There were more motorcycle deaths back then because there were fewer cars and the broken roads were raceways for young men determined to kill themselves and anyone who got in their way.
But perhaps the most disturbing sight was the thousands of wild dogs that blocked the roads or roamed the small villages searching for food or a fight. There was nothing unusual about gangs of homeless dogs roaming around digging through garbage.
Perhaps it’s the Buddhist precept of showing compassion to those less fortunate that created an over-population of dogs. Or perhaps it’s a disregard for managing the physical environment.
Back in 1989, there were two main mechanisms for dealing with unwanted dogs. The first was to take them to the nearest Buddhist temple and abandon them to the care of the monks. The idea was there would be plenty of food left over from the morning alms collection.
But it did not accommodate the fact that these solitary dogs had no personal territory which inspired constant vicious dog fights that prevented many worshipers from attending a funeral or even prayers.
The second mechanism for dealing with strays and threatening dogs was to poison them or beat them to death. In 1989, a number of international hotels and resorts opened and they could not discourage these dogs from scavenging for food from their kitchens and garbage.
The solution was to feed poison to the homeless animals several times a year to reduce their growing and unwanted population.
Then in the mid to late 1990s, a number of Western women started feeding and caring for these neglected dogs in their neighborhoods and at the temples. Many thought they were rather eccentric and assumed unnecessary risks at getting bitten or worse.
But this small band of dog lovers was determined to deal with the suffering of these animals. Very slowly the number of volunteers grew.
In 1996, John and Gill Dalley married on the island and have returned each year since on holiday until they settled here in 2003.
“We stayed in a lovely resort and very soon became involved with dogs. First it was a local dog that stayed around our resort. We fed it and took it to the vet for medical care. We became quite attached but didn’t consider taking it back to England.
The following year when we returned, we looked for this dog yet no one could tell us where it was. We later found out it had been clubbed to death by the resort which was common practice at the time,” remembers John. “It was a shock and really set us to thinking about how we could help support these unwanted animals.”
Throughout their yearly visits to Phuket, John and Gill collected food from hotels and took it to temples to ease the hunger of these homeless dogs, though it was clear that this was not sustainable and a more long lasting approach would be required. That day came when in 2003, both retired from their careers in England and decided to make Phuket their home.
Almost immediately they began to volunteer with the other expats who spent much of their day feeding and caring for the growing number of dogs to pick up where they left off.
Many of us remember the sad story of how Gill went into a swamp to rescue a trapped dog and subsequently developed blood poisoning which cost her both legs.
Though she struggled with prosthetic limbs, it only seemed to fuel her determination to build a safe environment for these animals.
“Over the past 15 years, we have built an organisation, Soi Dog, which has developed the largest hospital in Asia for the care of dogs. To date, 380,000 dogs and cats have been sterilised and the population of unwanted dogs and those who formerly lived at the temples has dropped significantly.”
The philosophy of Soi Dog is Capture, Neuter, Vaccinate and Release. With a fleet of trucks and mobile clinics staffed with veterinarians and support staff, Soi Dog responds to any call for help to assist a dog in distress in any neighborhood on the island.
Soi Dog has become international with foundations in seven different countries supporting their work in Thailand.
They have developed 30,000 monthly donors through digital fundraising with 95% of these funds coming from overseas. In addition to providing medical care for local animals, Soi Dog also provides an adoption service that each year sends 700 Thai dogs to homes in other in Thailand and overseas.
Living on Phuket is so much more pleasant now than 30 years ago. And thanks to the more than 300 staff and volunteers at Soi Dog, even the animals are having a better life.