It is appropriate that Passover happens at this time every year. Another thing that happens in March and April, here in Chiang Mai, is the yearly smog invasion.

It’s like that scene in The Ten Commandments, you know, the one with Charlton Heston.  After Moses has tried everything to make the Pharaoh let his people go, one night this smoke creeps into the town covering everything and entering all the houses, killing all the first born sons except in those houses that have lambs blood painted around its doors. It “passes over” these houses.

Like the Angel of Death, every year at this time Chiang Mai and the northern parts of Thailand (as well as Burma and Laos) are covered with a lethal smog. The word smog in English is a combination of smoke and fog. In Thai, smog is “kwan pit”, quite appropriately this literally means “the poisonous smoke”.

The test each year to tell if the poisonous smoke has gotten bad is to look to the west and see if we can see the Doi Suthep Temple on the top of the mountain. When the temple can’t be seen then we know it is getting dangerous. When the whole mountain itself can’t be seen because of the smoke then we know that Chiang Mai is in trouble. Right now, as I look out my window, the temple has disappeared. The mountain is invisible. And there is a line of trees just about 200 meters away that can just be made out. The Angel of Death has arrived.

The line of trees with the mountain and Doi Suthep Temple somewhere behind.

The line of trees with the mountain and Doi Suthep Temple somewhere behind.

And that is not hyperbole. When the smoke gets this bad people get sick and some do die. They say that those with respiratory problems, the young and the elderly are most at risk. I have been doing Google searches to find out what “the elderly” means. I am 67. Am I there yet?

Wikipedia says that “the elderly” (aka old age, senior citizens, older adults, elders) is anyone over 65. Oh crud! I guess I’ll just have to have to go out and find some lambs blood.

A few years ago, when the skies were just about this bad, a friend who had some breathing problems ended up in the hospital ICU when his lungs collapsed. He had to be resuscitated twice. He likes to say that he died twice. I just saw him a few days ago and he looks to be in bad shape, coughing and having breathing problems again. I hope this isn’t his third time.

When it gets like this we usually think it is time to, as they say in New York, “dump this pop stand” and take off for the southern parts of the county. This year we have some obligations so here we sit. All the windows and doors are closed. Luckily the hot season is not that hot this year so staying indoors is survivable. We might not be so lucky next time.

I always think it is a funny sight when I see people walking around with those surgical masks on their faces. My dentist wears one all the time he is in his office. The last time I had a checkup I finally asked him to take off his mask for a second so that if I run into him at the mall or somewhere I could recognize him. I’m glad I never saw him before this. He looks like he is 16 years old. There are some market ladies that I have been buying from for years whose faces I have never seen.

Well, now I am one of those people too and when I leave the house, even to water the lawn, I wear a mask. I don’t know if it helps any because when the smoke is this bad the particles in the air are tiny and they probably just pass through the mask and play round deep inside my lungs. I definitely do not go out jogging or even play golf (from which I am going through a very painful withdrawal right now) and as much a I want a whole lung full of clean air, I do not take deep breaths.

Where does all this air pollution come from? Unlike in Beijing where cars and coal burning contribute to the smog almost all this poisonous smoke is caused by burning; burning fields and garbage, purposefully setting the forest undergrowth on fire, and the slash and burn agricultural techniques of many of the tribal peoples. I was once traveling in the mountains during this time of year and the forest was burning on both sides of the road. It was so dry up there. I don’t know if anyone deliberately started that fire. It just as well could have started on its own, by a lightning strike or even when the wind blew two stick together causing enough friction to start a flame.

There are burning bans throughout the north in Thailand but that doesn’t stop the smoke from coming over the Burmese and Laotian borders. Also there are cultural traditions of burning that are difficult to break. Many years ago we used to look up at the mountain at night and see small brush fires blazing all over to rid the forest of undergrowth (There is a certain expensive mushroom that only grows on the forest floor after a fire.)  Just this week a group of Karin complained to the U.N. that the ban on burning was a crime against their people as it deprived them of their time-honored method of agriculture.

