On the surface, John and Gill Dalley seemed like any other British couple retiring to Phuket in Thailand. Both having had successful careers in England, Gill as a banker, and John in the chemicals industry, it was time to take things easier.
After years of the 9-5 routine, they were ready to take a radical change in lifestyle and give something back to society.
The couple had married in Phuket in 1996, and instantly fell in love with the paradise island on the west coast of Thailand. They returned on many occasions after their wedding for holidays, and had decided early on that when they did have enough money to retire, Phuket would become their final home.
In 2003 their dream came true. With pensions assured, they sold up in Leeds, West Yorkshire, and flew to Phuket to start their new lives. John was 53 and Gill just 44.
Gill and John had no intention of living a sedentary lifestyle in Thailand. Both wanted to help out in the local Phuket community as a way of giving something back to the island that had left them with so many happy memories over the years. John had already pre-determined that he wanted to do something about the stray dog and cat problem on the island, which in reality was not limited to Phuket; it was, and continues to be, a major issue across the whole of the country. On previous trips to the island, the Dalleys had noticed not just the sheer number of stray dogs and cats living on the streets (an estimated 50,000 at the time), but the appalling condition of most of them. As John says, “We were a bit shocked at first. Most of the dogs were emaciated through malnutrition. Many had mange and were covered in sores. Some had open wounds which could have been caused by road traffic accidents, dog fights or human cruelty. Many of the wounds were infested with parasites and maggots, and riddled with infection. They were living on the streets without anyone to care for them. I wanted to find a solution to improve their lives, but was unsure how to do this. The scale of the problem was just so overwhelming”.
Gill meanwhile had planned to teach English to under-privileged children, but this proved difficult as there were already so many people doing this. So instead, Gill made the decision to work with John on addressing the street dog and cat problem.
As they set about investigating what was already being done to help the street dogs and cats, they met a lady called Margot Homburg, a Dutch expatriate who had also just moved to Phuket (from Bangkok). She had been sterilising dogs in her local neighbourhood in Bangkok by taking them to a local vet, and had set up a charity called Soi Dog Foundation. They joined forces, and decided that the best long-term solution to the street dog and cat problem in Phuket was mass sterilisation. This would not have any effect in the short-term, but in the long run it would significantly reduce the number of animals being born on the streets to suffer a life of misery, hunger, pain and rejection.
Their plan was to run a mobile sterilisation clinic across the island. John, Gill and Margot became the dog catchers (and occasionally the vets assistants), whilst the sterilisation operations themselves were carried out by overseas volunteer vets and nurses. An Australian vet who had been running a small scale sterilisation programme focussing on the numerous temples in Phuket, where many stray dogs are taken in by the monks, passed on her equipment to Soi Dog when she moved to Hong Kong.
Two local vets also offered their sterilisation services at cost price, so the programme began as a very small but effective and well thought-out operation.
At this stage, Soi Dog had no facilities to treat injured or diseased animals they found on the streets; neither did they have facilities to shelter the animals until they had completed their rehabilitation. Basic medical care was administered on the spot, but if the animal needed specialist treatment, John, Gill and Margot would take the animals to a local vet and pay for the treatment themselves. This was not a sustainable solution however, because they were living on a limited pension income.
PERSONAL TRADGEDY STRIKES GILL
In October 2004, disaster struck. They were running a mobile sterilisation clinic in a small village close to where they lived. John, Gill and Margot were essentially the dog catchers and vet’s assistants. Gill went to a nearby builder’s merchant where she had seen several street dogs. One required blow darting, and having darted it, the dog ran off into a flooded water buffalo field. Knowing that the dog would most likely drown once the tranquiliser effect of the dart had set in, Gill waded through the water and eventually managed to retrieve the semi-unconscious animal.
A few days later, Gill began to feel seriously ill, and complained of terrible pain in her legs. John took her to a local hospital, and she was immediately admitted to the intensive care unit. Her arms and legs began to change colour from pink to grey, and she went into a coma, her heart stopping on several occasions. The doctors told John that there was little they could do for Gill. Her vital organs were failing, and they said she had little chance of survival; even if she did make it, it was likely she would lose both arms and legs.
On the advice of others, John had Gill airlifted to a hospital in Bangkok that was able to offer Gill more specialist treatment. It was a chance he simply had to take.
Gill was diagnosed with a rare soil-based gram negative bacteria which was never identified. The doctors administered a whole range of antibiotics, and eventually, five weeks later, Gill regained consciousness. Although permanently scarred, the doctors managed to save her arms, but had to amputate both legs below the knee. Extensive physiotherapy followed, and the fitting of basic prosthetic legs. Gill discharged herself from hospital on December 22nd 2004, determined to be at home for Christmas in order to cook Christmas dinner for 10 friends.
