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Film: Soi Dogs — The Movie
Director: Ella Todd
Featured personnel: John and Gill Dalley, Atiporn Jittanonta, Suwat Soonknoen (Dr. Max), Tippiman Phondee (Dr. Mindt), Trethep Reungkit (Khun John), Sanae, Nok, Thep
Production Information: Environment Films, 2010 (UK)
Breed(s) featured: Thai street dogs / mutts / various mixes

Despite the devastating 2004 earthquake and tsunami, Phuket Island off the Southwest coast of Thailand remains a modern tourist hotspot and expatriate destination, an area teeming with life. Even along the boozy beaches, you’ll encounter ubiquitous packs of street dogs — mongrels that live a precarious existence alongside humans that pity and feed them, poison and abuse them, or in the case of the Soi Dog Foundation, catch and sterilize them, and rehabilitate, rehome, and shelter the ones that they can.

This classy, beautifully shot, and well-paced documentary started as a promotional video showcasing the Soi Dog organization’s work, but soon developed into a stand-alone feature about an overlooked aspect of daily life in Thailand. For as the figure of the dog straddles the boundary between domestic and wild life in many parts of the world, many of these dogs also made the passage from a beloved home to the street at some earlier point in their lives. Different standards of veterinary care makes pet sterilization a low priority, so the abandoned dogs, left loose to fend for themselves, continue to create more litters, and thus the presence of Thai street dogs has become common to the landscape.

The situation sounds eerily similar to another island that I’m more familiar with, Taiwan. Thus, I could not help but be attracted to this subject, though I think there is an inherent appeal to these stories that stir us towards a sense of social justice, whether or not you’ve ever had anything to do with packs of urban free-ranging dogs.

Organization co-founders John and Gill Daley, British expatriates who now live in Thailand, have endured some shocking personal sacrifices to help alleviate canine suffering on the island. They come across as charismatic, wise guardians who are deeply invested in their life’s work, which they found in their “retirement” ironically enough. Just as importantly, the film gives ample credit to the local crew, especially the dogcatchers and vets who all help shoulder the load. I am especially heartened to see such earnestness and compassion from the young Thai vets and shelter manager; they signal hope for more local involvement, which is essential if conditions are to change. That is, everybody involved with this film understands they have to go beyond the typical narrative of heroic Westerners who “save” the locals from problems they don’t even realize are problems. There are many locals who also “get it” and do whatever is within their means, from feeding temple dogs to bringing their own beloved pets to the mobile clinics for spaying and neutering. The relationship goes both ways, as abundantly displayed here.

Minimal use of suffering and sick animals adds to the persuasive rhetoric. Nobody wants to be hammered repeatedly with graphic images of animals in distress — it’s too depressing, alienating and emotionally divisive. Nevertheless, you can’t escape a few queasy moments: bloody and maggot-ridden wounds, panicked dogs in fear, and the stiff features of a couple poor animals that had quietly deceased. It’s just enough to hint at the depth of suffering that this crew must deal with on a day-to-day basis, and also garner some deep respect for their resilience.

All in all, a stirring and inspiring reminder of how much good some people are capable of accomplishing in this world.

The film is available in its entirety on YouTube. An even sharper DVD copy can be purchased with a minimum donation of $15.99 USD to the Soi Dog Foundation at this link.

[Hat tip to Mongrels of the World, where I first learned of this organization. They are currently selling 2012 desk calendars, featuring original photos of street dogs, with proceeds going to Soi Dog — check them out!]

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