Adventures at an Animal Shelter in Thailand

We are almost two weeks into our month of volunteering at Lanta Animal Welfare, a vet clinic, sterilization unit and shelter for homeless and hurt dogs and cats on Koh Lanta, Thailand.

Maybe you know how a vet or shelter would operate in the U.S. or another developed country, but this is Thailand where things run fast and loose.  

We're adjusting, but I thought I'd share some of the funny (and sometimes scary) moments from our time here!

The Dogs and the Prayer Calls

Near the shelter is a local mosque, and every morning at 5:30 a.m. prayer calls start sounding loudly from the loud speakers along the road.  This also happens to be the time that all of the shelter dogs, who normally hang out in large outdoor yard areas, are all housed for the night in their kennels (read: large dog cages).  This means that as soon as the prayer calls start, the dogs start to sing along.

Cute, right?

Yes, but it's also a huge problem because once one dog starts, they all start.

Normally, this would be fine (an animal shelter's bound to make a lot of noise, right?), but because of the early hour, the center's received some noise complaints from neighbors who don't love being awoken to not only the sound of the mosque's prayer calls but the accompanying doggie chorus.  

So it's a problem.

Luckily, the center's volunteers all work one overnight shift per week, which means this lucky volunteer (who sleeps in the kennel area near the dogs in case of an overnight emergency) gets to set their alarm for 4:45 a.m. when they start pacing up and down the kennel walkway distracting the dogs from the oncoming calls.  The last I heard, someone had tried playing them Beethoven, and that helped.

The time I couldn't identify animals correctly

One of our newest volunteers is Nina who arrived just days ago from Slovenia where she is a vet.  The center is always in desperate need of trained vets, so rather than a lengthy settling in period or an official training, Nina was immediately put on the schedule to start seeing animals that come in.

Now, the vet clinic doesn't work like the ones back home.

There are no appointments.  People just show up with baskets of cats and kittens riding on motorbikes.  One came in recently with its eye ball on the outside of its head.  It was unnerving to see.

Anyway, the locals just show up with their injured animals, and I try to ascertain (in the limited amount of Thai I'm learning) whether they're there for sterilization ("TAHN MAN?") or because they're sick ("MAI SABAII?" = "not well?").

When I sort of have it figured out, I run back to get a vet, and then they just come out to the front area (which is outside) and treat the animal right then and there.  Surgeries happen in the back, but they do injections, examinations and administer medications right there on the curb, usually stooped over the animal so it doesn't get away and run into one of the many other cats and dogs around the center.

So... not your average vet.

Without proper appointments or any real semblance of organization, this means that the vet clinic can be dead, or we can slammed with four or five people showing up with animals in varying array of injury at the same time.

When that happens, I usually skip the initial conversation and go straight to, "Please sit down, I'll get the vet."  I don't even always look at the animal, which brings me to this situation.

A man came in with a cage, and in my rush, I looked down and saw white fluff.  Most of the animals that come in with injuries are cats, so I immediately went back and grabbed Nina telling her that there is a sick cat up front.

A few minutes later, Nina arrived, took one look down into the cage and said in her thick Slovenian accent, "Is rabbit."

She looked at me expectantly.

I looked down and only then saw that yes, it was a rabbit.  In fact, it was even in one of those square rabbit cages with the upside-down water bottle affixed to the side.

Nina looked at me, looked at the man, and walked back inside without saying another word.

It took all of my energy not to burst out laughing, but I didn't want to be unprofessional.  Sure enough, a few minutes later the other vet (who specializes in ALL small animals, not just cats and dogs) emerged from the back and treated the man's rabbit.

Good lesson: look at the animal first before assuming.

The time Pouhie got attacked.

Pouhie sleeping out front.

Pouhie sleeping out front.

Pouhie (pronounced "Pooh-ie") is an older black lab mix with a lot of arthritis.  She usually sleeps on a bed made up of two folded blankets at the front reception area by the puppies.  A few times a day, she rouses to bark at a passing dog or cat, but she doesn't even have any teeth yet and only walks gingerly when forced because her hips give her problems.

So, like most days, Pouhie was asleep at the front chained to the puppy enclosure. 

On this day, a couple of tourists had stopped by the center and offered to walk a dog.  This is a great set up as it offers tourists the opportunity to get in much-needed cuddle time with dogs and helps us make sure that all of the shelter dogs get lots of exercise throughout the day.  The issue with this set up is that some of the dogs are not your average happy-go-lucky pets.  They've been through serious abuse or haven't been socialized properly to other cats/dogs, which means they can be a handful at best on walks or aggressive at worst.  They're good dogs, but they need to handled with care, and that doesn't always happen when your average tourist has it in their head that they're going to get some cute instagram photos of themselves on the beach with a pup.

