Out of the meat trade, into agony

A British journalist working on a documentary investigation into what happens to animals that are supposedly freed from those involved in the illicit business finds that in three out of four cases a Vietnamese dinner plate is exchanged for a Thai grave

Photos taken immediately following a raid on a canine meat traders' compound in Sakhon Nakhon province in January show dogs seemingly relieved to have escaped from the tiny cages into which they had been crammed. Wide-eyed puppies can be seen among well-groomed dogs with collars _ which, along with their ease among volunteer workers, suggests many of the animals supplying the illicit trade were people's pets.

Some of these images feature in the first few minutes of a documentary that is currently running in instalments as part of a web series on YouTube, Dogs of Thailand, by John Keeble, a former Fleet Street journalist with more than 50 years in the business.

Keeble has been coming to Thailand since 1975 and has lived here for six years.

His lifelong passion for animal rights drew him first to the Soi Dog Foundation and from discussions with people there to the plight of animals trapped in the dog meat trade. He decided on the documentary series as the best way to get across his message. (The Soi Dog Foundation has also commissioned a documentary about Keeble's investigations into the dog trade that is being produced in the UK and will be available at the end of the year.) The fates of the dogs pictured in the opening minutes of Keeble's documentary, 1,968 of them seized from a trader in Sakhon Nakhon's tambon Tha Rae, serve as a case study answering the question of what happens to dogs once they are ''rescued'' from traders.

RESCUE AND ROADS TO RUIN

GETS WORSE FROM HERE: Caged dogs after being placed in a compound in Sakhon Nakhon in January following a raid on a dog meat traders’ compound.

Citing the seven month period leading up to March, 2012, Keeble found that of 6,500 dogs that had been rescued from canine meat traders, 4,700 are now dead or missing.

''Three out of four dogs rescued from the traders in Thailand die anyway,'' Keeble told Spectrum. ''There is no food, no vets, and they die or disappear from the shelters.''

As shown in his video, the shelters are crowded and lacking in veterinary care. The dogs come from the traders sick and wounded and do not have access to veterinarian care. The animals end up suffering extreme heat exhaustion from the relentless sun and high temperatures.

Keeble decided to hone in on the journey Sakhon Nakhon dogs seized in January, in part to help explain how what begins as a move ostensibly to protect the animals' welfare often ends in disease and death.

''As I worked through the numbers I started getting the feel that I could follow this group of dogs all the way through,'' Keeble said. ''There were very solid figures because the livestock people counted each dog, they knew how many they got, they knew how many dogs were going in which truck, at what time, and even who owned the truck.''

Phaisan Phattanadechakun

At the time of their capture, there were no funds for foods or veterinary assistance. However, political officials, police officers and volunteers reached into their own pockets to feed the animals before their ill-fated journey south.

After they were seized in Sakhon Nakhon by police who conducted the raid, the animals were counted, once upon arrival and again upon leaving the facility bound for a Buri Ram shelter.

The province's chief veterinarian oversaw the move and officials counted 673 dogs leaving in the first truck and 615 in the second on the third day of the dogs' stay at the shelter. Another 680 left on two trucks the following day.

That 1,968 dogs left Sakhon Nakhon is supported by documentation given to Keeble by shelter authorities there and seen by Spectrum, but what happened to them on their way to Buri Ram remains a point of contention.

Pramote Sritorn, director of the Sakhon Nakhon Provincial Livestock Office, confirmed to Spectrum that roughly the number of dogs stated in the video _ he says 1,965, as opposed to 1,968_ were seized and sent to Buri Ram. He said he received a letter from the Buri Ram shelter confirming that 1,900 dogs had arrived at the destination.

However, Pongthep Ekudomchai, head of the veterinary services section of Livestock Department, said that only 1,302 of the 1,968 dogs seized from Sakhon Nakhon in January made it to the Buri Ram shelter. The rest, he said, died during transport due to poor health from their time in captivity and congestion on trucks.

The Livestock Department's numbers were based on what was reported by the Buri Ram shelter, which also included the same numbers in its official log.

Keeble was not convinced by the explanation that the dogs had died en route. ''It's usual to lose up to 10% because of the way the dogs have been treated, they just can't save them,'' said Keeble, but the loss of 700 should have been accounted for in documents.

