It’s a dog’s life in Thailand
November 9, 2006
Thailand does not have a great reputation when it comes to caring for animals: there are plenty of horror stories of elephants being mistreated (and later wreaking revenge on their mahout or an unfortunate tourist); many visitors to Thailand are upset by the number of stray dogs; you can still buy intimate parts of tigers and other protected animals for use as ‘exotic foods’ and ‘longevity potions’. There are numerous private zoos where the animals may be kept in atrocious conditions. The recently opened Night Safari in Chiang Mai shocked animal lovers around the world by some shady deals on wild African animals, by failing to prevent an alarming death rate amongst animals that had newly arrived and proposing to offer exotic animal steaks on the restaurant menu.
I have seen a wide variety of attitudes towards pets ranging from adulation to complete neglect. Some Thais I know regard their pets with as much love as they do their children. It’s common, in fact, for a pet owner to refer to themselves when talking to their pet as ‘Dad’ or Mum’. One expatriate friend of mine was ranting about pet owners, saying that it would be better if some of them adopted a child instead of a pet. I would tend to look at it the other way round and think it preferable that some people raised animals rather than spawning more children. Some Thais regard their pet rather as a sergeant-major would some particularly scruffy conscripts- one I know spends his whole time barking (almost literally) orders at his dog: ‘Sit! Come here! Go away! Stop!’. Some take pity on strays without actually wanting or intending to look after a pet. The friend of a friend had a python that she slept with until he died, at which point she put him in the fridge as she couldn’t bear to dispose of him. I can’t help feeling that pets like these are an attempt to gain staus or fill out your identity. The worst pet owners, I think, are those who get a dog simply to guard the house. The owner shows as much affection towards his pet as he does towards the safe he keeps his money in. A Thai Chinese man I know keeps huge fish with bulging eyes and slobbery mouths that he raises to win prizes and sell at a profit. The hilltribes keep them for very practical reasons: cats to catch rats, dogs to alert to approaching strangers, chicken and pigs to eat. In any hilltribes village the animals mingle together, run in and out of houses and scurry from under your feet with only the occasional squabble between them. Ever since I stayed with a French family who kept rabbits in cages who would sooner or later find their way into a civet I have been very uncomfortable with the idea of a pet that you serve on your dining table. The other day I was about to sit down to lunch with a hilltribes family when the man picked up a sling and stunned one of the chickens that were scurrying around. I found it hard to swallow the very tasty chicken curry that appeared a few minutes later. It’s strange that what pets provide for most Westerners, companionship, doesn’t seem to figure much in the Thai scheme of things. Far too many pets are turned loose ot just ignored but the worst two cases in our area were the work of two Malaysians. One keeps a Rotweiler permanently in a tiny cage and never takes her for walks- something that shocks his Thai neighbours. The other kept a young gibbon, which is illegal- when I pointed this out to him he assured me he had friends in the Forest Department. Shortly afterwards the Malaysian and his gibbon disappeared.
Thinking about why I keep pets, the first reason is that they just showed up and I couldn’t turn them away. After that I enjoy watching them do their own thing and seeing how they interact with me. It would be nice to think that the need for pets is an indication that biophilia is an inescapable part of the human condition and that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology. But some people seem hell-bent on denying this. One of my sons’ friends in London- a computer programmer- is terrified of the countryside and turns green at the sight of any animal. Thai children who don’t actually own pets seem to learn about nature very much as an abstraction and I sometimes fear that aberrations like the Tamagotchi might lead to generations that are increasingly biophobic. I can feel this has drifted away from pets and I’ll save a few broader comments on attitudes to nature to a later post.