Tongdaeng the street dog reawakens Thai sense of duty toward animals
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2003:
BANGKOK–For the second time in five years a street dog has
grabbed the attention and affection of Thailand, reminding Thais
that kindness toward animals is a national tradition as well as a
Buddhist teaching and moral obligation.
Among modern nations, only India has a longer documented
history of acknowledging duties toward animals. At that, the
difference is slim. The animal-loving Indian emperor Asoka sent
missionaries to Thailand to teach Buddhism in the third century B.C.,
only 250 years after the Buddha died.
Introducing the first animal protection laws in the Indian
civil code, Asoka practiced a form of Buddhism which like Hinduism
and Jainism holds that animals should not be eaten, and that an aged
or disabled cow or work animal should be retired and well-treated.
These beliefs, later abandoned or ritualized into
meaninglessness as Buddhism crossed the Himalayas into China, were
incorporated into the Thai practice of Buddhism. Centuries of
foreign invasions and other competing cultural influences have
subsequently diluted and adulterated Thai Buddhism. Yet
traces of the original teachings remain.
Few Thais today are fully vegetarian, for example, yet Thai
cuisine includes many vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Thai monasteries to this day often double as animal shelters,
though at some the custom was long ago distorted into keeping just a
lone chained temple elephant.
Other Thai monastery shelters struggle with the same
management and fundraising problems encountered by animal rescue
The temple at Wat Koo, Pak Kret, for instance, was until
recently “well-known as a place for Buddhists to make merit by paying
for the rescue of cows and buffaloes from abattoirs,” according to
Bangkok Post writer Onnucha Hutasing. But, Hutasing continued,
“Eighteen cows and buffaloes, 30 dogs, two peacocks, four pigs,
three sheep, a monkey and chickens have been left largely to
themselves since abbot Phra Khru Nanthapiwat was ousted on November
27. Local people accused the abbot of using temple funds to finance
a nearby restaurant run by a relative. The temple’s assets were
seized pending an investigation. The monks still at the temple said
there was no money left for food.”
The Chon Buri Zoo took in the 30-year-old temple bear.
Villager Siri Sap-ampai sought to adopt out the other animals. “We
will not let the animals starve,” she told Hutasing, “but the grass
we find for them is not enough. Some villagers bring rice and
other food for the animals every evening.”
The Handicapped Animals Foundation in Nonthaburi, “now in
its 25th year, is home to five monkeys, 100 cats, 100 birds, 30
turtles, and 800 dogs with disabilities and serious illnesses such
as cancer,” reported Porpot Changyawa of The Bangkok Post on January
“Some can’t even wag their tails or lift their heads to drink
water,” foundation manager Chaiwat Wapilai admitted.
Founder and president Sattaporn Deepa, formerly known as
Renu Chulasukon, relies on Udon Thani senior monk Luangta Maha Bua
Yannasampanno for about 25% of the operating costs, and raises the
rest from the public. Hard times mean the shelter no longer has a
World Society for the Protection of Animals representative
Joy Leney exhibited slides appearing to depict the Handicapped
Animals Foundation at the 1998 International Companion Animal Welfare
Conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, and suggested that most of the dogs
should be euthanized to relieve their misery. Instead, the Buddhist
life ethic requires that they must die without human intervention.
Yet the Buddhist life ethic also that ensures that they receive food,
water, and care, in a region where outside of Thailand more dogs
are eaten than ever see either a shelter or a vet.
Tongdaeng & Mai Thai
Though animals are often not better treated in Thailand than
elsewhere in Asia, many Thais–like Indians –acknowledge that they
should set a better example.
The dog who is reawakening Thai consciences this time is
Tongdaeng, the beloved pet of King Bhumibol Aduladej. Through
Tongdaeng, the king’s lifelong fondness for animals, dogs
especially, has flared into an active passion.
Presiding over the transformation of Thailand from a society
little changed in centuries to one of the most economically developed
nations of continental Asia, the highly popular 75-year-old king has
reigned for 56 years. He holds little actual political authority,
yet is the national figurehead.
The king recently authored Khun Tongdaeng, an 84-page book
telling how he adopted the dog in 1998 from a litter of strays whose
mother was rescued from the streets by the staff of a medical center
he visited to deliver a dedication.
The book “offers a rare tender look into the heart of a sovereign
whose private life is mostly hidden,” wrote New York Times
correspondent Seth Mydans. “In her abiding respect for another stray
who was her wet nurse, Tongdaeng is, the king writes, ‘different
from many others who, after having become an important personality,
might treat with contempt one of lower status who should be the
subject of gratitude.'”
The first printing of 100,000 copies of Khun Tongdaeng sold
out within days.
