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It’s a dog’s life for animal lovers on the road

It’s a dog’s life for animal lovers on the road

Last Updated on March 23, 2021

I never expected that, at 32, traveling would make my legs look like a little girl recovering from a serious case of the chicken pox, but it has. Some marks are from my ultimate enemy, the mosquito, but most are from serious fleabites. You see, since we started traveling, if that dog’s awaggin’ his tail, or that cat’s meowin’, we just can’t help but stop and play.

Street DogJust a few weeks ago, I found myself alone with a beautiful gray kitten. Dani had just run off to get some meat from a nearby market stall because he wouldn’t stop meowing. So I sat down on the curb of a quiet side street to wait. The sound of a lone, slow, sad sitar rolled out of a large temple shrouded in darkness, visible only when light glinted off the golden roof tiles. The cat curled up and made his own song out of his meowing and purring, meowing and purring.

jess & kittyBut you’re a Buddhist...

Lost in the relaxing sounds of his airy rhythm mixing with the music, I wondered about what kind of animals were inside the temple (we would actually find out the next day when we got hijacked by a monk). Temples are safe havens for many stray animals here in Thailand, or at least that had been our experience until the previous morning when Dani returned very upset from photographing the town’s temples in the soft morning light. Inside one of the temples, she had discovered two large, seemingly healthy adult monkeys trapped in tiny cages. We couldn’t make sense of this, as the practice of Buddhism shuns animal cruelty in every way.

animal crueltyThere is an equally frustrating belief here in Thailand that setting certain animals free brings luck, as well. When at a Buddhist temple, you can purchase a basket of two birds and set them free. When a temple is near to water, ladies sell plastic bags with toads, fish, turtles, crabs and eels that you are to release into the water, also to bring luck…for you. These poor animals will inevitably be caught again by the ladies themselves who wade shoulder deep in the water to catch them each morning and forced to endure the same fate the next day.

animal crueltyAbsolutely nothing frustrates us both more than the treatment of elephants here in Thailand, however. The animal is a religious symbol, revered above all others. However, just ten minutes before we had met our feline friend, we had ordered dinner at the night market and had just been served our meal when a man with a bag of bananas and sugar cane made his way over to our table. He wanted us to buy them…and we knew why.

We immediately braced ourselves for an elephant spotting. This man was a mahout, or elephant trainer, and just a few meters behind him a second mahout pulled a baby elephant on a rope past the tables. Those who purchased the fruits were feeding the baby, as it rocked, back and forth, back and forth on the road. Most tourists don’t know what the rocking means, but we do, and it made us sick.

animal crueltyIn December we had gone to the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai with two friends, and met Lek, the tiny Thai woman who has made it her life’s work to save elephants and give them the freedom to roam free for the rest of their very long lives (elephants live to be 70-100 years old!).

We learned about the nightmare that the trained or circus elephants or the logging elephants go through when the mahouts, or the elephant trainers, literally break the spirit of the animals through unbelievable bouts of abuse, and then also what torture the elephants go through working for humans. The logging breaks their backs and legs and if they fail to carry the loads or attempt to fight back, they are punished by being stabbed in the eye, or worse.

The Elephant Nature Park also does its best to spread the word to stop these mahouts from using elephants as tourist attractions, such as what we were witnessing that day in Sukhothai. Elephants ‘hear’ or feel almost entirely through their feet, which have hundreds of thousands of nerve endings in order to sense approaching herds of animals in nature. When out on the street, the elephants are feeling the vibrations of cars, motorcycles, hundreds of people walking by, creating a torture as terrible as if a human were placed in a room with music blasting, babies crying and lights flashing on and off for hours at a time, seven days a week.

elephant eyeSure enough, the baby elephant is crying, tears streaming down his face as he munches on the bananas. Whether or not he even had an appetite, we can’t know, but we pushed our plates away and left without taking a single bite. It is so hard to witness what you know to be cruelty, masked as something that brings joy to others.

So there I sat, thinking of the elephant, and the cat, and the monkeys in the temple, awash with a mix of anger and pity, rocking to the sound of the instrument making the sound that tears would make if they could sing.

So, this elephant walks into a bar…

Wallowing this way for a while, I turned my gaze back down to the main road, wondering where Dani was, and as I scan the scene for her trademark blonde hair I hear a giddy yelp or two from the lively Westerner bar down the road. Though the bar is still blasting music upstairs, a group of foreigners have gathered downstairs and I can’t figure out why. That is, until I see the yellow from the bananas. What had seemed like a big gray obstruction to my not-so-good night vision now clearly takes shape as that same baby elephant, now on an even bigger, busier road and suddenly I feel like I can’t take it any more – the squealing delighted foreigners, the honking traffic, the mahouts with their whips and ropes and pockets full of cash.

