I’d like to give some publicity to an amazing lady by the name of Tamara Johnston. Tamara is an Australian teacher working in Songkhla. However, her main passion is helping and saving Thailand's street dogs. As a huge dog lover myself, this was one hot seat interview I just had to do.
Tamara, welcome to the ajarn hot seat. You are actually a qualified primary school teacher in Australia right? How many years did you teach back in Oz?
Thanks Phil. Yes, I am a qualified primary school teacher and have been teaching for 16 years. Eleven years spent teaching in Australia and 5 years in Thailand and Malaysia.
How many teaching stints have you done in Thailand?
This is my second time teaching in Thailand. Previously I was here for 3 years (2002 - 2004), where I worked at a Bilingual School for a year and then ran my own private home school for 2 years.
I have now been back in Thailand for 2 years, where I have my own English Centre and work freelance. Currently I work at a University, Technical College and have my own private students.
Obviously we’ll focus most of our attention on your work with Thai street dogs but firstly there’s the amazing story of your own pet dog which you adopted in Thailand and seems to have been constantly at your side.
Yes, my beautiful girl Bella. I found her outside a temple at 4 weeks of age and was at risk of being run over by cars. She has been my best friend ever since.
Was it difficult initially to take a dog from Thailand to Australia? What about bringing the dog back to Thailand again?
Back in 2004 when I decided to head back to Australia, taking a dog to Australia was extremely difficult. Australia has very strict quarantine rules. Bella needed to be exported from an approved country and Thailand is not an approved country.
Being determined to take her with me, I found out that Malaysia is an approved country. So for 6 months we lived in Penang. I worked at the British Council and undertook the stringent blood tests etc to get Bella back to Australia.
Back then in Australia, the minimum quarantine period was 30 days for my Bella. These rules have recently been relaxed, even though still not straightforward, but I am currently in the process of sending one of my street dogs that I rescued back to Australia.
Bella is now back here in Thailand with me, 10 years later. She is now 12 years old but acts and looks like a 5 year old. It was a big move bringing her back, along with her sister, but I am glad to have them here with me.
Bringing them back into Thailand was relatively easy, but expensive. On arrival to Thailand there is no quarantine period, but you do need to pay an agent to clear everything.
I guess your passion for working with Thai street dogs started about the time you adopted your own dog?
Yes it sure did. Actually, my passion for thai street dogs and all dogs become a huge part of my life from that day.
Once we moved back to Australia, I continued to help the dogs in Thailand. I would visit 3 times a year and return to my "home town" in Thailand and work with the temple and street dogs.
Gradually over time, my heart started to pull me back to Thailand. While I was donating to help many dogs and organising the rescuing of dogs back in Australia, it was not the same as being on the ground and actually rescuing them myself.
So, I made the big decision that my heart had been telling me to do for years. I sold or gave away most of my belongings, rented my house out, took leave from my teaching job and moved back to Thailand.
You actually worked on helping street dogs while you were back in Australia. What did that involve?
Helping from Australia was at times frustrating and many times I wanted to get on a plane and go and rescue the dog myself. I would coordinate with people on the ground to rescue a dog and speak with vets about appropriate treatments.
With the introduction of social media, it allowed me to share dogs that needed medical help, adoptions and raise donations.
I was surprised (and disappointed) that Songkhla doesn’t have an active, Thai-managed street dog foundation. I know of at least two foundations in Bangkok that are doing great work. Why is the street dog issue going ignored down there? (present company excepted)
I am unsure. My vet here in Songkhla, has been my vet for the past 16 years. We often discuss this issue and how best to tackle it. When I initially moved back to Thailand, I moved to Bangkok. It was a visit to my 'home town' that made me realise that help was needed here. So here I am.
The biggest issue is out of control breeding of dogs. A sterilisation program is desperately needed. Apparently a few years ago the Tessaban organised sterilisation clinics, but many dogs died. As a result, many owners have been reluctant to have their dogs sterilised.
I know there are some local thai people trying to help the best they can, but of course they can only do so much with limited funds.
You’ve started your own Thai Street Paws Rescue (with a new website) Give us an idea of the size of the project and how many dogs you are looking after at any one time?
This has been a dream of mine for a very long time. I had actually been intending to slowly start this project, but it has started much quicker than I anticipated.
I have been caring for about 30 dogs on the street close to where I live. I am limited at the moment as I don't have my own transport. Every day I feed, medicate, treat, take them to the vet when necessary and when necessary, vaccinate and sterilise them.
Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, somebody poisoned dogs in the area that I help. Two of the dogs died and 2 were extremely ill but thankfully survived. One of the dogs that died, Toto, had a forever home waiting for him in Canada. I was devastated, as was his new mum to be.
