We have a new family member! Yep. She picked us. At a bungalow, on a beach, on an island in Southern Thailand, we became this dog’s destiny. And once we did, I was like a dog with a bone- unwilling to give up until she was safely home with us. Someone met her for the first time the other day and upon hearing her story said, “WHO does that? Brings a DOG home from THAILAND?” Well clearly, the answer to that question is, I do. There was a little voice in my head during the whole rescue operation telling me, “This is crazy. This will never work. You should not be doing this. There are dogs at home in Seattle who need rescuing. You’re going to max out your credit card. She’s going to die or get lost on the journey and you’ll never forgive yourself.” But there was also another voice saying, “You got this. Trust your instincts. Live large. Make a difference for this dog. Trot the globe and make it smaller. Claim your crazy.” I made my choice about which voice to listen to. I started making phone calls, sending Facebook messages, booking ferries, arranging flights, having hysterically frustrating conversations over the phone in Thai and doing research.
As the New Year rolls our way, we’re celebrating our third week of having “Joi” here in the US. I still keep pinching myself and asking Mike, “Can you believe she’s actually here??? Can you believe this is the same dog who followed us home everyday, slept up against the door of our bungalow every night and shredded coconut husks all over the yard on Kho Tao?” Yep. It’s the same dog. Only now she’s playing in snow and eating dog food in the Pacific Northwest rather than fishing and begging for scraps on the beach in Southeast Asia.
Our trip to Thailand represented a dream come true for me. It was my first time back after having served there in the Peace Corps twenty two years ago and I was excited to visit my old town and show Mike and Coulter all my old favorite places. I noticed immediately when we arrived in Bangkok that the dog situation in Thailand is the same as it was twenty years ago- only worse due to the huge and ever growing population of stray, intact dogs. In every city, every “Jungwat”, and every village we visited, dogs were an unavoidable and startlingly present part of the landscape.
When I lived there, I had a little stray dog named Lek who was my constant companion. During my first month in Uttaradit, she seemed to sense my loneliness. I was truly a stranger in a strange land at that point and she would show up every afternoon as I got home from work to hang out with me. She not only fended off my loneliness but she scared away a huge snake out of my garden several times (and I do mean HUGE), inspired me to learn the very important skill of tick removal and, best of all, introduced me to all the kids in the neighborhood. We were best buds for two years- until I had to move from my beautiful village home to government housing in town. There was no way I could take Lek with me. I was devastated. After the move, I went back to look for her many times. But it was like she’d done her job and disappeared. I tried not to think about the very real possibility that, without me as her advocate, she’d ended up like so many dogs there do, sold into the meat trade. Leaving and losing Lek was so sad for me that I’ve never actually told this story until now. It might be that the resonance of this memory about Lek is what made Joi’s attachment to us feel so “meant to be” to me.
So, we spent this idyllic week on Kho Tao. The first time I saw Joi she was standing on a rock in shallow water, fishing with typical lab intensity. My heart skipped a beat and I thought, “What a gorgeous creature.” It seemed only right that from then on, she would greet us on the beach every day after we finished diving and escort us on the ten-minute walk up through jungle neighborhoods to our bungalow. She was affectionate and relaxed. She shredded coconut husks while we studied for our diving course and she spent every night curled up against the door to our room. As soon as the Thai caretakers of our place would show up, though, she would disappear.
On our last day, we hired a couple of guys on the beach to take us on a snorkeling tour around the island in their colorful “long tail” boat. As we were packing the boat to leave, I noticed that they were friendly with Joi. Unlike much of the population on Kho Tao, these men were from Northern Thailand and not from Myanmar so we spoke the same language and could understand each other really well. I asked them her name and that’s how we found out her name is “Ka Joi” which, predictably, means, “to have happinesss” in Thai. It could not be a more fitting name. I also asked them where she lived. They said, “She lives everywhere around.” I asked if she had a home. They said, “Her home is the beach.” I asked them if anyone takes care of her. They said, “She takes care of herself.”
We said goodbye to Joi and we left Kho Tao. I knew there was no way we could take her with us. The obstacles were too huge. She would need a health a certificate and vaccinations. She’d have to travel by ferry and airplane just to get to Bangkok- not to mention the twenty some odd hour flight through Taipei to Seattle. Plus another ferry home to Vashon. She’d have to wear a collar and get in a crate. It was hard for us to imagine this free spirit domesticated.
