Local veterinarian Barry Nicholls, who recently returned from a three-week mission trip to Thailand, said that “temple dogs,” as they are called, rely on the compassion of the monks and the Buddhist principles they live by.
“Thailand is a Buddhist country, they don’t believe in euthanasia,” said Nicholls. “A lot of people leave stray dogs at the temple because they know the monks will look after them as best they can.”
But their modest lifestyle can provide only so much for the endless stream of strays dropped at the temple doors.
Nicholls, and other vets like him, are volunteering their time and skills in nations like Thailand that are overrun with unwanted pets and have limited pet care available.
Nicholls’ trip began in northern Thailand, where he and his wife Anna spent 10 days volunteering at the Care for Dogs Foundation in Chiang Mai. Nicholls said Care for Dogs works with the monks to provide free vet care.
“This group goes and picks up temple dogs,” he said. “They do spay and neuter, vaccines, whatever is needed.”
The dogs are then returned to the monastery in good health and no longer able to contribute to a pet population in crisis.
Nicholls, a vet at Animal Medical Center in Anniston, estimated he has taken a total of eight veterinarian mission trips, including several to the Pacific Cook Islands and Nicaragua, as well as Thailand and Costa Rica. He plans to make it nine when he heads to Columbia in March. Nicholls said the trips, which he funds himself, are often a combination of work and vacation.
This last trip, during which 10 days in Chiang Mai was followed by 10 days volunteering at PhaNgan Animal Care on the island of Koh PhaNgan in southeast Thailand, “was almost all work,” he admitted. “There is just such a need.”
Unwanted and overpopulated
The Buddhist temples are not the island’s only hotspot for strays.
“There are a lot of dogs,” Nicholls said. “Wherever you’re going, you’re going to see dogs.”
It is a problem that is common among island nations.
“Years ago people brought in dogs and cats without thinking about what was going to happen,” Nicholls explained.
The animals began reproducing unchecked, and the island’s limited food supply could not sustain the growing population. Nor was there adequate vet care available. And few of the countries have any formal system for addressing the issues of overpopulation.
“There’s no animal control, no government organization, no shelters,” Nicholls said. The only advocates island strays have are a few private clinics and volunteers like Nicholls.
“Then you have caring locals that want to do something,” Nicholls continued. “Tourists want to do something.”
Much like temple dogs depend on the compassion of monks, hotel dogs loiter around Thailand’s vacation destinations befriending Western tourists for a meal and often, Nicholls said, a ride to the clinic.
All clinic services are free, for strays as well as pets, he explained. As a volunteer, he does a little of everything — surgeries, consults, emergencies, whatever is needed.
“Word gets out that you’ve got a vet coming,” Nicholls said. “You’ve got plenty to do.”
In PhaNgan, he hopped a motor scooter and made house calls, hotel calls, even a roadside fruit stand call.
But mostly, he said, he does sterilizations.
“The only way to control a population is to spay and neuter,” said Nicholls, who serves on the board of the Esther Honey Foundation, an organization dedicated to ending overpopulation of pets in the South Pacific. Since its inception in 1995, Esther Honey has successfully raised the sterilization rate on the island of Rarotonga to more than 70 percent, lowering the nation’s dog population from 6,000 to 1,666.
That is why sterilization of stray animals is such a priority of these mission trips, Nicholls said, “to hopefully keep countries from shooting or poisoning them."
Change the world for one
Aside from the demanding caseload, the working conditions are not always ideal. After eight missions, Nicholls has learned to come prepared, packing his own stethoscopes, portable surgery light and the quality of instruments he is used to working with at AMC, “because you never know what you’re going to end up with.”
Of course, there are some things for which you just can’t prepare. While Nicholls was in PhaNgan, an undersea cable broke, leaving the island without electricity for three days and forcing the clinic to manage without power or running water. Besides sanitation and lighting issues, the staff also had to deal with exposure to the elements.
“This is a country that’s very hot,” he said, recalling how the temperature inside the clinic got so high that he nearly passed out in the middle of surgery.
But volunteers know that harsh conditions do not lessen the urgency of the next trauma case, nor do they shrink the seemingly endless pool of patients.
“You see so many that need help — it can be frustrating,” Nicholls said.
While it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of strays, Nicholls hasn’t forgotten the impact he can have on one dog — or the impact one dog can have on him.
Brown Dog was one of countless hotel strays Nicholls treated in PhaNgan. He spayed and dewormed her, and once she recovered, sent her back to her hotel home. But, like many hotel dogs, Brown Dog preferred life at the clinic.
When Nicholls arrived at work the next morning, Brown Dog was waiting for him by the front door. The clinic’s strict rules prevent dogs that aren’t currently being treated from coming inside, but Brown Dog was not deterred. When Nicholls exited the clinic that evening, there she stood, waiting patiently by his moped. It became a habit.
“Everyday I’d drive up on my moped and she’d be waiting,” he said. “At the end of day she would climb up on my moped and say, ‘Hey, I’m here, take me.’”
When it was time for Nicholls and his wife to return to Alabama, “it was hard,” he said simply.
“All these people doing this, we’re here because we love animals,” Nicholls said. “And we have to be the ones who turn our backs.”
But it is unexpected encounters such as this that remind people like Nicholls what they are trying to protect — that instinctive, unwavering connection that only happens between man and dog,
“Care for Dogs has a saying, ‘If you help one dog it won’t change the world, but it will change the world for that dog,’” he said. “You have to keep that in mind when you’re doing this.”