad enough these buggers are so gross, but they also carry lots of nasty diseases. Several of the dogs were anemic looking, some running fevers, others just wasting away.
Without a staff vet, the people running Soi Dog do their best. Any dog with pale gums or general ill thrift was put on doxycycline for "blood parasites". Any one with diarrhea or weight loss was dewormed with Drontal. If they managed to catch the really sick dogs before they passed away, they would take them into the local vet for treatment. But this not only costs money, it was at times unrealistic as the number of animals meant that a dog had to be pretty far gone before anyone realized it was sick.
So on my first day the first order of business was to do an autopsy on one of the recently deceased dogs to try and determine a cause of death. An otherwise healthy 8 month old, he had been found collapsed that morning, having looked perfectly fine the previous day to the best of anyone's knowledge. On post mortem (PM) the only problem was the poor pup's lungs, but what a mess! Of the 6 lung lobes, 4 were an unappetizing meaty texture (rather than squishy like they should be) and obviously bruised looking.
Next we randomly chose three sick dogs and sent off blood work on them to the local laboratory to try and figure out what was happening. I also begged and pleaded for more money from the coffers of Soi Dog to have the lungs of the autopsied dog sent for histopathology (meaning they would be fixed in wax and examined under a microscope) and to have some fecal samples sent off.
While waiting for results we went through the pens and pulled out any of the 400 dogs that seemed to have anything wrong with them. Some were truly sick and were placed on medications. Others, who had been losing weight, we decided were doing so because they were unable to survive in a high stress pack situation where they had to compete with other, more dominant dogs for food and shelter. These ones we made better just by feeding them seperately and assigning them extra people cuddling time.
With the help of my 16 year old "nurse", Nong Malee, we also managed to get a few surgeries done. We did a couple tumour removals, including one maggoty one, which those of you who have worked with me will realize didn't go over well as I have trouble being around maggots without feeling nauseated. We spayed one very pregnant dog that accidently got mated to a male much bigger than her. We neutered a few escape artists in an attempt to curb their enthusiasm, and even did a bit of a cosmetic surgery on a dog with a droopy eyelid (severe entropion complicated by distichiasis).
The facilities were certainly better than last time around, with an autoclave to sterilize equipment and even an inhalant anesthetic machine. But (as you can see) my recovery area still left something to be desired.
We made sure to run some distemper tests on various dogs as well. Fortunately they all came back negative. Soi Dog can only afford to vaccinate the puppies for distemper, so it is a constant fear that this virulent virus will get into the population. There was a bit of a time crunch to get the distemper tests and run them as soon as possible. We had all agreed that should the tests come back positive that we would cull ALL the sick dogs (possibly as many as 100 of them on initial estimates). Being a buddhist society the local vets would be very reluctant to do such a deed, meaning the task would be left to me and Ena, Soi Dog's manager who hailed from Germany and would have to be done before the end of the week when I left. Happily this turned out to be unnecessary, but it was a source of major stress for us for a couple of days.
Other laboratory tests came back and it was discovered that the dogs were suffering from a variety of diseases. The pneumonia seemed to be bacterial in origin and many of the dogs were doing quite well after only a few days of antibiotics by the time we got the results. Diarrhea seemed to be being caused by Giardia present in the unsanitary water. And finally, perhaps most importantly, we found out that there was blood parasite, called Babesia sp., being transmitted by the ticks. This was particularly important because the parasite was not sensitive to doxycycline, which they had been treating dogs with. Happily, the treatment effective against Babesia was both available in Thailand and not too expensive.
By the end of the week, things were a little more under control. We had lost a few of the very weak puppies, but everyone else seemed to be back on track. We sorted through the medications and instruments that Soi Dog accumulated over the years from various volunteer vets and dumped a bunch of stuff that was outdated or even down right dangerous (like the big box of Ibuprofen they had been using for pain relief!!). And we had figured out a lot of what was going on in the compound. Tick control and closer monitoring of the dogs was going to be the new game plan.
Final note - what can you do? If you're interested, check out www.soidog.org . These guys are doing good work with what little resources they have. They are actively working to find homes for adoptable dogs. They have volunteers that come in to work daily with the dogs in obedience and to give them a little one on one time, attention that they soak up. They've even managed to build an agility course for the dogs that the local employees use daily with several of the enthusastic ones.
They desperately need, well, everything. Money would help, long term corporate sponsors would be better (any ideas out there?!). Any vets who want to spend a few days working their asses off while their travel companions relax on the beach, feel free to sign up. And you don't have to be a vet to volunteer. While I was there a girl from Sweden was just finishing up a month long stint and had proved herself invaluable to them.