I read a lot in the local English speaking press blaming the Thai government and corruption for these problems. If that is the case then I wonder exactly what they would suggest to make things better. Besides running away, I don’t have an answer.

It is not this bad every year. Last year the smog was much lighter and only lasted a week or two. The year before the rains came really early. That year we hardly had a hot season at all and there was no smog to speak of. Three years ago it got bad enough that we took off in the car for parts south. It wasn’t until we got near to Korat before we could see the sky again. So it’s not just here in Chiang Mai. They say that Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai, both closer to the Burmese border, are even worse.

So now we wait for the Songkran Rains. Every year (and who knows why) the weeks just before and after the Thai New Year’s celebration of Songkran, storms hit this part of the country. Winds whip around and heavy rains fall and the skies are cleaned. They only last for a few days and then the hot season returns with a vengeance for another month or two. Everyone in Chiang Mai is looking towards the sky and hoping for the Songkran Rains.  And then the Angel of Death will pass over us once more.

Wish us luck.

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Dogs and Cats

March 1, 2013

Dogs

Many retirees to Thailand come from a culture where the dog is “Man’s Best Friend”. That is not exactly the case here in Thailand.  It would be good for a newcomer to Thailand to prepare to be a bit shocked and disturbed by what they encounter here.

One of the first things a visitor to Thailand will observe is how many dogs roam freely here. This could be because dogs in Thailand are kept only as “semi-pets”. Although attitudes are slowly changing, most dogs are rarely petted or shown affection or taught tricks like “sit down” or “roll over”, or to “fetch a Frisbee”. Almost none are ever “walked”, and except for a coddled few, most will never see a vet.

Most dogs are exclusively kept outside mainly as living burglar alarms. The ones who come from a house which isn’t completely walled in will roam the streets and alleyways (“sois”). Many an unsuspecting Expat jogger knows the fear, and sometimes pain, a territorial semi-feral dog instills. My son recently was bitten by a strange dog as he got off his motorcycle. That called for a series of painful and expensive anti-rabies vaccine.

And when “dog season” comes around and lines of males wait their turn in the dog-mating queue, behind a bitch in heat, you can forget about getting a good night’s sleep as the howling and fighting will go on all night. When I was younger and lived in an old wooden house in the center of Chiang Mai it was common for me to come home to a pack of as many as 30 “soi” dogs camping out in front of my gate. It made getting home in one piece a nightly running of the gauntlet. I talked about how to deal with soi dogs in an article I wrote for Chiang Mai City Life magazine called “It’s a Dog’s Life“.

It is rare in the west but a frequent sight here is to see two mating dogs stuck together (a popular place to see this was right at my front gate). This occurs because a male dog has a bone in his penis that locks him to the female after coupling, helping to assure that since he was the first to get there that his genes are the ones that get passed on, and not any of the many late-comers’. Picture this: Me, riding home on my motorcycle, legs held high in the air to keep them away from my snapping canine friends, through a pack of 30 howling and fighting dogs, some of them stuck together. Aah,  the wonders of Nature.

Calling someone a dog in Thailand is a severe insult. This attitude may have developed since dogs carry endemic dog diseases here like mange and rabies.  And all that waiting in the mating line produces lots and lots of unwanted puppies. It is a common tradition to abandon your unwanted dogs and the puppies that survive at a local temple. The monks usually have extra food that they share with these abandoned dogs. Just before dawn each morning, when the temple bells ring to wake the monks, dozens of stray dogs will howl and bark so loudly at the ringing that the whole neighborhood awakes with the monks. No sleeping-in if you live near a temple.

And barking dogs may be the major cause of tension between neighbors. Just yesterday I met a couple looking for a new place to live. Their neighbor’s 5 dogs are a constant cause of sleepless nights and nasty cleanups.

There have been some recent changes to how Thai dogs are raised.  The latest fad is the popularity of tiny lapdogs. You’ll see them everywhere as Thais, especially young women, tend to carry them around a la Paris Hilton, in the baskets of their motorcycles, and even in their handbags. An attitudinal change has also occurred, and we hope it continues, ever since His Majesty showed his love for his adopted dog in his best selling book, The Story of Thong Dang,  about their close relationship.

