If you are a regular reader of our blog you’ll know that we are big fans and advocates of volunteering, as well as MASSIVE animal lovers.
Having previously volunteered on a bean to bar chocolate farm in Medellin, Colombia (no… really! read more here) and various English teaching positions to gain teaching experience for the upcoming school year, we were determined to find a volunteering position working with animals. We had just arrived in Thailand and were hanging around Patong in Phuket to spend a little time with Katie’s dad who’d come out to visit us.
An epic online “Sherlock Hogan” style search revealed several possibilities, but we soon discovered that the majority of the “volunteering positions” required us to part with a substantial portion of our rapidly dwindling cash reserve for the pleasure of working with them, and some just didn’t give us the good vibes we were looking for.
Enter the Baan Unrak Thai Animal Sanctuary.
Founded in 2007, the Sanctuary is a self-funded clinic/halfway house/haven for the street dogs and cats of Sangkhlaburi, in the Kanchanaburi province of Thailand, about 7 hours by the daily direct AC Bus from Bangkok’s Mo Chit (southern) bus station – a little bit less if you take a minivan.
The Sanctuary is (or, at the time of writing, was) 100% self funded and depends on the kindness of donations from locals, strangers and its ever-growing community of volunteers and ex-volunteers to keep its doors open and the good work continuing (although we hold our fingers firmly crossed that this will change and either a corporation, business or the government get behind this fantastic organisation!).
The few (well, two) full time staff are so dedicated that they sometimes go without days off and/or sleep, opting instead to put the welfare of the sanctuary and its residents above their own.
Who the hell are these saintly, if not slightly mental people I hear you ask? I’ll tell you. The manager of the sanctuary, Denise, or as we came to call her, Mum, is just that. She’s a chain-smoking, straight-shooting, no bullshit hero of a woman who would take a bullet for any of the (sometimes) four legged fur balls in her care.
She has a heart of gold and a razor sharp wit, and would sooner (and has) forcibly remove an animal from its owner than see it suffer. We don’t know how she does the job because she feels every wound and sad story as if it were happening directly to her. She cries more than anyone we’ve ever met, and when she reads this she’s going to kick us right up the arse! (we miss you mum x). She is responsible for the day-to-day bureaucracy of running the sanctuary and its volunteers and making sure the doors stay open.
Her right hand man is the silent and enigmatic dog whisperer Song. Song is responsible for, well, everything else. He builds and maintains all the enclosures at the sanctuary. He trains and walks the dogs, and the volunteers and holds a magical sway over both. Even the rowdiest resident will stop inappropriate behavior and retreat, tail between their legs, at one word from Song, “Pi” (meaning ‘Go’), and yes, that includes volunteers! He translates between the resident vet and the locals who attend the free clinic, helps at spay camps, and ensures all the animals are fed and watered.
At the time of writing, the Thai Animal Sanctuary was home to over 30 resident dogs and 6 cats, which in itself is a monstrous undertaking. But on top of that ,the clinic is responsible for providing “free” veterinary care for all the local animals, and educating the local people in matters of animal welfare and animal care. They also, when possible, head out into even more rural areas to engage in “spay camps”, where they will humanely sterilize both wild and domestic animals in order to stem the spread of potentially fatal sexually transmitted diseases and over population.
The work they do is incredible and indispensable.
They work really hard to re-home (most of) the resident animals, even organising flight volunteers (basically an in-air chaperone so the authorities allow the animal to fly) for animals lucky enough to have found their forever homes, most of which are with ex-volunteers who have fallen in love with one of these canine characters.
So, whats involved in volunteering?
Well, that depends. They are constantly in need of vets and vet nurses whose responsibilities are all clinic based, and as such a little outside of our knowledge base. But, with regards to general volunteers, no experience is needed. Just a love of all things furry and a desire to make things better for the animals, although a thick skin and a strong stomach would be a massive plus.
A regular day at the sanctuary (if there is such a thing), involves cleaning pens/enclosures, walking the dogs, feeding and socialising, tacked on with any maintenance work or ongoing projects. Throw in a two-hour break that starts with a delicious vegan lunch in the school next to the sanctuary (free lunch for all volunteers, we might add!) and ends a nap, followed by an afternoon of walks and feedings, and then more play time with the doggos!
Some volunteers take on other duties and projects such as manning the social media accounts, making enrichment toys for the animals, fund-raising, behavioural training etc. (ALL of which we got involved in of course and suggest you do the same!) Get creative, bring ideas to the table and take control of what you can – every. little. helps.
I know at the beginning of this blog I said we were wary of volunteering anywhere that has a cost associated with it, and while there is no cost to volunteer at the sanctuary they do provide accommodation at a local “volunteer house” which has a kitchen and is a 3 minute walk from the sanctuary for the meagre price of 150 Baht per night (€4) .
Note that this is just a cost to cover the bills and rent, there are no profits made here and none of the accommodation costs goes to the sanctuary. You’re more than welcome to source your own digs but we doubt you’ll do better, and besides its great craic to hang out with the other volunteers, we made some amazing lifelong friends here.
We miss you guys x
This was one of the most fulfilling, difficult, wonderful, infuriating, heart warming and heart breaking experiences of our life. This is one that will go to the grave with us, lads. We went to volunteer for two weeks (minimum required is one week) which turned into two months. You heard us – TWO MONTHS.
Baan Unrak is the kind of place that you get out of what you’re willing to put in. We learned to administer vaccines and other medications, we assisted in surgeries, fell even more in love with animals, helped (in some small way) save lives, wept for the ones we couldn’t, raged at owners who mistreated or abandoned any furry friend of ours, laughed at beautiful reunions, picked up poop (lots of poop!), walked three at a time in monsoon rain and buried far too many for such a short period of time, each beautiful one of them became a mark in our hearts, for better or worse, but forever.
If you are an animal person and you find yourself in Thailand, with a week or two to spare, get in touch with them and give some time. They need, and greatly appreciate it, and it will enrich your life no end, we promise. It will be an experience you won’t soon forget.
Oh and here’s a little video we made to raise funds for the place by eating Thailand’s hottest curry…. my poor arse burns just thinking about it.
Here’s a little look at what the guys do! Want to help but cant make it to Thailand?
Find out how HERE.
What started off as a quirky way to spend a couple of weeks while giving something back quickly became a cause that is incredibly dear to us both, and a calling to Katie, who has decided to, at some stage, study vet nursing. We made a promise to ourselves that when we settle we’ll adopt (at least) one of these amazing beasts, the only problem became, which one(s)? We both have our favorites, so there’ll be killings while we try to decide!