We had twelve days left in Thailand. As we made our way north, we talked about her constantly. I posted a picture of her as a part of my weekly Facebook updates. My friend, Peggy, sent me a message with the name of a dog rescue contact named Tiffany who works with Thai rescues. I figured it couldn’t hurt to at least put some feelers out. Meanwhile, every dog we saw reminded us of Joi’s fate; Female dogs with chronic mastitis from serial pregnancies and puppies hiding in the woods and in garbage bins. Mange and fleas and injuries plague even the dogs that have it pretty good. After a couple of days, I called the only vet clinic on Kho Tao and asked them to go to Soiree Beach and see if they could find Joi. A volunteer there named Nikki agreed to look for her. Tiffany gave me names. I began Facebook messaging with people who I’d never met but who were willing to go great lengths to help me rescue Joi. I was shocked when it started to look like it might be possible to get all her medical stuff done, find a crate, get her to Kho Samui, fly her to Bangkok and maybe get her on a flight home. Within a couple of days, I basically had everything in place. There was only one problem: The vet clinic had yet to locate her. And even if they found her soon, it would not be soon enough for her to make our flight. With every day that went by, my heart grew a little heavier.
As drama would have it, just as we were loading the plane for home, I got a message from Kho Tao with a picture of Joi and one of her beloved coconuts. “Is this her?” Yes! OMG Yes! It’s her!
The incredibly generous volunteers at the clinic on Koh Tao went back for her the next day. Within two days, they had her micro chipped, spayed, dewormed, defleaed and began treating her for a blood parasite. They sent me photos of her happily wearing a collar. This special clinic is not only the only vet clinic on Kho Tao, but it’s a self-funded rescue that serves as a sanctuary for injured and abandoned dogs and works tirelessly to improve the lot of animals on Kho Tao. Not only did they find, pick up, spay, microchip, vaccinate and care for Joi for a week, but they also did not send me a bill! Dr. Jae and her team there jumped at the chance to save one dog even though they are stretched thin caring for so many.
A wonderful guy named Stefan facilitated the next leg of Joi’s trip. He located a large crate (minor miracle in Thailand!) He agreed to pick her up on Koh Tao and escort her to Kho Samui. This would take him an entire day. He would then keep her for the night and take her to the airport at five in the morning for her flight from Samui to Bangkok. He even made the flight reservation for me when I was unable to convince the Thai cargo guy that I would not make it there in person to confirm the reservation. Stefan and his veterinarian wife, Elena, run Pariah Dog Samui. Their entire lives are consumed by helping dogs as was evidenced by Stefan’s willingness to take days out of his life to help Joi. They take in dogs, rehabilitate them and adopt them out. They feed between fifty and seventy dogs on the island and rely entirely on donations to do it. Stefan said what they most need is dog food and they sometimes rely on other local rescues for their supply. If you’re interested in helping them out, Information is at the bottom of this post.
The next person lined up to help us out was a guy named James. He would meet Joi at the airport in Bangkok, take care of all her export paperwork, keep her at his house for a few days and finally, deliver her to the airport for her flight to the States. All of this was clicking into place except for one minor detail: I still didn’t know how I was going to get her home from Bangkok.
I had learned, while in Thailand, about flight volunteers. With most airlines, dogs can fly as oversized baggage in the cargo compartment fairly inexpensively. All they need is a flight volunteer- a person who agrees to take them. Being a flight volunteer is super easy. You can take up to five dogs with you, the rescues take care of everything and the adopter meets the dog upon landing. Remember this next time you fly internationally! Anyone can help dogs get rescued. The only problem was that dogs often have to wait months for a flight volunteer to come along. I was not willing to leave Joi in Bangkok indefinitely. So I looked at my calendar, logged on to Expedia and began plugging in options. I found a super cheap flight and booked it. I’d fly back to SeaTac from St Louis where I was speaking at a dressage convention, have a few hours to stow my bag, fly to Bangkok, pick up Joi and fly home the next day. I could also be a flight volunteer for other dogs waiting to come to Seattle. Easy peasy!
I packed only a swimsuit, some dog treats and a leash. I chose to ignore all the things that could go wrong with this plan and the fact that I would be spending fifty plus hours on an airplane in a two day period- yes I know that doesn’t SEEM possible. But it is when you’re crossing multiple time zones and have totally lost track of what day it is.
