I knew going into the month that it was going to be challenging, that I was going to have to deal with seeing animals in tough situations and that yes, animals probably were going to die. As a sensitive human with a love for all of the world's animals, yes, even cockroaches, I knew that I'd spend a fair amount of time feeling sad but I thought that that would be evened out by how uplifted I'd feel being a part of such a cool project run by people who, like me, just want to help save animals. When a cat was killed by a dog within the first ten minutes of my first shift I felt sad but the outpouring of grief and obvious devastation of those around me made me feel like I was in a great place surrounded by great people and to a certain extent that was true
- the people I was working with that morning are wonderful and I met and worked with other wonderful volunteers during my time at Lanta Animal Welfare. When I was caring for a Bo'nwuy, a dog with a large, deep wound in his head, and he suddenly had a fit and died on the ground in front of me I was grief stricken; upset that Bon'nuy's owners had let the wound get so bad, sorry that our efforts to make him better had failed and sad that I was unable to do anything to save his life. These were the kinds of things I had mentally prepared myself to be dealing with, everything that follows? Not so much.
On literature and online Lanta Animal Welfare proudly state that one of their main aims is to "control the over population of stray cats and dogs in and around Lanta humanely via sterilisation". Now to me this, combined with the information I received during my visit, made me believe that I was going to be volunteering at a low or no kill shelter. As Lanta Animal Welfare make no mention of euthanasia anywhere on their site I perhaps naively assumed that this meant that healthy animals would not be being euthanised. Within a week it became clear that this aim was not being met to the best of the staff's abilities when it came to abandoned stray cats dumped outside the centre. Cats dumped outside the centre during the night were being moved away from the centre by people involved with Lanta Animal Welfare, this set alarm bells ringing in my head and I knew that I had to start digging. I wondered how taking an unsteralised cat that had been dumped outside the centre and essentially dumping it elsewhere could be the most humane option. When I learnt that the alternative was euthanasia I began to understand why this was happening. The more I dug the more I became tangled up in something that had seemingly been going on for a while. It took me ten days to get hold of a copy of the centre's euthanasia policy, my requests repeatedly falling on deaf ears, and when I did I was startled to see how vague, unclear and convoluted this enormous section of policy was. I won't reproduce the whole thing here but if anyone wants to see it just drop me an email and I'll pass it on.
This section of policy was an area that I knew wasn't being stuck to from the moment I read it.
"The decision to euthanise an animal with a medical condition is made by the Vetenarian. For other situation [sic], the management team will review the case and the Centre Director or President & Founder will make a final decision"
Stray cats with small, treatable problems like scabies and abandoned kittens who were between 3 and 6 weeks old, were being euthanised by the vet before any of the people working there had had a discussion about it. When I questioned the centre Director about this he was seemingly unaware that this was even the policy and then when I pointed out that bit of the document quickly backtracked to say that the vet would obviously be letting him know when she had a chance - as I pointed out this clearly isn't good enough as by this point the cat would already be dead. I have spoken with numerous people who have been present in the clinic when these things have happened and who have been shocked and appalled by the current vet's lack of care or concern.
After speaking with the owner of the shelter about this she confirmed to me that they do euthanise healthy stray cats and one of the main reasons given was that there is no room at the shelter for more cats. She also expressed concerns about whether cats could survive in the wild without starving to death especially in cases where cats were dumped on Lanta Animal Welfare's doorstep and staff had no idea where to return them to. She advised me that if I were to run my own shelter I would need to make difficult decisions regarding the welfare of the animals in my care and I am completely aware that this is true. I am more than aware that not all shelters are no-kill and that money, space and human resources play into how feasible it is to help an animal dumped at your door. I am also aware that the situation with Lanta Animal Welfare is quite unique in that they are the only shelter in the area, this isn't like in the UK where you can call for help from a shelter a couple of towns over and I've been told that culturally finding foster homes is more challenging here than it would be in Western Europe, the USA or Canada. This being said I have definitely not experienced that staff at Lanta Animal Welfare doing everything they can to find an alternative to euthanasia. In the policy they say that they...
"hope there will be a day when healthy and treatable animals are no longer euthanised for space or lack of homes and resources"
and go on to say that their...