Keeble visited Phaisan Phattanadechakun, head of the Buri Ram shelter, in search of answers but came away with more questions. During a video interview with Keeble, Mr Phaisan told him that he had received 1,900 dogs from the Tha Rae bust and about 200 from a separate one, totalling 1,991 dogs after factoring in death. That ran counter to Mr Phaisan's statement to Bangkok headquarters which listed 1,300 dogs having been transferred from the bust.

GIVES ONE PAWS: Staff at the Sakhon Nakhon shelter tend to a dog. The dogs were relatively well cared for at the shelter before being sent to Buri Ram.

Keeble wondered at the seeming discrepancy between Phaisan's two totals and also why the Buri Ram shelter would have, according to Mr Pramote, confirmed the receipt of nearly 2,000 dogs. ''He [Mr Phaisan] is the director. It's not a big building with 1,000 people working. It's a very small localised operation,'' Keeble said. ''But he is the man responsible for feeding the dogs, so you need to know how many dogs.

''If you have figures that all hang together you are more inclined to believe all of them but when you get different stories like this, questions keep coming up. I am not pointing fingers just looking at the numbers.''

Keeble found no evidence of what had happened to the dogs, but wondered if they might have ended up back in animal traders' hands.

''If the dogs did get sold back they would be worth around 270,000 baht. I haven't found any evidence that they did but there are a lot of missing dogs and there aren't any death records for it,'' Keeble said. ''You assume these records are accurate and they aren't in there.

''The dogs can't be accounted for so you just need to ask where they went.''

Livestock Department officials told Spectrum that the dogs were accounted for through deaths from disease and parasites, transfers, adoptions, or having run away. They said that extra staff were taken on to avoid dog smugglers reclaiming the dogs.

When asked about the possibility that the dogs ended up back in meat traders' hands, Mr Phaisan said, ''It hurts to hear people talk about us in that way. We can assure that never happens.''

SAD END

Between June 15-20, concerned Sakhon Nakhon staff and Bangkok volunteers visited the survivors at the shelter in Buri Ram, estimating that there were about 300 and 400 dogs there.

On July 6, they returned to find the shelter largely empty, with only about 20 dogs remaining, and those with festering sores.

Mr Phaisan told Keeble that he had called on the government to provide money for livestock care. However, he could not explain where the 300 to 400 dogs seen between June 15-20 had gone less than a month later had gone.

On July 24, Cherdchai Kamwijitratanayotha of the Livestock Department said that the Buri Ram shelter had been closed and that all remaining dogs had been moved to Thong Pha Phum shelter in Kanchanaburi along the Myanmar border.

There is a record of some of the dogs being transferred to the Kanchanaburi shelter, but footage from a recent visit shows only around 100 of the Buri Ram dogs there. Keebler said that it means in a short time around 200 of the Buri Ram dogs had died in the new shelter. He did not have the official log for the Thong Pha Phum shelter to confirm the number that had perished.

''We went in and walked around and found some dogs in appalling conditions,'' he said.

Mr Dalley of the Soi Dog Foundation returned from there only a month ago.

''A lot of dogs can die in two months without any care and in those conditions,'' he said.

''When we visited last month around 100 dogs were still alive. The remaining dogs at this centre are the surviving unclaimed pets, left with livestock during last year's floods.''

In his video, over images of the emaciated, ill-looking dogs from Buri Ram shelter that had made it to the Kanchanaburi shelter, Keeble intones. ''Those beautiful dogs sent from Buri Ram to Sakhon Nakhon, and here, hidden away near the Myanmar border, the pitiful survivors ... 1,900 missing, these poor creatures existing, suffering, sick ... living in a disgustingly filthy condition in a large caged area.''

SYSTEM GONE TO THE DOGS

In addition to highlighting the fates of rescued dogs, Keeble hopes that his documentary draws attention to the faults in a system where greater vigilance against the dog meat trade has not resulted in a subsequent increase in government funding and programmes to care for the rescued animals.

One of the reasons for the lack of funding to maintain and provide supplies for the shelters is that cracking down on the dog trade is a relatively new idea. The dogs have been delegated as livestock, but dogs are not a high priority within Livestock Department.

In Keeble's video, Sawan Sangbunglang, secretary-general of the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says that the Livestock Department receives a budget for the care of animals such as pigs and chickens ''because those livestock are developed for economic development''. The same is not true of dogs, he said.

Keeble agrees. ''A major point is that everybody has been doing their best but they have no money. It's the funding that is the real problem,'' he said.