Did I also mention that I have fallen back in love with Thailand? I was ecstatic to be going back if even for one day. As soon as my flight landed I grabbed a taxi and told the driver what I was up to. It’s one thing to get a taxi to a hotel in Bangkok. The drivers know exactly where those are. It’s entirely another thing to find “a dog house” in a residential area in a huge, foreign city. And I happened to get one of the only drivers left in Bangkok who doesn’t know how to use Google maps. And my phone was dead. So we had all his aunts and uncles on his phone trying to help us get where we were going. There was lots of typical Thai frivolity as we drove in circles and finally arrived. James let me in the gate and I was greeted with huge canine bear hugs and kisses of Joi. I was barely able to get a selfie through her enthusiasm. I knew, in this moment, that crazy had been the right call.
This is where the story gets a bit bigger than Joi herself. James’ wife, Phimpakarn, used to be the director of Soi Dog and now runs her own rescue called Stop Strays Cycle Thailand. She is dedicated to bringing dogs in off the street, spaying and neutering them and then either adopting them out or returning them to their familiar environment. The operation is mobile so they also visit temples, villages and schools to operate on dogs. They have an incredible set up in portable containers around the corner from their house in Bangkok. While I was there, there was a batch of dogs being prepped for surgery, a batch getting surgery and a batch in recovery. There were also a bunch of dedicated volunteers waiting to return the dogs “home” when they were ready. The clinic does thirty surgeries a day when they have the funds. This blew my mind. THIS is the way to get the dog population under control. They go directly into villages and garbage dumps, educating the local population along the way. They have minimal overhead expenses, expert volunteers and run public awareness campaigns. It only costs $16 US dollars to spay or neuter a dog so your money goes a long way when it’s going right to a grass roots program running like this machine clearly is. Some rescue organizations focus on soliciting help from the international community, which is very important but I love what this group is doing to solve the problem from the inside out by addressing it directly and working to change the culture. You can find them on Facebook. Everything is in Thai but you can scroll through pictures to see what they’re up to. If you are interested in donating to Stop Strays Cycle Thailand, information is at the bottom of this post.
The next day, I went for an early morning run, soaked up all of Thailand I could and headed to the airport. James was sick so his assistant, Tum, helped me with all the paperwork and the details of getting Joi checked in. It was his first time doing this job so I don’t know which of the three of us was more nervous! I did overhear him telling Joi’s story to an attendant, convincing him to skimp on her weight to save me money since she came all the way from Koh Tao. I can tell you that by this time, I was very grateful for that! Joi and I had a final snuggle before she disappeared off into airplane cargo land. It would be more than twenty-four hours before we would see each other again.
In Taipei, I was so nervous about her getting transferred to the right plane that I asked the guy at the gate to check on her for me. I wasn’t even sure he’d understood my request but thirty minutes later a cargo guy wearing reflective gear came running over to me in the gate area. He did not speak English but held up his phone to show me the video he’d taken of Joi in the cargo hold. I was so relieved, sleep deprived and overwhelmed by his kindness that I burst into tears. It was time to go home!
And the rest is history best told by these pics…
One of my takeaways from this experience coming so closely on the heels of our election in the US and so many tragic world events happening right now is how important it is to live by your values. Take a stand for the things that are important to you no matter what they are. I have long desired to make a difference for animals in a bigger way than I do in my work but I always thought I had to wait until I had more time or money. This experience with Joi has opened my eyes to what is truly possible. A ton of money is not the only way to make a difference. Small decisions, brief conversations and little donations can add up to big impact when they are meaningful to you and to the people you cross paths with. I decided to donate a percentage of the proceeds from my Take The Reins program, which I finalized while I was in Thailand, to the three organizations that made Joi’s journey possible. On Christmas day, I was able to donate money to Pariah Dog for food and help Stop Strays Cycle Thailand spay and neuter five dogs on behalf of Joi and all the people Taking The Reins. I am so excited about this. A little bit of crazy goes a long way. Happy New Year!
If you’d like to help improve the lives of dogs in Thailand, these are the groups I can recommend first hand:
Koh Tao Animal Clinic/ Noistar Thai Animal Rescue Foundation
Donations can be made online at http://www.kohtaoanimalclinic.org/
Pariah Dog Samui
Donations can be made via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org
Stop Strays Cycle Thailand (Also goes by SNIPThailand and is affiliated with https://k9aid.org/snip-them/)
Donations can be made online or via PayPal at email@example.com
Tell them Joi sent you!