**Warning: graphic photo below (but some cute ones too)**
This tale of Koh Tao’s dogs begins long ago and far away, on a day way back in September when I was teaching primary school English and secondary school history in Malawi. A stray dog followed me all the way from our guesthouse to the school – about a 25 minute walk. He was one of several local strays that had taken a liking to us and followed us around all the time. The feeling was not reciprocated. Large tufts of fur were missing from his mangy body, replaced by dried scabs and oozing sores. One eye appeared to be damaged beyond repair and was in the process of sealing itself shut. His whole body appeared to be rotting. You could smell him coming from 100 yards away. I tried to lose him but to no avail. As he followed me right into the building (which had no doors to keep such critters out), the kids, a rowdy bunch of 8-year-olds who had been eagerly awaiting my arrival just outside, started freaking out. They shrieked and climbed on desks and tried to push him out without actually touching him, using long sticks and benches to prod him toward the door. Despite their efforts he made his way into the classroom. It took well over half the period to calm their frantic remarks about his foul smell and offensive sores, and to conquer my own gag reflex.
It was about that time that I really began to take note of dog populations as we traveled. I had been doing so somewhat unconsciously before that, as I had been vaguely annoyed, and at times grossed out, by local dog populations in Egypt and Tanzania. But they fared worse in Malawi. Or perhaps I just got to know them better, I’m not sure.
The health, wellbeing, and ownership status of local dog populations can provide an interesting window into the health, wellbeing, and culture of local communities. In Malawi, for example, there seems to be very few family owned dogs, and loads of unhealthy strays. This perhaps is hardly surprising for a place in which most people can barely afford to feed their own families. In a place where things like food and medical care were precious commodities, children seemed trained to understand that dogs could make you sick, and to give them food was wasteful. In Laos and northern Vietnam, you saw almost no dogs, owned or stray, anywhere at all. I don’t know that the lack of dogs on the street was in any way related to the presence of dogs in the market, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that there is a connection there…
So after Malawi I began making note of local dog populations. Nowhere has the dog population been so amazing as here in Koh Tao. The island, relatively small at only 21 square kilometers, is home to about 700 dogs. Nearly half of these are so-called “community dogs.” Community dogs have no official owner, but they are not strays – they are recognized and accepted by the local population (Thai and ex-pat alike), and local shops, restaurants, and families often pitch in to feed and care for them. Their happy presence has a tangible impact on the island’s culture, community and atmosphere. Some of Koh Tao’s community dogs:
Community dogs playfully roam the beach, romping in the ocean, digging in the sand, and adopting willing tourists as owners-for-the-day. So basically, any time you go to the beach, you can easily find yourself a dog-for-the-day, if you so desire. I think that’s just swell.
The dogs are generally healthy, happy, and well-fed. In fact, Koh Tao is one of the first places we’ve been where we haven’t been afraid to go near dogs because of mange, maggots, fleas, rabies, and other canine unpleasantries. Thanks to the ongoing work of the fantastic Noistar Koh Tao Animal Clinic, virtually all of them have had their shots, and many have been sterilized. (Though many people think it cruel, it is an important precaution in order to keep the dog population in check on such a small island.) The clinic, founded in 2004 has conducted an in-depth survey on the population and wellness of Koh Tao’s dogs, and uses the data to maintain a campaign that keeps the dogs healthy and vaccinated, and keeps the dog population in check. They rely heavily on volunteers and donations – a worthy cause, both for the dogs and the ongoing health of the island.