This made me determined to set up a foster home, a place where dogs that are waiting for fly to their new home, recovering from an illness or are in danger, can stay safely.
I am just one person and know I can't save every dog, but my mission is to help as many as I can.
Throw some numbers at us. How much money does it cost to look after a single dog for let’s say one month?
People often think Thailand is cheap and yes it is compared to say Australia. However, with the terrible exchange rate and when taking care of 30 dogs, the costs soon add up.
It is difficult to give you a figure as costs vary, depending on whether a dog needs sterilisation, medical treatment or is in boarding.
The daily cost alone of feeding 30 dogs is around 300 baht. I have just done a rough calculation and for the month of October so far, it has cost roughly 37,000 baht. This includes food, medications, sterilisations, chemo treatments and boarding costs.
Right now I have 3 dogs in private foster care, 7 boarding at a clinic that were in danger of being poisoned, 3 fosters at my house and on the street 4 new puppies and 13 adult dogs.
You told me that you work as a teacher at both a Thai university and you also have your own tutoring centre. It must be difficult to juggle things around and devote as much time as you would like to the animals?
The reason I decided to start my own tutoring centre, was because I wanted flexibility in my working hours. With my own business, I am able to do this.
I love being a teacher, but times have changed in the teaching world. I never thought I would not want to teach, but now I would love to work with the dogs full time. Some days I feel like I never stop, but that is my choice.
I usually head to the market before teaching, then in my lunch hour go and feed dogs or visit the vet, head to back to teach and then afterwards back to what I didn't get done in my lunch break.
The days I am not teaching, are easily taken up with spending more time with the dogs or catching up on emails or facebook posts. No matter how organised my day can be, there is usually always some emergency that comes up and I can't not help.
Is there a ‘synergy’ between your teaching and helping the street dogs? I presume all of your students know that you are involved with Thai Paws Rescue so they do they help out with donations?
My students all know how crazy I am about the dogs. Some of my students are quite poor, so can't really help with donations, but certainly share my posts on facebook.
I try to educate them about the importance of sterilisation and vaccinations. Some of my private students often love to help prepare the food for the dogs.
One student who is in Prathom 4, often gives me 60 baht and tells me to buy food for the street dogs. So very sweet. They all certainly help me in any way that they can and I really appreciate that.
I notice on the Thai paws website that you are looking for volunteers. What would they be doing?
Volunteers are always welcome.
Once I get the foster home set up, I would love to welcome volunteers to stay and help out with daily tasks such as preparing food, bathing, de-ticking, walking and giving the dogs lots of love and attention. Any help on the streets with the dogs would be welcomed, as would help to raise much needed funds for these helpless dogs.
I am always looking for flight volunteers as well. Often I rehome dogs in the US. Being a flight volunteer is very easy and doesn't cost the person anything. I do all the paperwork, check the dog in at the airport and the dog flies attached to their ticket. It is half the price compared to sending a dog cargo.
Has social media been a good way to get the message out or do you still rely on good old word of mouth?
Social media has been amazing. I have been using facebook for many years now, but recently started using Twitter and Instagram. It allows my passion and the plight of the dogs to be heard worldwide.
Word of mouth is still good, but social media is a platform that allows me to reach people I would never have reached before.
What direction would you like to take the Thai Paws project in?
My mission is one dog at a time. I know I can't save them all, but for the ones that I do save and help, their lives are so much better for it.
For now, I would like to start with a separate foster home to my own home. Right now at my house I have 3 dogs of my own and 3 foster dogs. One of my dogs was rescued from the dog meat trade and is disabled. Of the 3 foster dogs, 1 has cancer of the hip so will live the rest of her life with me, but the other two will be adopted shortly.
At the moment, I desperately need a foster home that I can visit daily, but have a live-in carer for the dogs. The cost to run this is not cheap, but certainly cheaper than having the dogs board at a clinic or in private foster care.
I currently have 10 dogs in boarding at private facilities, and the costs there soon add up. It would be around 18,000 baht a month for the rent and live-in carer alone.
OK, let’s give this some publicity. How can people get involved, make a donation, etc?
Thank you. If people can like and share my facebook page, check out the website, follow on twitter and instagram, that would be awesome and very much appreciated.
I want to raise awareness to the lack of support here and do as much as I possibly can to help change the lives of these street dogs.
I do have a few people who make a monthly donation, which is great. Donations can be made via my paypal firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website or youcaring account.
facebook - Thai Street Paws Rescue or Tamara Johnston
website - www.thaistreetpaws.com
twitter - @ozzytam76
instagram - oztam76
youcaring - www.youcaring.com/tamara-johnston-441223#.VhLGkVeFx4X.mailto
paypal - email@example.com