''The police are not arresting dog smugglers because they don't have any money to keep the dogs. But even if they are contained they are given back to them sometimes. Sometimes in very tragic circumstances; half of them have died in the time just sorting it out.''

Keeble says that he is sympathetic towards Livestock Department officials who have had the problem of dealing with rescued dogs dumped on them.

''They have been given the problem but not the means to solve it,'' Keeble said. ''They have never had anyone trained in it, experienced in it, and no money. It has been a disaster in the shelters not because they are bad people but because the system wasn't there. Most of the livestock people I have met are doing their best.''

Of the nearly 2,000 dogs from the Buri Ram shelter case study, Keeble could find only one that had been reunited with its original owner.

''If a case study can show that the system doesn't work and dogs are disappearing then it is up for the people to decide what action needs to be taken at every shelter,'' Keeble said.

Dog shelter arrival figures make for a grim analysis

CANINE CONUNDRUM: A policeman and an official from Sakon Nakhon’s livestock department look at the rescued dogs.

AUG 12, 2011 _ A major police action against dog traders leads to about 1,800 dogs being taken in by police. Responsibility for them is handed over to a livestock facility in Nakhon Pathom. Despite the recent intensification of enforcement, the department has no funds or programmes in place to cope with the influx.

Shelter staff improvise, and the public donates more than 20 million baht. Still, after five days more than 1,100 die due to disease, eating problems and the harsh climate.

Dec 26, 2011 _ A truck is stopped and 350 dogs inside are seized from smugglers.

Jan 12, 2012 _ The navy, leading a border guard unit, takes 800 dogs from smugglers in Nakhon Phanom's Ban Phaeng district.

Jan 13 _ Police seize 500 dogs from traffickers at a roadside stop.

Jan 14 _ Police take in 500 dogs left in a wooded area.

March _ 47 dogs arrive at the shelter after a bust in Mukdahan.

In total, about 4,000 dogs arrived at the Nakhon Phanom shelter between August and March. A distemper outbreak started shortly after the dogs arrived. They had not been vaccinated and were dying at a rate of up to 30 a night. On April 22, the head of the shelter gave the total number of dogs at the shelter as 1,160. An optimistic estimate of the number of dogs re-homed would be 500, leaving about 2,300 missing.

Source: John Keeble's investigation based on shelter reports as featured in Dogs of Thailand.

LOVED PETS FOR SOME, PROFIT FOR OTHERS

The dog trade has been highly lucrative business in the Northeast, particularly in Sakhon Nakhon province, for years. However, in the course of researching his documentary on the illegal dog meat trade in the Kingdom, Dogs of Thailand, John Keeble discovered a disturbing trend _ whereas strays used to constitute a bulk of the supply and be rounded up by villagers for a nominal costs, now more expensive dogs are being targeted, specifically people's pets.

The Soi Dog Foundation estimates that as many as 30,000 dogs pass through Thailand's border with Laos every month via the Mekong River on their way to Vietnam.

Once the dogs make it over the border into Vietnam they can sell for as much as 800 to 1,000 baht each.

The most expensive breeds have the top price tags.

''The old days of buying dogs in exchange for a plastic bucket from poor villagers in the area have long gone,'' said John Dalley of the Soi Dog Foundation, referring to past practices where villagers would sell dogs in exchange for plastic buckets and bowls worth about 50 baht.

''Dog nappers now roam all over Thailand and most dogs are stolen pets. It is not a debate about the rights and wrongs of eating dog meat. The way the dogs are caught, transported and then tortured and killed is beyond inhumane.''

A CRUEL TRAIL: Top, a stolen pet with collar, and above, the paw and sexual organs of a female dog, considered a delicacy, for sale in Ban Tha Rae.

In the first installment of his documentary, Keeble notes the effect that the switch towards pets being targeted in the dog meat trade is having, saying it is leaving ''tears throughout Thailand''.

''The dogs are dying and their owners are suffering too. The [documentary] investigation found many many cases of this,'' Mr Keeble says in the video.

''The grandmother desperate to find the child's dog that she was looking after when it was stolen. The people who drove from one end of Isan to the other to find their dogs. The parents who lost their grown up daughter's wonderful companion and the daughter's four-day hunt among the rescued dogs. She didn't find him.''

About the author

Writer: Kelly Malone