I first “met” zoologist, author, and photographer Nola Lee Kelsey after reading her book The Voluntary Traveler. I don’t remember how it happened, but I’m pretty sure I emailed her a question about the book and we ended up as Facebook friends in December 2011. Since we connected, I have been seeing Nola’s regular posts about the animal tourism industry (especially elephants and tigers) and about all of the animals (usually dogs, sometimes cats) she helps on a regular basis in her new home country of Thailand. Nola is from the United States, but has been living in Thailand for the last six years, most recently in Bang Saphan, an ocean town about four hours south of Bangkok.
Nola herself has six dogs, all rescues. There is Flipper, a “pseudo Westie” from Lebanon, and Henry, who is thought to be an Aussie–Poo, both from the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, where she spent some time working as a Dog Caregiver. In Thailand, she adopted two dogs (Shaggy and Cupid) from Care for Dogs, in Chiang Mai, where she was the volunteer coordinator. Next came Trixie, a “microscopic yet sassy Shih Tzu” who was adopted from Hand to Paw in Mae Rim. The most recent addition, Chance, had been dumped in the streets in Bang Saphan and didn’t understand he should stay away from cars.
Animals have always been an important part of Nola’s life. She says, “I was born obsessed with animals. I studied zoology in college while working for a local wildlife rescue in San Diego. For my first 25 years, I more likely to have a rescued iguana or owl recovering in my home than to have a dog. That obsession came later.”
While no animal rescuer would describe their job as “easy,” there are some extra challenges in Thailand. I asked Nola about the biggest difference between how animals are seen and treated in the U.S. vs. Thailand. “In Thailand dog ownership is a fluid concept. Most are not nearly as pampered as our ‘owned dogs,’ but you also hear more stories of over-the-top pampering, complete with nannies and fashionable clothes.” She says it’s also difficult because “you hear of horrific violence toward dogs and other animals weekly, and it is not heavily ingrained in Thai culture to stand up and speak out against the perpetrators. Still there are some great people who received a double serving of empathy, too. They do what they can to help animals against overwhelming odds.”
There is also a high feral dog population. According to Nola, “you see them watching from the trees when hiking in the forest, several generations removed from human touch and nothing be done about it. It may sound like freedom, but mankind made domestic dogs, they are not suited to living in harmony with nature. They both suffer and decimate indigenous wildlife populations.”
In Thailand, Nola does what she can on her own, but acknowledges that Bang Saphan is different than other places in the country. “We have both a wonderful rescue, Headrock Dog Rescue (and yes, they take travel volunteers), and an impressive street dog spay/neuter organization, Hundehilfe Thailand. Without their efforts, there would be many more animals suffering and reproducing here. The difference between Bang Saphan and other towns with no assistance for animals is night and day.”
While I love pretty much any animal story with a happy ending, there is one dog in particular that Nola had been sharing that really tugged at my heart strings, and that is the story of Tiger.
Nola met Tiger about a year ago. He had been hit by a car about six months before that, and his back legs were paralyzed. He was living behind a school, tied to a palm tree. The staff members of the school “cared” for him as best as they knew how, but he was covered in ticks and fleas with open wounds on his legs, had no shelter, and a very inconsistent diet. Nola pulled off all the ticks and gave him a dewormer. She found a kennel so that he would have shelter, dressed his wounds, and got him vaccinated.
Before long, Tiger started doing better, but Nola knew she couldn’t handle this one alone. I asked Nola how things have changed for Tiger, and she said “I think of Tiger as the World’s Dog. Two online fundraisers raised money via donors from around the world for a protective, fenced dog run and big covered doghouse for him. K9 Aid International held the first fundraiser, and the staff from Headrock Dog Rescue built much of the fencing. This same fundraiser got him a complete veterinary as well. Later, I also raised funds for some protective leggings for him. Again donors were international.”
Now, Nola visits Tiger pretty much daily, and he gets to swim in the ocean as his physical therapy about five days a week. He has a friend, Boo, who he regularly swims with, and Nola hopes she is having an influence on the kids at the school where Tiger lives. “I do like to think that the kids who watch me work with Tiger are learning about animal care, kindness to animals, and also seeing a local ferang (foreigner) doing good and sticking with something. I hope I am influencing some of the kids in these ways.”
Being a part of the animal rescue world is never easy. Even heroes like Nola want to just run away sometimes, but in her words: “The lesson from Tiger to be learned is that people should not stop trying to help. Just because a situation cannot be 100 percent fixed (or even 60 percent), does not mean you can’t make a difference. Tiger’s life is not prefect; however, it is much improved! He suffers less now, and the sparkle has returned to his eyes. Trying is always better than doing nothing. So next time you are faced with a situation you can’t completely fix, remember Tiger and still do something!”