Tongdaeng is the daughter in role, though not in actuality,
of Mai Thai, a street dog mother whose rescue by American visitor
Mina Sharpe was prominently covered by Anchalee Kongrut of the
Hit by a car in December 1997, Mai Thai struggled to continue to
nourish three puppies. She was helped by a cab driver who bottle-fed
the pups when he could. Sharpe, then 16, invested $400 in
veterinary care and boarding for Mai Thai and her pups, and
eventually found U.S. homes for all of them.
Already known for animal rescue work in Taiwan, her home
from age 12 to age 18, Sharpe was lauded for reminding Thais about
how animals should be treated.
King Bhumibol Aduladej adopted Tongdaeng while Mai Thai was
near the height of her fame.
In his 75th birthday speech, delivered at the Dusit Palace
on December 4, the king recommended that the money which was to have
been spent to microchip the estimated 110,000 Bangkok street dog
should instead be spent to sterilize and vaccinate more dogs.
Decha Yimumnuay, chair of the municipal budget scrutiny
committee, took the same position three days later.
The king asked that a shelter for young dogs be created. By
December 7, Bangkok officials had selected a site and were drafting
plans to build it.
The king also asked Bangkok governor Samak Sundaravej to join
him in promoting street dog adoptions, and urged that the government
should show the way, by training street dogs to do police and
Benjamin Somsin of The Nation in Bangkok reported on
Christmas Eve that National Police and Justice Ministry personnel had
selected 50 strays from among the 700 dogs in the Bangkok city pounds
to undergo 20 weeks of training.
The Defense Ministry was expected to choose another 100 dogs,
Somsin wrote. Prawet shelter caretaker Thonglo Silamuean told Somsin
that at least 20% of the dogs brought to the shelter have the right
combination of health, intelligence, and disposition to be trained
Achieving political consensus on wildlife issues will be much
more difficult, due to competing interests.
After seizing more than 1,000 pangolin anteaters from
smugglers trying to take them to China in 2002, Thai police seized
54 pangolins and arrested four smugglers during the first week of
2003–but two trucks driven by suspected smugglers managed to speed
through the checkpoints.
As police and wildlife officials struggled to control the
wildlife traffic, Natural Resources and Environment minister Praphat
Panyachartrak on the same day told Ranjana Wangvipula of the Bangkok
Post that the cabinet had already agreed to ask the Thai Senate to
amend the 1992 Wildlife Protection Act to allow the farming of 55
species, including deer, nonhuman primates, peacocks, pheasants,
World Wildlife Fund Thailand secretary-general Surapon
Duangkhae broke from the usual WWF policy of favoring “sustainable
use” of wild animals to warn that legalization might encourage
farmers to capture animals from the wild for breeding stock, and
that wildlife farming might provide cover for poaching.
His predecessor, Pornpen Payakhaporn, left amid an uproar
over his support of a plan to control macaques at Wat Thammikaram by
hiring the Wildlife Animal Rescue Foundation to vasectomize about 10%
of the males. Initially skeptical, WARF later estimated that it
could use a mobile clinic to do about 360 vasectomies in three months.
Regional governor Thaworn Phothisombat pledged to stop the
project if public opinion did not favor it.
Earlier, the Zoological Park Organization suggested
releasing pythons to control the macaques. Wat Thammakaram abbot
Phra Khru Opasthammatat quickly vetoed that idea.
Dealing with displaced ex-logging elephants and elephants who
have lost their forest habitat may be the most problematic of all
Thai wildlife issues at present.
Elephants are the Thai national talisman, representing the
Buddha and holding status similar to that of cows in India. But
despite a decade-long steep reduction of logging, Thailand has very
little wild habitat left for elephants, and what deep habitat
remains is mostly along the northern border, where wild animals of
all species are vulnerable to poaching.
Elsewhere, wild elephants often resort to raiding farms.
The traditional response to farm-raiding elephants was to capture
some and put them to work, but Thailand no longer has work enough
for the estimated 500 domesticated elephants –about 40 of them
illegally in Bangkok–whose mahouts lead them about, begging and
doing odd jobs.
Friends of the Asian Elephant has urged the Thai government
for years to take more elephants into sanctuary care, a suggestion
resisted due to the anticipated expense.
PETA joined the issue in October 2002. Distributing a video
showing baby elephants allegedly being torturing during training by
mahouts, PETA called for an international boycott of tourism to
Thailand unless the government adopted a PETA-drafted elephant
protection law and created a 20-square-mile reserve for confiscated
Friends of the Asian Elephant responded that the PETA video
did not show typical practices, and that nine existing laws would
suffice if adequately enforced.
Bangkok police on January 12 announced a crackdown on the
illegal presence of elephants within the city.
“We have reached a decision on this problem, and we will not
allow mahouts to torture elephants again,” police Major General
Paibul Ariyawat told The Nation.