Oh no, another pothole! Again, the brown dog who has only just recovered is sent flying in his rolling cage which is attached to my motorbike. I stop and check that he’s alright. At breakfast one hour ago I had no idea how much I would get involved in this job. Sometimes life is full of surprises.
I am volunteering for today at Phangan Animal Care (PAC), an organisation that takes care of the animals on the Thai island of Ko Pha Ngan. My timing proves right once more. As I get there around 10, the place is very busy and the volunteer who was scheduled has not shown up. So straight away, I am being made right hand of the boss Por who has been working full time for PAC for the last 9 years.
While she is making some arrangements for the daily tour over the island, Giorgina, a girl from England is leading me around the premises. She works here for 6 months and mainly takes care of administrative stuff. The approximately 500 square meters are partly roofed and have cages and a few open-air enclosures. Besides, there is a kitchen, two offices and an improvised surgery room. At the moment, there are nine dogs and four cats in the compound. But Giorgina explains to me that they do everything to make the animals stay here as briefly as possible. PAC does not have the money for keeping them longer and their neighbors complain about barking at night. After all, these animals are all used to being free and not to sitting in cages. They are all strays.
Giorgina is especially fond of Angel, a young female dog who reminds me of an alien as she has almost no hair on her body. Angel has earned her name through her almost wondrous recovery throughout the last weeks. When they found her on the street she only weighed 4 kg and was close to dying. Even if it’s still almost impossible to find a vein on this small grey rackabones for the necessary injections, she has now broken the back of her disease. She is playful and I have reassured myself that her skin disease is not contageous for humans before I romp around with her for a few minutes.
After Giorgina has showed me where everything is, I refill all the water bowls, rinse all the food cups and play a little bit with the three-legged tomcat which all the dogs seem to tolerate. Then we start.
The fact that I ride an old motorbike with a kickstart just like hers has convinced Por. She has swapped my motorbike with hers and asked me to manoeuver this rickety vehicle for today. Driving with a trailer is hard work and Por is thankful for anything that cuts down her workload. So now I am driving over this picturesque tropical island, the caged trailer is only tied to the motorbike with a thin screw.
My first passenger is a dog lady which we want to take back to the place where Por and her people have picked her up a few days ago. PAC only rarely takes care of private people’s dogs, their focus are the street dogs which noone else helps around here. The dog on board does not seem to have much fun during the 20-minute ride. Several times there are other dogs following us for short stretches, barking furiously. But she seems healthy. There is only a big scar in her neck as a reminder of the massive biting wound which Por’s people have fixed. Besides, she is now vaccinated against rabies and spayed, so life on the streets can continue.
The moment we drop her off at her home area is beautiful, but, of course, you cannot expect an acceptance speech from a dog for saving its life. Por gives her a clap on the butt, before the crossbreed starts looking for her pack and disappears in a forest road, her nose constantly sniffing inches above the ground. Por says that sometimes a week of absence is enough for the other animals in the pack to repudiate one off their members. This often means the end for that animal as the dogs have split the island into territories and constantly fight about them, especially at night. I can see that Por wishes her patient luck.
We quickly clean the trailer which the dog has soiled out of fear. Then we already have a new mission. Por has seen another candidate for a treatment at PAC on the way here. Her remote diagnosis: Demodex, a parasite which almost all dogs here carry and which is also responsible for Angel’s bad condition. Most of the animals get along with it alright, they have to scratch themselves permanently anyway with all the bugs here. But if their immune system is weak, the dogs loose more and more of their fur and evenually all their skin cracks open, easily geting infected in this hot humid jungle climate.
We stop at the place where Por has spotted the dog and ask a few people if they have seen it. Everyone seems to know the dog we are looking for and people send us into various alleys and backyards. However, even after 20 minutes we cannot find it. But a woman running a fruit stall along the street lets us know that the poor creature not only has a skin problem, but has also been hit by a motorbike yesterday and now carries a bleeding wound in its face. Por leaves her business card in case the dog shows up again and we drive back to the port town Thongsala empty-handed.
