On the surface, John and Gill Dalley seemed like any other British couple retiring to the island of Phuket in Thailand. Both had had successful careers in England – Gill as a banker and John in the chemicals industry.
The couple had married in Phuket in 1996 and instantly fell in love with the paradise island on the west coast of Thailand. They returned on many occasions after their wedding for holidays and had decided early on that when they did have enough money to retire, Phuket would become their final home.
In 2003, their dream came true. John was 53 and Gill just 44 when they flew to Phuket to start their new lives.
After years of the 9-5 routine, they were ready to take a radical change in lifestyle and give something back to society. Both wanted to do something in the local Phuket community as a way of helping the island that had left them with so many happy memories over the years. John and Gill decided they wanted to address the stray dog and cat problem on the island, which was, in fact, an issue throughout all of Thailand.
On previous trips to the island, the Dalleys had noticed not just the sheer number of stray dogs and cats living on the streets of Phuket (an estimated 70,000 at the time), but also their appalling health conditions. As John says:
We were a bit shocked at first. Most of the dogs were emaciated through malnutrition. Many had mange and were covered in sores. Some had open wounds which could have been caused by road traffic accidents, dog fights or human cruelty. Many of the wounds were infested with parasites and maggots, and riddled with infection. They were living on the streets without anyone to care for them. I wanted to find a solution to improve their lives, but was unsure how to do this. The scale of the problem was just so overwhelming.
As they set about investigating what was already being done to help the street dogs and cats, they met Margot Homburg, a Dutch expatriate who had recently moved to Phuket from Bangkok. She had been sterilising dogs in her local neighbourhood in Bangkok by taking them to a local vet, and she had set up a charity called Soi Dog Foundation. They joined forces, deciding that the best long-term solution to the street dog and cat problem in Phuket was mass sterilisation, as it would significantly reduce the number of animals being born on the streets to suffer a life of misery.
Together, they began setting up sterilisation clinics throughout the island. John, Gill and Margot became the dog catchers and vet nurses while the sterilisation operations themselves were carried out by overseas volunteer vets and occasionally nurses. An Australian vet who had been running a small scale sterilisation programme focusing on the numerous temples in Phuket (where many stray dogs are taken in by the monks) passed on her equipment to Soi Dog Foundation when she moved to Hong Kong. Two local vets also offered their sterilisation services at cost price. The programme began as a very small but effective operation.
Loss and Hope
The Dalleys were faced with two enormous challenges in 2004.
In September, while rescuing a tranquilised dog that had run into a flooded buffalo field, Gill contracted a rare form of septicaemia. She was airlifted to Bangkok and was in a coma for several weeks. Doctors had given her only a slim chance of survival, and advised that if she did survive, she would likely lose both her arms and legs. They didn't reckon on Gill’s fighting spirit, and although she was to lose both lower legs, she survived and was still able to use her arms. Three weeks after having her legs amputated, she discharged herself from hospital and returned to Phuket on December 22nd, 2004, determined to enjoy Christmas at home.
On December 26th, just four days later, the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami struck, taking the lives of thousands – including Leone Cosens, Gill’s closest friend and a dedicated Soi Dog Foundation volunteer.
If 2004 was a year of loss, 2005 was a year of hope. After spending the first 3 days after the tsunami helping with the human crisis, Soi Dog Foundation - with Gill in her wheelchair initially - began a huge operation across the region to feed and treat the many abandoned dogs, thousands of whom had also had their homes and food sources washed away. If something good can come out of such a terrible disaster, it was that it put Soi Dog on the map, and for months after the tsunami, the young foundation was inundated with offers of help from vets and other volunteers and were able to run multiple clinics.
In addition, WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals), whose fundraising efforts following the disaster had been very successful, were now looking for partners. They provided Soi Dog Foundation with a 2 year grant, enabling them to employ full-time vets and dog catchers for the first time. Gill received her first set of prosthetics and taught herself to walk again, taking two inches off her natural height in the process! The wheelchair was consigned to the attic, never to be used again until the last weeks of her life.
In late 2005, the organisation became the first of its kind to be granted foundation status in Thailand, and a principally Thai board was established.
A building was rented in Phuket town, but with increasing numbers of abandoned dogs being housed there, larger premises were needed. Soi Dog took over the running of the Government dog pound, and in return for carrying out improvements, were allowed to use part of the facility as a clinic and shelter for its own dogs.
Onward and Upward
Margot, suffering from ill health, returned to Bangkok in 2006, leaving Gill and John to lead Soi Dog Foundation through incredible expansion over the next ten years – always guided by their original commitment to alleviating the suffering of Thailand’s street dogs and cats.
As Soi Dog Foundation grew, a new location for the shelter and clinic had to be found as the Government determined it was not appropriate for an NGO to be running a government facility. In 2008, a large area was found in Mai Khao, northern Phuket. Construction began on building a new shelter, which remains the headquarters of the foundation today.
In 2011, Soi Dog Foundation began a campaign to end the illegal export of an estimated 500,000 Thai dogs per year to Vietnam for use as dog meat. In the fifteen years prior to 2011, only two arrests had occurred. The trade was only illegal because of existing legislation banning the movement of un-vaccinated dogs and thereby, the potential spread of rabies. Thousands of dogs were rescued and dozens of arrests made through the efforts of Soi Dog Foundation's undercover team.
In 2013, it was found that many dogs rescued from the trade were dying of disease in overcrowded government shelters. With no government budget to care for them properly, Soi Dog Foundation supporters raised funds to build a huge complex of shelters on government-owned land in Buriram, in north-eastern Thailand. As well as financing the cost of these shelters, Soi Dog Foundation provides all the food and medication needed to keep the dogs healthy. Groups of dogs are regularly transported to the main shelter in Phuket where they are socialised and receive their final health checks before being adopted abroad.
Thailand introduced its first animal welfare law in late 2014. Among other things, the Prevention of Animal Cruelty and Provision of Animal Welfare Act makes it illegal to eat dog and cat meat. Soi Dog Foundation sat on the committee that drafted full details of the law, and John remains one of the few foreigners to have been involved in the drafting of legislation in Thailand.
Today, Soi Dog Foundation has a dedicated cat hospital and a state-of-the-art dog hospital – the largest and most comprehensive hospital in Asia, and possibly the world, dedicated purely to the treatment of street dogs. Gill devoted the last four years of her life to designing and overseeing the construction of the hospital to fulfil a promise she made many years earlier to provide the best possible treatment for her beloved street dogs.
Hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats have been sterilised since Soi Dog Foundation’s inception, including more than 80% of the stray dog population on Phuket. The sight of tens of thousands of emaciated and sick dogs on the streets is now a thing of the past, at least in Phuket. Mobile sterilisation clinics are now run in other provinces as well as being expanded to Bangkok, which has the largest street dog population in Thailand – approximately 640,000. It took John and Gill nine years to see the first 50,000 animals sterilised. The next 50,000 took just three years and Soi Dog Foundation shortly expects to be sterilising well over this figure every year.
Sadly, Gill passed away after a short battle with cancer in early 2017. John remains fully involved in Soi Dog Foundation, honouring his commitment to Gill and the street dogs and cats.