Finding ways for our family to volunteer in Thailand turned out to be much harder than I expected. We were lucky to find the Koh Samui Dog and Cat Rescue Center online before we flew into Thailand. They welcome volunteers of all ages, so we began spending time there shortly after we arrived on the island. Our intention had been to find a few different organizations to work with while we were there. However, every other volunteer opportunity I could find was part of the “voluntourism” industry.
Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries have become hot spots for young people taking a “gap year” to volunteer their time and see the world. While some of these organizations supporting schools, orphanages, animal sanctuaries and other institutions really do seem to be altruistically motivated and effective in improving local communities, other companies in this industry have sparked controversy with their practices and the minimal impact they have on the social issues they claim to solve. Some seem to charge well-meaning privileged kids high prices to volunteer in roles which don’t fit their skill sets or even the needs of the locals they’re attempting to serve.
I contacted several organizations with programs on Koh Samui and explained our family’s availability to volunteer should they need some extra hands on any of their projects. While we wouldn’t be their typical volunteers requiring housing and weekend tourism packages, we were available to help as much as they needed us. Their responses were consistently, “Sure! Great! We’d love to have you! Now, we’ll just need to get a substantial ‘donation’ first so we can get you set up as volunteers.” I’m all for making monetary contributions to organizations I believe in, but something about this just felt icky.
The bright side of our inability to line up other service projects in Thailand meant that we could spend a whole lot of time at the Dog and Cat Rescue Center. And that we did. Every couple days we’d show up to help in any way we could. The girls continued to check in on those new puppies they’d cared for during our first few days at the center. They also helped out in the cat area. My work often involved my least favorite task of pet ownership – picking up dog poop. With over 200 dogs at the center, there was no shortage of it. Bluh!
One of my favorite aspects of our work at the center was giving love to the longterm residents. While most animals are only there for a couple weeks as they recover from being spaid or neutered or to receive treatment for an acute illness, some dogs and cats have been given a permanent home at the center. Animals with injuries, deformities or illnesses making them too vulnerable for life on the outside get to live out their days in a place where they get plenty of food, water, play time and love. These dogs and cats seemed to be aware of the second chance they’d been given as they were some of the friendliest animals we’d ever met. Whatever trauma they’d endured certainly didn’t show in their loving personalities.
In the end, it worked out for the best that we didn’t have the opportunity to volunteer with a lot of different organizations during our time in Thailand. Instead, we focused our energy on one place and really got to know the animals we cared for. The experience taught the girls some pretty serious lessons about life, death and compassion. Seeing animals in these sad states and watching some of them suffer left a lasting impression and instilled a poignant lesson about what it means to be a responsible pet owner.
The only downside is that the girls are already talking about wanting to get their own cats when we get back to the United States. Maybe we need to find a goldfish rescue center for our next volunteer project….