In Buddhist Bangkok, Even Stray Dogs Have Their Day
Following Euthanasia Ban, They Get Condos, Care; 'Mike Tyson' Unleashed
By CRIS PRYSTAY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 24, 2004; Page A1
BANGKOK -- Six grubby dogs slept on the steps of a Buddhist temple here, as monks inside chanted. As the last prayer was intoned, the voice of the abbot crackled over a megaphone: "OK everybody, get out there and grab some dogs!"
A dozen monks dressed in saffron robes snapped on surgical gloves, picked up nets and fanned out. They pulled dogs from under benches and cars, and plucked them from the shade thrown by statues of the Buddha. The dogs were stuffed into a cage and sprayed for ticks and fleas. Later, a veterinarian neutered some of the mutts, before setting them free to again roam Bangkok's gutters, back alleys -- and anywhere else they choose.
Dog catchers from Buenos Aires to Bangalore employ gas, poison and other means to winnow the legions of strays that inhabit most big cities in the developing world. But not in Bangkok. Buddhism calls for compassion and forbids killing any animal unnecessarily. Buddhists also believe in reincarnation -- and many Thais see dogs as people who may have misbehaved in a past life. That's why some don't feel bad about turning unwanted pups into the street to fend for themselves.
To cope with all the pooches, devout Buddhists in Bangkok are building "dog condos," sterilizing strays and even trying to teach old dogs new tricks by pressing them into police work.
Thailand's "soi" -- or alley -- dogs live in an unusual netherworld, often tossed scraps from streetside food stalls, but left alone to breed and roam. Many Thais see the city's estimated 150,000 homeless mutts as a benign urban presence, akin to squirrels. Close contact with tolerant city dwellers has produced a particularly tame breed of stray.
But the soi dogs frighten tourists and represent a health risk, officials say -- so the city council wants to get rid of them. "My priority is to protect the public," says Sompop Chatraporn, the city's veterinary public health director, who is a Buddhist. "I put my religious beliefs behind my job."
A Buddhist monk captures a stray dog
Municipal authorities used to euthanize more than 200 dogs a day. But six years ago, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals set up shop in Bangkok and ran a campaign arguing the practice violated Buddhist principles. The city adopted a pro-life dog policy to quell public outcry. Bangkok spent $825,000 caring for street dogs last year, neutering -- then releasing -- some 42,000 strays.
Mr. Sompop says soi dogs attack dozens of people each year. According to his research, 28,000 people in Bangkok got rabies shots in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available. Many people, he concedes, ask for a shot after simply being licked by a particularly mangy dog. "We can't tell how many have been bitten and who was licked," he says.
Last year, city fathers hit on a new idea: ship dogs to the country. Bangkok's city council is now building an 80-acre, $5 million kennel in a small northern town that will house up to 8,000 dogs -- a fraction of the city's strays. "It would be much easier to do this job in any other Asian country," sighs Mr. Sompop.
China and Vietnam are also Buddhist, but because dog has long been eaten in those countries, there are fewer canine-rights crusaders there. By contrast, dog has never been part of Thai cuisine.
Kiattisak Rojnirun, a veterinarian in Bangkok, set up a nonprofit foundation three years ago to aid strays. His catch-and-release program neuters about 500 soi dogs a month, and treats hundreds more for skin diseases and fleas. He's done eye surgeries on strays who are going blind.
Dr. Kiattisak stages regular round-ups near temples, where unwanted dogs are often dumped. Dressed in green hospital scrubs, he recently hauled a cage full of sooty dogs, rounded up by monks, into his operating room. Seven drugged dogs in recovery laid paw to shoulder, on the floor. After their operation, he tattooed their ears and tied on a red cloth collar with a tag to show they have had a rabies shot. He keeps the dogs a few weeks to recuperate, then drives them back to the alley where they were caught and lets them go.
At night, Dr. Kiattisak lights incense and kneels in front of a small altar in his home. "I pray for the dogs, and the people who help me care for them," he says. He also prays for a big donor. His work with strays costs some $17,000 a month, he says; about a third of that comes from donations, says Dr. Kiattisak, who also runs a private animal hospital, and the rest comes out of his pocket.
There are other rewards, though. "My work with dogs has made me more spiritual," Dr. Kiattisak says. He notes that one of his staff walked away from a recent head-on collision between his motorbike and a truck. "We've already got good karma coming back."
Thailand's revered king, Bhumbibol Adulyadej, adopted a stray of his own five years ago, to set an example. In 2002, he wrote an 83-page book, "The Story of Tondaeng," with 129 photos (and one X-ray), extolling the virtues of his mixed-breed mutt. Thais rushed to buy the book but not to adopt dogs.
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