Imagine a one-acre mud pit filled with feces and urine, walled-in by a haphazard two-story tenement stifled not only by a tropical sun, but by the stench and body heat of over 1,000 dogs, 300 cats, a handful of rabbits and a couple of pigs.
Imagine living there and spending your days covered in filth, sweating your way through the never-ending task of simply trying to keep footpaths clear of excrement, removing dead animals and fending off the inevitable dog attack. And imagine at least once a week, stepping outside the walls to see yet another expecting bitch abandoned at the gate.
This is not a horrible nightmare for two middle-aged women, Sunnee ‘Lek’ Sukkaew and Pataew ‘Taew’ Wanitsuto, who have spent the past years earning less than THB200 a day struggling to keep the chaos at Dog Condo to a minimum—this is their reality.
And it was worse during the floods of 2011, which forced the animals to swim, cling for their lives to floating bits of wood and tin, and try to make it to the upper floor of the structure or die.
That’s when local animal welfare activists began to take notice of the severity of the situation at the compound inside Nonthaburi’s Wat Suan Kaew.
Tucked away in the periphery of the temple compound – famous for its furniture factories and charitable work – is the Dog Condo, built in 2003 in response to a government plan to get stray dogs off of Bangkok streets ahead the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that year.
A two-storey L-shaped building makes up half the perimeter of the complex, the rest is a cinder-block wall that cordons off a swampy patch of land with a handful of dilapidated salas amid the muck, offering the dogs some respite from the heat.
Strewn along the footpath approaching the entrance are dozens of cages, some containing one, two, ten animals—some containing none. Precariously stacked and seemingly random, one gets a sense that this is sheer madness. And it is.
The wall-less second floor of the building is festooned with steel cages—pinks, blues, grays—suspended over the edge offering little comfort to the dogs and cats crammed inside (sometimes together), nervously aware of what lies below. For visitors on the ground, a ‘Beware of falling fluids’ notice would be appropriate, but this place is in such a state that any discussion of warning signs is simply laughable. Dogs sometimes scavenge below and eat the fallen feces.
“Don’t make eye contact,” someone said on the climb up the wooden ‘stairs’ to the second floor— a warning that looking into the eyes of the dogs peering over the ledge could provoke attack. Once inside, it’s deafening, it’s rancid, it’s appalling.
On this second level of house-pet hell, Terri Crisp was trudging through excrement in a pair of rubber boots, parting a sea of dogs.
“I have worked in the animal welfare movement for 30 years… I spent a good part of that time coordinating disaster relief efforts for animals around the world. I have responded to 71 major disasters. So, I have seen lots of devastation and horrible living conditions for animals. Dog Condo is one of the worst,” said Crisp, Program Manager for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International (SPCAI).
The SPCAI first became involved in Thailand during the floods after reaching out to Phuket-based Soi Dog Foundation, who were rescuing animals in affected areas. The foundation—whose name is derived from the ubiquitous Thai street dog, or soi dog—was assisting Bangkok-based volunteers in their cleanup activities, and alerted the SPCAI to the situation at the temple.
“What we saw at Dog Condo was beyond belief. The living conditions for the animals were deplorable,” she said about her first visit in January 2011. That’s when it was decided the SPCAI would send a team to help clean up the facility.
They returned in June to, “begin the massive cleanup effort, both caused by the flooding and from years of neglect. It was put one foot in front of the other and pick up what you found,” she said.
In November she came back yet again, with a team of eight volunteers and staff from the U.S.A. and Canada, for a grueling week of cleaning and making improvements. They had some help from about a dozen King Mongkut University students as well.
“Until we bought them an industrial pressure washer and sprayer for disinfectant, they were cleaning with just a trickle of water from a hose and a broom,” she said.
‘They’ are Lek and Taew, the two women who take care of the facility on behalf of the temple, and overseer Pradit ‘Don’ Nonfun.
Lek, for THB160 per shift, often puts in 13-hour days without a day off, and Taew lives and works at the Dog Condo for THB190 per day.
Taew’s residence was evidenced only by a refrigerator, which sat against the perimeter wall. It’s not clear where one could find a clean, quiet spot to sleep.
Taew has lived there for six years and Lek joined her “about four or five years ago” when the temple she had been living at arranged for her, and her 300 stray dogs, to move to Wat Suan Kaew.
Lek and Taew’s lives are entirely consumed by caring for these animals. That’s two women—with no training in animal care and no proper equipment—responsible for feeding, caring for and cleaning up after 1,000 dogs, 300 cats, a handful of rabbits and two pigs. The job never gets done. In fact, conditions worsen day by day.
Some have referred to the pair as insane, delusional, cruel and conniving. It’s easy to come to that conclusion yourself when you see the place swarming with animals, some caged, some with skin infections, some missing eyes, some with bones sticking out of their legs and some dying, sliding around or swimming in their own waste.
It would have been easy for volunteers to judge as well, especially when feces were flung at them in their first attempts to help.
“I was made aware when we first visited Dog Condo that other individuals and organizations had attempted to make improvements [there] but these efforts never got very far,” said Crisp. “I have been told that part of the reason for this was that the two women that worked at Dog Condo would not cooperate, making it very difficult for anything to be done.
“During our first trip there we stayed clear of the two women as much as we could, just staying focused on cleaning up the place. When we did see them we would just smile. Considering the language barrier, that was about as much communicating as we could do.”