The music in the temple had stopped and it was just me staring at the cat, hoping that the next time I look, the elephant has moved on, out of sight. When I gathered the courage to look again, Dani came bounding down the street with some sort of meatballs in her hand for our special little cat. It turned out, he was not even very hungry and preferred to cuddle after all.

animal cruelty

It’s a dog’s life…

Eventually extracting ourselves from the grip of the cat, we take most of the meatballs with us and as we round the corner to our hotel, the ‘hotel dog’ runs up to greet us. Not exactly a stray, his ribs pop out and he has a few scars and marks on his skin, evidence of a life much harder than his current job of laying out in front of this hotel. We feed him every last meatball before going inside.

We have been witness to so much cruelty, and hatred, against animals in the past two years. In one Guatemalan town, a pair of older Mayans were literally throwing shoes at stray dogs’ faces to get them to go away while everyone else looked on. The treatment of dogs here in Thailand is particularly perplexing. While stray dogs are flea bitten and often severely injured or mutilated, dogs that are actual house pets can be spotted wearing little doggie sweaters, even sets of four little doggie shoes. They ride on the front or back of their owner’s motorbike, or sometimes in a baby carrier on the driver’s front. While a stray dog will be automatically and angrily shoo-ed away, pets are coddled and carried as if they are babies.

guy with dogs on scooterThe treatment of strays breaks our dog-loving hearts and we spent quite a bit of our time caring for them however we can. We buy bags of dog food from pet stores and carry it around despite not owning an animal ourselves and often don’t mind if served ham or bacon by accident with our breakfast, as Dani just wraps it up and saves it for the next dog we come across that day. It is hard to be an animal lover anywhere, but we find it is becoming increasingly difficult for us emotionally the longer we are on the road.

animal love

Mindy and Ligeia

Monday 4th of February 2013

We live in Chiang Mai currently and have also been astonished at the hypocrisy of the Asian elephant in Thailand. On one hand Thais talk about how special elephants are in Thai culture, yet there are government-sanctioned elephant shows and elephant riding, both of which are not possible without extensive and on-going abuse. The catching and releasing of birds is another aspect that I just don't understand in a Buddhist culture. This makes us consider the hypocrisies that exist in our cultures. As vegans and animal lovers, living in Chiang Mai can be particularly challenging at times. Mindy and Ligeia :)


Monday 4th of February 2013

It is so sad that there are still so many people who have riding an elephant on their bucket list when they go to Thailand without even thinking about the treatment of the animals :-( We were a bit scared to return to Latin America as we had seen so many people abuse the stray dogs, but even though there are loads of street dogs in Chile, people actually feed them and even provide dog houses - so great to see that people here care for the stray animals!

Mary @ Green Global Travel

Thursday 12th of April 2012

We huge animals lovers. Your post about the baby elephant made me ill. I'll never look at elephants the same way.


Friday 13th of April 2012

Mary - we feel the same way, and every time we see elephants carrying tourists on their backs it breaks our hearts. I can't blame them though, because most people just don't know what is done to the elephants to domesticate them :(

Brian D.

Tuesday 27th of March 2012

That's really sad. On the bright side, my wife and I were thrilled to see how well street cats are treated in Istanbul. There are probably thousands of them which at first is disheartening, but unlike what I hear of Morocco, in Istanbul the cats are very well cared for and fed by the locals. Restaurants routinely leave food for them, and the cats being accustomed to being treated well by people, they come right up to you without any fear. I am sure there are instances of animal cruelty there as well, but in general the cats do not look like strays - they look healthy and happy.


Tuesday 27th of March 2012

I am so glad that there are places like Istanbul who treat the street cats well! We've experienced the same thing in Italy and in Paris. In Central America we usually carried some dog food with us for these poor creatures - people there treat them so bad, it's beyond me how they can act like that but treat their roosters (which they have for cock fights) as if they were the most precious thing in the world.

Brian Damiano

Monday 26th of March 2012

My wife and I are visiting Lisbon next month and I stumbled across your blog, which is wonderful.

We are huge animal lovers and this mistreatment of animals makes me sick. I found the outdoor petstores at Las Ramblas in Barcelona to be appalling, and friends who have visited Morocco tell me absolutely awful things about the treatment of animals in that country. Tourists pay to take photos with cute monkeys, but they don't realize these poor creatures are stolen from their families, abused, chained and kept in tiny cramped cages for the duration of their miserable lives. We need to put an end to cruelty wherever we see it.


Tuesday 27th of March 2012

Thanks Brian! I remember the pet stores at Las Ramblas - felt so sorry for all these animals. In Mexico we saw a lot of guys just walking around with a cardboard box filled with little puppies - who knows what they did to the dogs when nobody bought them. I just don't know how people can be so cruel :(


Tuesday 28th of February 2012

I cannot walk by a cat without giving him/her all my attention. Dogs I don't catch my attention, except if they are dangerous. But I am a cat person, so this is understandable.


Friday 2nd of March 2012

Hi laura, funny! So if we ever end up in the same place, I'll let you and Dani leave an hour before me, and you two can pet all the cats together along the way and I'll meet you there :-)