BANGKOK -- Thailand's stray dogs are an enormous problem. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, which recently reported 758,446 in a total canine population of 7,380,810 -- nearly 10.3%. In Bangkok alone, there were 141,455 strays.
The problem is evidently easier to quantify than solve. If not left to their own devices, unwanted dogs were often abandoned at temples. With Buddhist precepts against the taking of life, little effort was made to cull the population.
In Chonburi, a large province running along the eastern seaboard of the Gulf of Thailand, an approach to neglected canines has evolved through social media. A 1,600 sq.-meter dog shelter overseen by three caretakers has been built there with donations solicited on Facebook.
One of the key people behind the shelter is Sakrapee Pathomtodsaporn, a 33-year-old postal clerk. Sakrapee had been using Facebook for seven years, until on Aug. 17 2015 he asked for funds online to help a stray dog that had been run over by a lorry. The medical fees for the first day alone ran to 20,000 baht.
It all followed from there. Dog lovers who would never have been able to entertain such bills on their own used Facebook to contact others. When they came across sick strays, they started posting pictures on social media. It was a new collective response to dispersed crises. "I recall the date exactly," said Sakrapee. "I remember watching the news of the Ratchaprasong bomb blast while waiting for the vet. I posted a picture of the dog and fundraised on a dog-lover's fan page. From that, I realized I had access to the necessary support, and I have been helping dogs using Facebook ever since."
Not long after the terrorist act at the popular Erawan Shrine, Sakrapee was asked to find homes for 38 stray puppies. When he posted pictures on Facebook, he got a message from Uraiwan Khaesom, the owner of the plot in Chonburi.
"I let him know I had a place for the puppies but told him he would have to provide food," said Uraiwan. It was the start of a working relationship. When Sakrapee learns of new cases, he contacts Uraiwan. These can be strays with puppies, sick dogs, or abandoned mutts about to be caught by the authorities. Some go straight to the shelter, others are sent to an animal hospital first.
Sakrapee has built up a network of friends and followers who share his Facebook appeals with regular supporters, who contribute anything from 100 to 2,000 baht. When he set out, Sakrapee had 200 friends. A year down the line, he has almost 7,000 friends and followers, who enable him to buy 30,000 baht of dog food each month, and cover veterinary costs that ran to 32,000 baht in one case.
Dogs new to the shelter are confined to cages for the first week while they adapt. They are vaccinated for rabies and neutered before being allowed to roam free in an open area. They get two meals a day, and baths when they get too dirty from playing in ponds provided to cool them down. Lucky dogs will be adopted by owners who have been screened. The rest will see out their days in the safety of the pound.
Laws against cruelty to animals were tightened up in 2014 with the Cruelty Prevention and Animal Welfare Act, which followed on from stricter rules in 2004 in Bangkok about dog care. Significant publicity has been given this year to individuals prosecuted for gratuitous cruelty to animals. Dog owners in the capital are required to register their dogs with a microchip implant for identification, and there is a penalty of up to 40,000 baht for abandonment. The government also provides free neutering. All this, however, has not prevented the stray dog population growing.
"It happens because people are irresponsible and abandon dogs," said Sakrapee. "I think the way to solve the issue for good is to neuter the animals."
With individuals like Sakrapee and Uraiwan, social media is playing a growing role in animal welfare, and that will grow. According to Thoth Zocial, a social media data analysis service, Thailand had 41 million Facebook users by May 2016, the eighth largest population in the world and the third largest in Southeast Asia. For now, however, most Thais continue to use social media for entertainment and hobbies.