After the SPCAI spoke with the head monk, Phra Payom Kallayano, and developed communications with Don, relations with the two women improved.
“I feel like they didn’t ask my point of view, what they were going to do—they just pulled down everything,” said Lek during a break from her work, wearing a plastic poncho and rubber boots. “They don’t understand that we can’t just dismantle things, because the dogs have to stay there, and we don’t have places to take them to stay. This time they asked me, ‘Can I do this? Can I do that?’ And I said, ‘Ok, ok.’ But the first time they just dismantled everything.”
“She cried,” Don added.
“You know some dogs, they like to hide when they eat, and when they pulled down the structures there was no place to eat. I was so stressed. This second time, we were able to communicate,” said Lek.
Speaking with Lek, a clearer picture emerges and it becomes apparent that the misery at Dog Condo is a symptom of a much larger problem across Thailand.
“Most of the dogs were abandoned at the temple,” she said. “They come to leave them in the parking lot and then they’re [pet owners] gone. I found some of the dogs outside the temple. Sometimes, if people see a soi dog giving birth, I go to help and bring them here.
“They are irresponsible. When they are cute, people take care of them really well, but when they are sick or get older, they just abandon them. Someone drives a Mercedes Benz but can’t take care of a sick dog. They think the dogs are a toy, or an object, and when it’s old or broke they just try to get rid of them.
“Some people come here to adopt puppies, then a few months later they return with these dogs because they are not cute puppies anymore. They say they can’t handle them anymore.”
Pet abandonment is rampant and there are few organizations and resources available to address the issue.
Just how many stray dogs there are in Bangkok is unclear. Dr. Benjawan Tichanasai of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration Office of Veterinary Health said that a 2010 survey recorded 102,490.
John Dalley, of Soi Dog Foundation, said the number is more like 300,000. That’s nearly the human population of St. Louis, Missouri, or twice that of Khon Khaen, Thailand’s third-largest city.
Thailand’s Buddhist culture frowns upon euthanasia, and people can often be seen leaving plates of food for soi dogs. And people who tire of or can’t handle their pets often send them out on the streets or abandon them at temples.
This, together with a lack of government initiative to sterilize animals, has led to a huge population of dogs that are well-fed and healthy enough to birth big litters.
Although organizations like Soi Dog Foundation, Pet Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and the SPCAI are involved in improving the lives of animals through sterilization programs, the problem is simply too big to deal with.
That’s how horrors like the Dog Condo come to be, and that’s why it has become a priority for these groups to go where action is most needed.
“I’m tired, but this is my responsibility,” said Lek. “I can’t leave them, they have a life.”
“It’s like a never-ending job because dogs produce more dogs,” she said. She adds that they try to sterilize some, but it’s far too overwhelming for them to handle, and it’s far too difficult to determine which females have already been spayed.
In November, the SPCAI, along with Bangkok-based PAWS, worked on improving the facility to a point where on-site sterilizations were even a possibility. They undertook projects like installing a drainage system (non-existent before), building a stable platform in the open area for dogs to escape the heat, pressure washing, and tidying the webs of dangling, exposed electrical wires.
So far the SPCAI has invested about USD50,000 and 12,000 work hours in improving the Dog Condo, a commitment that has impressed Lek with its tangible results.
In the past, she said, commitments were made but not fulfilled. Buildings were promised but never built, veterinarians proved to be incompetent, and some even used the facility as a way to scam money.
“One doctor received donations from [a famous Thai model] to build a new building, but you can see there are only poles,” said Lek angrily. “Also, a teacher told parents of her students that she was a part owner of the Dog Condo, and that they could leave their dogs there for a monthly fee of 10,000 baht. Don found this out when a student came to the condo and started to cry when she saw her dog inside.”
The corruption problems seem to have been rooted out, leaving the more obvious and daunting task of cleaning up, systematizing, sterilizing and ultimately developing a legitimate adoption program.
Amy Baron, director of PAWS has been active at the site since the floods in 2011, and is currently organizing veterinary care for the animals most in need. She is also looking to be heavily involved with sterilization efforts this year, along with the SPCAI and the Soi Dog Foundation.
On the final day of the week-long cleanup effort in November, Baron and animal-rights activist Pat Varongsurat loaded a Honda Jazz with some of the “worst cases” to be taken away for treatment: a sick cat near death, another that had been attacked by a dog and had its left rear leg bone protruding from the skin, and a dog with a prolapsed anus.
Amy herself is caring for some of the animals at the PAWS center in Bangkok, and is coordinating several overseas adoption arrangements. Despite the hardships and overwhelming task at the Condo, Amy remains positive and hopes to begin sterilizations following the upcoming SPCAI visit in February.
“My first reaction was just an overwhelming sense of sorrow… I couldn’t really put it into words,” she said. “I wish I could say I was shocked, but I really wasn’t. Shelter conditions for animals here are often quite bad. This just took it to a far, but logical extreme,” Amy said, referring to the overall problem of unwanted house pets in Thailand.
Lek, too, remains positive about the recent improvements.
“This is good, good!” she said. “They have done a really good job. They told me that they will be back next year to take care of the ground.
“If anyone would like to adopt them, we are willing to do so if they will take care of them seriously, but I always say if one day you don’t want them, please bring them back and don’t just leave them somewhere.
“I also would like to have a restroom for us. When I need to go to the toilet, I have to get a motorbike taxi.”
Although much work has been done, the Dog Condo remains in dire need of assistance.