"educational and vetinary programs are attacking the problems at the source with aggressive spay / neuter, education and adoption programs. Until that time comes we have assumed the responsibility of humanely euthanising those animals that have found no home"
Having spent the last month working at Lanta Animal Welfare my concerns surrounding the above statement are twofold. One, there are no education programs happening currently which means that they are failing the animals completely in this regard. Two, Lanta Animal Welfare's adoption program is far from aggressive. I think that lacklustre would be a better descriptor, during the time I was there both myself and two other volunteers offered to help the adoption co-ordinator update the adoptable cats book and the website numerous times over a two week period and were met with the dismissive response that it's not a problem or is already being taken care of. When I left yesterday the cat book still contained pictures of 7 cats that are no longer available for adoption and was missing pictures of over 10 cats that are available for adoption. The website is no better and as of right now it is missing information on 20 of Lanta Animal Welfare's adoptable cats.
Following on from this nobody at Lanta Animal Welfare actually knows how many cats are currently residing there and the Director, David Tippleston, was very dismissive of the work I'd done to take an accurate inventory of the cats. As space is one of the reasons Lanta Animal Welfare give for having to euthanise healthy animals I would have thought that knowing the cat population would have been as much of a priority to the staff as it was to me. After finding out that a healthy cat had been euthanised that day I decided that I had to do more to stop that happening again so Nick and I along with another volunteer and with the help of one of only a couple of staff members who I believe genuinely care about the welfare of the animals above anything else took a detailed inventory of the cats. We spent a week doing this at feeding times as well as early in the morning and late in the evening as we understand that cats are transient and that this wasn't something that was going to be accomplished in one afternoon. Our conclusion? 43 cats. This was 11 fewer cats than the number 54 that had been stagnating on the blackboard for the last 6 weeks at least. We genuinely thought that we'd done a great thing proving to the staff that yes, you do have space to save more cats and that right then there was no possible need for euthanasia. We were instead met with anger and accusations of overstepping boundaries by questioning everything that ended in a situation where the Director verbally abused me. I have of course submitted a formal complaint about this (and what I believe are his many other failings as both the Director and as a reasonable human being) to the owner of the shelter in writing and we will see what happens there in due course - an update will be posted here when I have one. The number of cats was then changed back to 50 (Lanta Animal Welfare's at capacity number) and the Director told me that he has a computer program that tells him how many cats there are and showed no interest in even looking at our cat inventory or discussing the matter any further.
Despite the lack of help I was getting from the majority of the staff at Lanta Animal Welfare I kept trying to help the animals right up until my last day - cat counting and working a 48 hour week aside I set up an Instagram account for them (which incidentally the Director stopped me from being able to access a few days before I left) which I got up to over 100 followers in just over 2 weeks. I made social media posters and liaised with the host to make sure they were pointed out to visitors. I updated flight volunteer posters and suggested that we advertise the need for flight volunteers within the expat community on the island starting with the parents of the kids from the schools on the island who we take on tours. I suggested "Lost Pet" style posters to advertise the dogs and cats that had been adopted and were just waiting for flight volunteers with the goal of getting the already adopted animals out of there faster to make space to help stray animals. I offered to spend my days off going around the island's resorts and hotels to see if there was any way they could take on a cat. I suggested ways that they could re-word their website to make things like the flight volunteer programme sound easier and more inspirational. I spoke with vets, people from shelters, and organisations that focus on Trap Neuter Release to see what they do when animals are dumped somewhere so that I could be better informed and offer more support and advice to the staff. I researched how likely it was that cats could survive in a new place to prove to Lanta Animal Welfare that the euthanising of healthy cats was unnecessary in the current situation - I now know a lot about the Vacuum Effect and hope that that information will come in handy somewhere else one day.
I knew going into this that volunteering at a Thai shelter was going to be up there with one of the more difficult things I've tried to do with my life thus far but I wasn't prepared to be working with people who seemed to care so little about animals. It blew my mind that my suggestions and help were met with indifference at best and disdain and hostility at worst. It has been one of the most frustrating months of my life. I don't doubt that when Junie Kovacs set up Lanta Animal Welfare she had the best intentions to spay, neuter and care for as many animals as possible, you don't sell everything you own and start a shelter halfway around the world because you want to kill animals. It's undeniable that Lanta Animal Welfare have done and still do an amazing job of sterilising and vaccinating animals on Koh Lanta and the surrounding islands but somewhere, somehow, the goals of the shelter have been blurred and I have no doubt that this has a lot to do with the staff currently working there. I know people who volunteered there last winter as well as earlier this year and their experiences were entirely different. What else was different? The staff. Almost the whole staff changed between March and September of this year which has clearly made the shelter a very different place to be for both humans and animals.