THE ASIAN TSUNAMI DEVASTATES PHUKET
The following day, the tsunami struck. Phuket, like many other places in the region, was devastated. Amongst the casualties was Gill’s best friend, Leone Cosens, who cared for hundreds of dogs in the south of Phuket. She died after going to the aid of tourists when the second wave hit. For the first three days after the tsunami, John and Gill went up to Phang Nga bay, which had been the hardest hit. John was involved in sorting and wrapping human remains, and Gill, still in her wheelchair, went to the local hospital to give emotional support to the injured and to relatives of the victims. Once professional relief teams arrived, John and Gill went back to rescuing and treating the thousands of dogs and cats who had been affected by the tsunami. The eyes of the world had been focussed on south east Asia, and this had attracted a number of volunteer vets and nurses who arrived in Phuket to help out at Soi Dog. This meant that at one stage, two or three mobile sterilisation clinics were being run simultaneously every day.
As Gill recovered, and eventually learnt to walk again on her prosthetic legs, the three pushed on with the sterilisation programme. Gill had no intention of letting her disability get in the way of her work. A two year grant from WSPA who had raised a lot of funds because of the tsunami, helped to fund a clinic at a building they rented in Phuket Town, along with two vets and some support staff. They were still however faced with the problem of what to do with the hundreds of dogs and cats that needed medical treatment and sheltering. Over 100 such dogs were already at the overcrowded clinic.
The solution came in spring 2006, when Soi Dog was offered the chance to use a government-owned dog pound in the north of the island.
Soi Dog had to spend around 3 million baht (£60,000) to bring the shelter up to standards. There was no treatment clinic, poor drainage, an insufficient outer fence, a lack of runs and kennels, no isolation unit, no laundry room. All these things had to be addressed.
When the shelter had been brought up to scratch, Soi Dog was able to offer medical treatment to the sick and injured animals, and was also able to shelter them. It was turning into a “full service” operation for the stray animals. In parallel with this, 2006 was the year that Soi Dog started its schools animal welfare education programme around the island, to teach children the basics of proper and responsible care for dogs and cats.
Margot returned to Bangkok in 2006, suffering from exhaustion, so it was left to John and Gill to continue the work in Phuket. They were unfortunately given notice by the government to leave the shelter soon after all the improvements had been made, as the government thought it wrong that an NGO should be running a government facility. So in 2008 they moved to a new location in Mai Khao, northern Phuket, where they built runs and kennels, converted a cattle shed into a clinic, built store rooms and a laundry room.
They remain there to this day, housing around 400 dogs at any one time, around 40 cats, and are in the process of building a new dog hospital on the site (March 2015). The shelter land is now fully owned by Soi Dog, which currently employs full-time vets, nurses, carers and dog catchers both in Phuket and at its new clinic in Bangkok. The mobile clinic operation also still functions every working day of the week across different parts of Phuket, but the need is less and less as around 80% of the stray population has already been sterilised.
In 2008, Gill became the first ever non-Asian to win the coveted Asian of the Year award from Channel News Asia in Singapore, and followed this by being named the Asia Pacific Canine Hero in 2011 at a ceremony in Hong Kong.
As of March 2015, nearly 80,000 street dogs and cats had been sterilised since Soi Dog started in 2003, over 17,000 in 2014 alone. The number of stray dogs on Phuket is now drastically reduced, with the island being declared Thailand’s first officially rabies-free province as a direct result of the sterilisation and vaccination programme.
Since 2011, Soi Dog has also been leading the initiative to stop the illegal dog meat trade in Thailand, and in introducing Thailand’s first ever animal welfare bill which became law in December 2014. John was first made aware of the illegal dog meat and skin trade in 2007, and tried to get a number of much larger animal welfare charities to help him address it, but was not successful. It finances the care of dogs destined for the meat and skin industries that have been intercepted by the authorities at a huge shelter complex in Buriram, northern Thailand, built by Soi Dog.
It provides all the food and medication for the 1,500 dogs housed there as well as other dogs housed at another government facility in the north west of Thailand. It also financed the renovation of a huge temple shelter (Wat Suen Kaew) on the outskirts of Bangkok which is home to over 1000 dogs and cats, who were living in sub-standard conditions. Just before Soi Dog’s intervention, the shelter was described by one international animal welfare organisation as “the worst shelter in the world”.
By the end of March 2015, the stray population in Phuket was officially under control (80% of the population sterilised). This allowed Soi Dog to downscale its operations there, and embark on a similar sterilisation and vaccination programme in Bangkok and neighbouring provinces of Phuket. Estimates of the stray population in Bangkok range from 300,000 animals up to 1 million, so it is likely to be a very long programme, but an essential one. Around 10% of the street dogs in Bangkok carry the rabies virus, according to the Thai Veterinary Medical Association, so it’s not just important from a population control perspective.
Both John and Gill remain highly active at Soi dog to this day. John leads the foundations fight against Thailand’s illegal dog meat trade, and together with its partners in ACPA (the Asia Canine Protection Alliance) is also addressing the dog meat trade in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and South Korea. Gill continues as Soi Dog’s Global Ambassador, and is currently managing the construction of the new dog hospital at the shelter in Mai Khao.