A Heartbreaking Look Inside an Animal Shelter in Thailand

I volunteered at the only shelter on the island of Koh Samui. It was among the most emotionally taxing experiences of my life.

Crystal Gibson  |  May 23rd 2013

I tagged along last year with my husband, Max, to the island of Koh Samui in Thailand. I wanted to do something productive with my time, not just lie out on the white sandy beaches and soak up the sun. Max would be busy at the Muay Thai boxing camp, so I looked for volunteer opportunities before we’d even left France.

I quickly got in touch with the only official animal shelter (and free vet clinic) on the tiny island: The Dog and Cat Rescue Samui Foundation, which locals refer to as the DCRS. It was founded in 1999 by a German named Brigitte Gomm and her husband, Werner. They’ve dedicated their lives to providing free medical care to the feral dogs and cats on Koh Samui, as well as to those owned by the locals.

Before DCRS, animals who were sick or injured from traffic accidents or frequent fights between dog packs were left to die slow and painful deaths. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of Gomm and her local staff (including a full-time vet), the dogs and cats of Koh Samui stand a fighting chance of survival and adoption.

I went to check out the smaller shelter in Chaweng as soon as I arrived in Thailand. This shelter is actually an extension of Brigitte’s home, and is used to house and care for sick and injured cats, as well as nursing mothers and their kittens. Volunteers help clean the cages and feed, medicate, and provide TLC to the many cats in a small, stuffy room cooled only by a few fans.

When I was there, identification tags hung on the cages with medication instructions and whether the occupant was a pet or a stray, who would be eventually be spayed or neutered and available for adoption. In addition to DCRS’s work to help control Koh Samui’s feral dog and cat populations, it also provides free (donation-based) veterinary services to pets with families.

Brigitte and Werner live with many of the smaller dogs they’ve personally adopted, along with a misfit pack of pooches, some with only three legs, who spend their days lounging around in the hot sun. The dogs and cats at the small shelter are, for the most part, the lucky ones.

In order to care for as many dogs as possible, Brigitte opened a larger shelter in the less touristy southwest of Koh Samui. Staff drive the 45 minutes back and forth between the shelters every day, bringing supplies and transporting volunteers.

I had read about the larger shelter online before my visit, but I was not at all prepared for what I saw. Hundreds of dogs of all ages, shapes, and conditions are housed in multiple outdoor enclosures, with care taken to keep the sick separated from the healthy and the puppies (in various stages of vaccination) from the adults.

Upon entering the expansive shelter — surrounded by walls and a large front gate to keep everyone safely inside — I was “greeted” by the deafening noise of barking and a small pack of friendly dogs who are allowed to wander the shelter freely.

Many of those guys were missing limbs, ears, or eyes, but they were so gentle and starved for affection that they would follow me everywhere. In the midst of the canine chaos is the “cat house,” where cats and kittens roam about in a large, covered pen filled with cat beds and toys. They’ve got a small air-conditioned section as well, where I’d hang out for a little while when the heat got to me.

The large shelter also has a rudimentary vet clinic where surgery is performed (barefoot!). DCRS willingly accepts vet students from around the world to assist the Thai vet and staff with spay/neuter procedures and dressing wounds.

I was not qualified for such work, so I spent most of my time picking hundreds of ticks off cats and dogs with tweezers, feeding a lot of hungry bellies, cleaning the tiled puppy house, and — most importantly — giving the animals the love and attention they craved.

After my first day at the large shelter, I collapsed into tears back at my hotel. For an animal lover like myself, seeing how these animals live made me weep. I felt so helpless that I could not do more, and struggled with not becoming too attached.

As heartbreaking as it was to see dogs so sick with mange and parasites they could not stand up, or those lying in the scorching sun with open festering wounds that the staff were trying to treat as best they could, I kept reminding myself that these animals would have no hope at all if not for DCRS and the efforts of staff, volunteers, and people around the world, who donate to help keep the shelter running. All the people involved are doing the very best they can with the resources they have, but I couldn’t help but let the situation get to me.

I spent a lot of time with the animals during my two-week stay on Koh Samui. I even convinced my less-than-pet-passionate husband to come with me to the big shelter one morning. He barely made it through the day — the combination of the rudimentary conditions, the noise, the heat, and the ticks became too much for him to handle. I can’t say I blame him.

My experience volunteering at DCRS was a rewarding one, though it was much more emotionally taxing than I could have imagined.

In my native Canada, and now in my adopted country of France, the animal shelters are in no way a great place for any animal to live, but in Thailand, the dogs and cats must make do with a lot less. Amid all the sickness, injuries, and misery that I witnessed, I also saw the love and dedication of a wonderful staff and team of volunteers who are doing the best they can. I saw animals being cuddled and petted by volunteers who come from all over the world to lend a hand, and the determination of Brigitte and Werner to keep up the work they’ve started despite financial struggles and the overwhelming number of animals who need help on Koh Samui.

The dogs and cats I met will stay in my heart forever, and I strongly encourage anyone who visits this beautiful Thai island to visit the shelter. Even if you have only a few hours to spare, I know firsthand just how much a cuddle and some attention mean to these deserving animals.

For more information about DCRS and ways you can help the animals, please visit its Facebook page and official website, which features many success stories of dogs and cats who were saved from near death and are now happy and healthy!

About Crystal Gibson: A child-sized Canadian expat in France who is fluent in French and sarcasm. Owned by a neurotic Doxie mix, a Garfield look-alike, and two needy Sphynx cats. An aspiring writer and pet photographer with a love of coffee and distaste for French administration, she can be found blogging over at Crystal Goes to Europe.

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