So this couple had stopped by to walk a dog, and Nate, who was working the front at the time, confirmed that they were comfortable with dogs.  They took out Noodle, a tan mix who's very sweet but does not get along well with all other dogs.

Skyla the pup going out for a walk with some tourists.

Skyla the pup going out for a walk with some tourists.

When dogs go out for tourist walks, they leave from a separate gate away from the front area where other cats and dogs are hanging out.  They're instructed to bring dogs back to the same gate to avoid any cross over in the front area among dogs who don't get along with each other.

Unfortunately, tourists don't always listen to these instructions.

When the couple and Noodle returned from their walk, they walked back up to the front area in the middle of a big group of cats and our older sleeping friend, Pouhie.

A dog fight immediately emerged as Noodle went straight for Pouhie grabbing hold of her face.

Nate and another volunteer sprang into action, pulling the dogs apart, but Noodle had a grip on Pouhie, and it took close to 30 seconds for the fighting to subside.

The damage was bad.

Pouhie had a big gash on her head that was bleeding on the pavement.  The vets shaved the area around the cut and started her on antibiotics, but days later the wound was swollen with a bad infection.  A vet volunteer said that normally they would sedate her and open up the wound to drain the infection, but Pouhie already has kidney problems, so sedation could really harm her.

It was a sad day and a sad outcome for the dog.  Noodle, the attacker, was totally fine, but the last time I saw Pouhie, her face remained swollen, and she was swatting flies away from the wound every few seconds.  Poor baby.

The time the unconscious cat got sent home

Like I said before, this is not your average vet clinic.  On my second day, a cat came in in the morning to be sterilized (meaning fixed).  He remained in his basket in the hallways of the clinic most of the day when more pressing cases - animals with more serious injuries - came in and needed to be attended to.

Finally, at about 3 p.m., the vets had time to sterilize him.  It only took a little bit, but very soon after (like 8 minutes after the surgery was complete), his owner came back to pick him up.

Nina (the newest vet more used to working in an organized vet office), immediately said, "Oh he's not ready, right?"  The more experienced vet replied, "Oh, he's totally fine to go home."  

Nina and I made eye contact but said nothing as the more experienced vet picked up his basket and headed outside.

I followed and watched and she explained in slow English how the cat did well but was "VERY SLEEPY"  As she said this, she opened the top of the basket to reveal the completely unconscious cat.  She tried to relay that the cat "Would be TOO SLEEPY to sleep outside.  Needs to sleep INSIDE TONIGHT." 

I thought, "This cat can't even stand up, how would it even go outside?"

The man took his cat away, still completely under, and the vet walked back inside, business as usual.

The most ticks I've ever seen

The center employs a driver who knows every animal on the island and regularly goes out to pick up a dog or cat that's been injured or is seen wandering the streets with a limp or worse.

This week, he spotted a large tan adult male dog wearing a collar but in bad shape.

When this dog came in, all I heard in passing was, "The most ticks I've ever seen in my life..."

I followed the group into the kitchen as they placed the dog in the center of the volunteers and hooked up his lead.  Sure enough, he was COVERED in ticks, some hugely full of blood.  He must have been so uncomfortable.

Right away, three volunteers sat down around him and got to work deticking him, crouching over him with tweezers and pulling the insects out of his skin.

He'll make a full recovery, but in the meantime, we're calling him "Ticky."

The time the monkey came in.

The clinic usually sees cats and dogs, but the vets are technically trained to treat all small animals (except Nina and that stupid bunny), so sometimes we get other cases in as well.

A Thai couple showed up to pick up their cat who was there being vaccinated, and they brought along their other house pet- a monkey.

The monkey was small and grey with huge eyes that made it look like a stuffed animal.  I get why people think they're cute but generally don't understand having wild animals as pets.

Regardless, this couple had a monkey.

The woman wanted to come to the front to see her cat, so along came the monkey which sat on her shoulder and was on a leash.  The problem was, it was clearly terrified and clutching the woman's throat like a baby hugs its mother.

The dogs and cats at the front immediately sensed that something was up, and all at once the quiet reception area erupted as EVERY single dog started barking like crazy.

It was so, so loud.

The woman with the monkey seemed oblivious and kept approaching and laughing as the terrified monkey clutched her tighter and tighter.

After a few minutes of utter chaos, one of the managers finally said, "Ma'am, can you keep the monkey out by your motorbike?"


As soon as she walked up to the street, the animals started to calm down, but it took another 20 minutes to get every dog back settled and quiet again.  Whew.

Despite the chaos we've enjoyed our time volunteering here.  We've had the opportunity to meet a lot of fellow travelers, made friends with our fellow volunteers and fallen in love with more than a few animals!