Transparency is my other issue in this situation - the lines are blurring all over the place. In the volunteer pack we received before volunteering we were told that Lanta Animal Welfare look after the welfare of the animals on the island through an aggressive spay and neuter programme. On tours people are told to look out for any cats without a tattoo in their ear and to bring them to us for sterilisation. If this turned out to be a stray kitten, or even an adult cat with kittens that weren't quite old enough to be sterilised, they would end up being euthanised. Since I started asking questions more is being done to make sure that they know where the animal came from and to see if there is any chance that the person who found that cat can continue to care for it but I do not have faith that this will continue now that I've left. I believe that if Lanta Animal Welfare were more honest with visitors about their "at capacity" status and what that means perhaps people would be more likely to consider adopting one of their cats. In literature that they hand out Lanta Animal Welfare show pictures of animals who are very unwell and show their before and after pictures.
These success stories don't accurately reflect what was happening with cats who were dumped at the shelter when I arrived. One cat was euthanised because it had a small patch of scabies despite the isolation area having around 20 free spaces and the volunteer accommodation being full enough that some volunteers needed to stay off site or at the staff house meaning that we definitely had the resources needed to care for these animals.
After I started asking questions the vet wrote a letter to all volunteers stating that there had been some...
"confusion recently regarding our protocol for stray animals"
She went on to say that...
"at the moment we are overpopulated and are unable to accept any more animals onto our adoption program, so if we consider them to have a good chance of survival in the wild we sterilise them and release them to a new area"
This is something that the founder had categorically stated only days before the letter was written was not happening. As I mentioned earlier she had told me that there wasn't anywhere they could currently release the animals that are dumped at Lanta Animal Welfare. She said that this was because the temples were full and the resorts on the island weren't interested. Given that there is a euthanasia policy given to staff in their own manual I feel that they are trying to keep the true information about euthanasia within as small a group as possible. I think that even if Lanta Animal Welfare aren't willing to put information about their euthanasia policy on their website a lot of confusion and disappointment could be averted if a copy of the policy was included in full in the information pack volunteers receive before their arrival - if this had been the case myself and my fellow volunteers would have been able to make informed decisions about whether we were okay with the policy and I could have chosen to spend my time volunteering somewhere whose ethics align more closely with mine meaning that this blog post wouldn't have needed to be written.
After I started questioning the policy a cat who was covered in scabies was admitted to the shelter for treatment. I have no doubt in my mind that if the cat, who I named Davey, had been dumped here at the beginning of last month he would have been euthanised.
I'm coming away from this experience with mixed feelings and emotions. I'm proud of myself for managing to stick out the month despite being desperate to leave on more than a few occasions. It feels good to have stayed and to have kept pushing for change in the face of resistance and, in some cases, outright hostility. I'm also so happy to have met some amazing people during my time at LAW, from the committed and hardworking general volunteers (you know who you are!) and hosts, to the volunteer vets who had the guts to discuss what was happening in the surgery, as well as Ryan, the super patient kennel manager, who took me from being a totally unqualified volunteer who was actually scared of dogs on day one to a confident and somewhat qualified dog person who now has the skills to go forth and be a more useful volunteer elsewhere. This certainly isn't the end for me and dogs or for me and shelter work but unless things change this is a break in the road for me and Lanta Animal Welfare. Whilst I have seen some great work being done this month, especially with dogs, both stray and under their long term care, I believe that Lanta Animal Welfare can be better and I will happily support them again when they take steps in that direction.
I have been advised that writing this post could damage Lanta Animal Welfare and that if people were aware that they were euthanising animals that they may decide not to support them. This may well be true as Thailand is a majority Buddhist country; the other Thai shelters that I spoke with said that they do not euthanise animals unless they are unwell and unable to get better because it is unacceptable within the communities they work in. To me what is unacceptable in this situation is to hide the truth. If Lanta Animal Welfare truly believe that they are doing the right thing and exhausting every other option before euthanising animals then they'd be able to be more upfront and honest about it. People deserve to know exactly what they're supporting whether that's financially, through reviews on Trip Advisor, via shares on social media, or by flying halfway around the world to volunteer somewhere that, upon arrival, is not what it seems. Honesty and transparency are two of the driving forces behind writing this post, it's important to me that other people don't get into the same situation I've been struggling through for the last month, but also I hope that this will somehow make the staff running Lanta Animal Welfare sit up, listen and hopefully implement some of my ideas along with any of their own to make sure that they are really, truly exhausting every possible option before euthanising a healthy animal.