We stop at a cookshop at the side of the road for lunch. They offer Larb, a specialty from Isaan, Thailand’s poorest region in the Northeast where Por grew up. Today she calls Ko Pha Ngan her home. After working as a waitress and a jewellery designer, among other jobs, she has found her destiny at PAC nine years ago. She attends additional trainings whenever her tight schedule allows it, and by now she already serves as the head nurse during the surgeries taking place twice a week. But the fear of a burnout is omnipresent. The reason for that is that the work is never over and, being an animal lover, some of the cases also affect her emotionally. She receives short-term help from tourists, sometimes from dedicated people like Giorgina who commit to staying for several months, and in the best case from trained vets. In fact, there are several people who drop by on a regular basis and do a few days of surgery work while actually being on the island for vacation. For example, I meet a Spanish vet who is going to carry out a leg amputation on a Golden Retriever tomorrow.
But Por can not rely on any of this support. Even with all the donation boxes all over the island, the organisation always runs short of money. Animal food and medicine cost a lot, even more so in a remote place like this where everything has to be shipped first. That’s why everything at PAC stands and falls with the donations in money and kind by tourists, as well as the couple of local businesses supporting the organisation.
After the delicious food, Por proudly presents me with a dog which is dosing underneath the kitchen sink, a grey, shy animal. He carries a scar on his cheek, stitches still visible. Por shows me another healing wound on his back leg. Besides, they have neutered him during his last visit at the ‚clinic’, a word Por affectionately uses for describing the PAC premises, built entirely on donation money. It’s only two weeks ago that she had this dog at PAC, she really seems to know every quadruped on the island.
We drive to the market where I see a dog every night whose body is strewn with bloody cracks. It seems he also suffers from Demodex which is the biggest health risk for dogs around here, now that the government does not lay poisoned baits anymore to limit the population. We encounter several street dogs who cosily sleep between the food stalls and, partly, right in the sun. But the black dog I mean is nowhere to be found. Then Por gets a call from the women she gave her number to. So we head back down the coastal road to the Southern tip of the island.
The women, who run cafes, stores and massage parlours along the road have already leashed the tiny dog and are happy to hand her over to us. She starts wagging her tail reluctantly, but altogether makes a very sad impression. Her head is completely without hair, as well as her feet and other parts of her body. The skin is already cracked and infected in a few places. Under her left eye there is a gaping wound from the motorbike accident, the cheek is crusted with blood. But she does not oppose at all to us putting her in the trailer. In fact, even in there she keeps wagging her tail. The women have packed some food for the dog and give it to us. ‚That is the big problem. The people would like that all dogs are well. However, they do not call us, we always have to discover the dogs on our own’, Por complains. She herself can not explain why that is. Even if the dogs do not belong anywhere officially, most of them are part of a Thai family or at least being fed by someone. But when things get serious, noone wants to stand up for the creature, it seems.
We take the young dog back to the PAC premises which are idyllically located between palmtree and rubber plantations. As we carry her in, she is first being eyed by the puppy which was dropped off here four weeks ago with just a few hundred grams of weight and the size of a palm, but looks quite well-fed and jolly now. Then the only PAC resident Boogly, an old black dog lacking a front foot, also checks her out. The other animals bark hello from their cages. The dog is being weighed, then Por makes a few notes on a pre-printed form. The fresh arrival, for now being called ‚bad skin dog’, puts up with everything the PAC people do to her.
When we are almost ready, Stacy, an American vet who has already supported PAC with her work for several weeks, arrives. While I hold the dog, Stacy takes her temperature. The poor creature has more than 40 degrees fever. Then Stacy uses a razorblade to scratch off skin in several places in order to examine it under the microscope. Just as expected, she finds the aggressive parasites which stick to the hair roots and then slowly cause the loss of hair and the infections. The wound on the cheek is also quite deep. ‚It looks like there are tears coming right out of the wound’, Stacy states. The dog gets a few injections and tablets, then I lock her up in one of the small gardens and get her some food.
