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The Hua Hin Dog Shelter is tackling the problem of numerous stray dogs

Once swarming with stray dogs, a Hua Hin beach resort town is now almost stray dog-free. What happened?

Along with his team, Dr Nirun Nimitthawin, director of Hua Hin Municipality's Public Health and Environment Division, has rescued some 1,298 strays that are now being looked after by the Hua Hin Dog Shelter and its team of 10 caretakers. Located on a 22-rai plot of land at Wat Khao Ittisukhato, the shelter was set up in 2002 under the royal patronage of His Majesty the King, who donated four million baht for its initial construction.

The shelter, which can accommodate up to 2,000 dogs, aims to be a model for dog shelters in other towns.

"Our goal is not only to control the stray population, but also to give strays proper care," he said.

Before setting up the dog shelter in Hua Hin, the veterinarian visited dog shelters in Bangkok to study their operations and the sorts of problems they typically encounter. Then he and his team surveyed the stray dog situation in Hua Hin before the day of the "big catch".

"Most of the strays roamed the beaches, markets, temples and communities. Only a few escaped our nets," he said, adding that there were plans to gather up the remaining strays soon.

Dr Nirun said there were three groups of stray dogs in Hua Hin. The real strays, which number about 700, were born on the street and forage for food on their own. The semi-strays are occasionally fed by animal lovers while they roam the beaches, markets and communities. The third group is neglected dogs. Their owners, who often live in street-side shophouses, let their dogs roam the streets.

"Concerning the first group of strays, we can easily catch them and take them to the shelter right away," he said. "But we often have problems with the second and third groups."

People who feed strays often protest the capture of dogs, fearing that they will suffer maltreatment at the shelter. "But when we explain what we're doing, they let us do our job," he said.

The strays with owners are the most problematic, he said. Most of these strays are not neutered and the females give birth to many puppies each year. When their owners can't take care of them, the dogs are dumped on the street or at a temple, increasing the already huge number of strays.

To tackle this problem, Dr Nirun is drafting local regulations that will require all dog owners to register their pets at the municipality office and to have a microchip surgically implanted under their pet's skin. The microchip, he said, will help trace the owner should the dog be abandoned. Dog dumpers will be punished by law.

"Dog owners must be responsible for their pets. If they only want to keep them when they are young and cute, but then throw them away when they grow bigger, that's not fair to the animals, it's not fair to society," he said.

Dr Nirun said one of the temples in Hua Hin had about 200 dogs, all of them former pets. In addition to placing some of that temple's dogs in the shelter, Dr Nirun also sent a team of vets to care for the ones who were sick and in need of help.

He and his team also provide free neutering service to the community. They have the ability to neuter some 1,200 dogs a year.

The shelter has now caught about 90 percent of the Hua Hin strays, Dr Nirun said. During the beginning of the project, his team was catching some 200 to 300 strays a month; that number has now been reduced to 20 to 30 dogs a month.

When newcomers arrive at the shelter, they are quarantined for 15 days before being allowed to mingle with the other dogs.

To prevent communicable diseases, two vets oversee the health of the dogs. The shelter also receives support from Kasetsart University 's Faculty of Veterinary Science, which regularly dispatches teams of veterinarians to vaccinate dogs.

Each dog has its own particular health problems that must be closely monitored, said veterinarian Somsak Karunapitak.

Some dogs have communicable diseases while others are passive carriers. Some have respiratory problems. Others have skin diseases. "It takes time to nurture them back to health," he said.

As well, many have become handicapped or partially paralysed after having been hit by cars. "They need special care," he said.

The shelter is separated into different zones. Dogs of a similar age are housed in the same enclosure. Each cage is rather large and can accommodate from 30 to 50 dogs with enough space for play and exercise. Inside the cages are small shacks here and there that provide shady spots where the dogs can rest. Small ponds are also available so that the dogs can keep themselves cool during the summer months.

The shelter is located on a small hill with big trees, which provides a pleasant natural environment. "Being far away from the community, the noise and smell aren't an annoyance to people," said Dr Somsak.

According to Dr Nirun, most of the budget allocated by the Hua Hin Municipality is spent on dog food, which costs about 150,000 baht a month. The shelter also receives fresh food from the royal kitchen at the Klai Kang Won Palace .

Now that the Hua Hin Dog Shelter has become well-known, Dr Nirun said the shelter often receives "surprise presents" at night in the form of a sack full of puppies or dropped off dogs. As well, many approach the shelter to adopt a pet.

Dr Nirun's next plan is to promote awareness among the public of the responsibilities of dog owners.

Regulations alone, he said, were not enough. "We need to educate people too, since the main problem stems from irresponsible dog owners. These people are not real dog lovers. They just do it for status or fashion and soon get bored. They need to learn that raising a dog is a long-term responsibility."Knowing that dogs need owners, Dr Nirun has an "adoption day" each weekend. So far, some 100 dogs have found new, permanent homes.

Good-looking dogs with foreign traits are most likely to be adopted; native breeds are shunned. To increase the chances of their being adopted, Dr Nirun plans to send his team to dog training programmes so that they can train native dogs to follow some basic orders, which will make them more attractive to would-be owners.

While strays are beginning to have a better life in Hua Hin, the problem of stray dogs remains serious in other big cities and tourist destinations.

"We must help stray dogs have a better life," said Dr Nirun. "We must also educate dog owners to be more responsible. Otherwise, there won't be any end to the problem."

Name of organisation: Hua Hin Dog Shelter

Contact person: Dr Nirun Nimitthawin

Address: Wat Khao Ittisukhato, Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan province

Telephone: 03-253-2476

Note: The Hua Hin Dog Shelter receives no monetary donations but welcomes contributions of dog food.

Bangkok Post September 05 www.bangkokpost.com

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