Now Por and I leave without the trailer. There is a dog on her list which apparently carries a maggot-infested wound on its neck and has been sighted near the police station in the centre of the island. She hopes that it is not so bad. When we arrive, we soon know that it is even worse. ‚See Nin’, a middle-sized black Thai dog, is well-known at PAC, as Por has already patched him up several times during the last years. He lies motionless underneath a car and, at first, it looks like he is not even alive anymore. As he slowly crawls out from under the car, I have to put my hand to my mouth and I feel a little nauseous. He is lacking one entire side of his face, his ear is only a dead lump of meat, dangling from his head and covered with pus. The maggots can only be seen if you look closer, but I can smell them immediately. Apparently, he has been hit by a car days ago already, but none of the cops considered it necessary to tell anyone about it. Por is very angry, especially because See Nin is almost a member of her family.
The dog’s whole body trembles as he recognizes Por. He seems to sense that he is finally being helped. ‚That’s why I do this job’, she says. ‚Because I love the animals and the animals love me.’ Slowly, See Nins wakes up from his lethargy and he actually looks quite alright as long as you don’t look into his face. But suddenly he starts shaking his injured head and there are lumps of dead skin, slime and maggots flying all around. I barely make it to turning my head, but nevertheless I don’t let go of the leash that we have put around his neck.
We will have to take him with us after all, regarding the state he is in. Por acts fast. She wraps a big towel around the dog and gently lifts him. Then she climbs behind me onto the motorbike and I take the three of us over the potholed roads. Like this, we really manage to get the old dog back to the headquarters.
Even Stacy grimaces at our arrival, even around here she does not see stuff like that every day. But See Nin is wagging his tail as if he doesn’t even understand what the whole fuss is about. Panting, the old dog displays his last three teeth and wants to be petted. I do him the favor and try to overcome my disgust.
Por and Stacy give See Nin some antibiotics and pain killers as well as some tablets against the maggots. Then they clean the huge wound as properly as possible. I ask Stacy if the dog would have a chance to survive on his own. ‚Not in his climate’, she answers briefly. She explains that she has to leave the wound as it is for now. When the dog has recovered in a few days and the infection has improved, they will probably remove the leftovers of his ear and open the ear channel if the maggots are gone by then. Por shaves See Nin’s hair around the wound and cleans his left eye which the infection has encoached upon already. The dog just holds still, only now and then he yowls painfully. I don’t understand how he can even still be alive at all. He does not even have noteworthy fever.
When See Nin has been taken care of, I prepare one of the cages for him and bring him some food. I have not thought that dogs can actually show gratitude, but he is doing that quite obviously. I pet the healthy side of his face while breathing through my mouth.
I wash my hands thoroughly and resist the urge to pet the cute puppy which is playing around the other dogs all the time. He has already passed a tapeworm on to several other dogs as well as Giorgina and this is a souvenir I don’t necessarily need to have.
Por seems a bit tired after all these exertions in over 30 degrees and steam bath humidity. But while we were taking care of See Nins wound, there has been yet another call. A tourist has found a dog with a swollen leg at a beach resort not far from the PAC headquarters. Por assures me that we only quickly go there before we pick up my motorbike which is still parked at the police station and call it a day.
When we get to the beach the woman who called, a Swiss with traces of the island party lifestyle showing in her face, guides us to the patient, a massive black dog. He does not have a swollen leg, instead he carries a red, smelly hole in his back. It is so big that you could easily fit a tennis ball inside and small white maggots gush out of it. I am shocked that we have yet another seriously injured dog, but I am already a lot more experienced and put the leash over his head straight away. But we can’t take this dog back to the headquarters, there are already two dogs too many. So Por decides to treat him out of her big doctor’s bag while I keep him from running away. This dog is big and strong and he even has all his teeth still, so this is another story.
But also he seems to understand that we are trying to help him. He stands still and lets Por shave the wound and give him the necessary injections. Only when Por pours a powder deep into the wound which is meant to get the maggots out, the dog shows that he does not like that and I cut him some slack. We set him free again and Por hands over the medicine to the Swiss woman. Every one who can help is being recruited for PAC.
Then Por takes me back to my motorbike and we have an emotional farewell. Without knowing each other, we have shared some intense moments today. She thanks me several times. I tell her that I admire her work, but that I would like to rethink if I really want to join the leg amputation on the next day. But I offer my time to do more dog transports in the following days. Very content about having been able to help out at least for a day in this tough job that noone wants to do, I ride into the sunset, tired but happy.
For further information and/or donations, please visit PAC’s website!
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