Cats

Lots have been written about dogs in Thailand but I am getting more and more interested in the cat situation, especially the feral cats. Thailand has for a long time been famous for its cats. Besides Siamese pure bred cats, there are also beautiful Burmese and Korat pure breds. I wrote about them when a close friend of mine (Ed Rose, “The Cat Lover“), the owner of the Chiang Mai Cattery, passed away.  But these beautiful “house” cats are not what I am concerned about. It’s the ones who live outside most of the time (More than 50% of American cats are allowed by their owners to run outside freely – and the percentage is probably lots higher here.) I am also concerned about the very large feral cat population.

And here is why I am concerned.

In the United States, where they keep these kinds of statistics, it is estimated that well over 1 billion birds a year are killed by cats. Another billion or so other animals, squirrels, rabbits, frogs, etc. are also killed. These numbers indicate that the nice furry Garfields of the world have a devastating impact on the ecology and the wildlife populations around us. And since cats in these numbers (the estimate is that the U.S has more than 80 million house cats and just as many ferals) are not something that Nature has created, most of these birds and animals have no defenses against them. I have no reason to doubt that Thai cats have a similar impact on their environment.

Case in point:

Here is a quote from my article The Cat Lover mentioned above. (Also check out what the New York Times says about this in, “That Kitty of Yours is a Killer”.)

“Cats are predators. They are at the top of their food chain.  This is something a neighbor of mine (an Expat) just doesn’t seem to know.  He lets his cats run wild.  And where do they run?  Right to my garden.  All the baby birds in the nests in our trees that we planted specifically to attract them have been killed. The tokay geckos, frogs and tree frogs that we love to listen to at night have gone quite.  The beautiful blue throated lizards that used to populate our yard and gave us such pleasure are all gone, and many of our endangered baby tortoises who were born this year, and who we are trying to save from extinction, never made it out of their shells.  The cats got to them first.”

Since then we have been trying to save abandoned rabbits. People get tired of them and bring them to the Chiang Mai Zoo thinking that they would know what to do with them. So we have been helping the zoo out as the abandoned rabbits were dying like – rabbits. The zoo can keep a tiger healthy but has no budget for abandoned rabbits. Sadly, a total of 19 rabbits that we either adopted or were born here were killed by the local cats until we built a cat proof enclosure.

A new tradition has developed where people will abandon their unwanted cats and kittens (“The trouble with a kitten is that / Eventually it becomes a cat.” – Ogden Nash) in a gated community. People believe that those living in a gated community have enough financial resources to feed all these cats. We ourselves don’t feed them but now I know where all my song birds, lizards, geckos, and tree frogs have gone.

Some Solutions

Dogs

Care for Dogs is a Chiang Mai base organization that is helping to solve the abandoned dog problem here and make life a little easier for the many unwanted “soi dogs”. Lucy, a volunteer at Care for Dogs was kind enough to give us a little heads up on what they are doing and how you can help if you want.

Volunteering or Adopting @ Care for Dogs Foundations

You will at times see things at the shelter which are difficult to witness, it is a common sight to see dogs who have been hit by cars or have severe illnesses. It is so important to us to firstly care for as many of these dogs as we can, but also to promote and conduct sterilizations. With sterilization we can help reduce the number of dogs living on the streets or worse still ending up in the dog meat trade. We currently perform 500 sterilizations a year and provide 800 vaccinations on a tight budget so every donation, no matter how small is always welcomed.

We also do our best to find honest and loving, life long homes for our four legged friends. We have been successfully rehoming around 200 dogs per year. Whilst, many of these dogs stay here in Thailand,  others are adopted overseas, with recent adoptions in the US, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Finland and the UK. We put on adoptions fairs two Saturdays or Sundays a month at the Airport Plaza, we’re always looking for help with this. So if you want to spend a day with puppies let us know!

After half an hour or so in the shelter, you are very likely to fall in love with one or ten dogs. If you have room in your home (and your heart) and would like some loyal companionship, all of our puppies and dogs are up for adoption and would be overjoyed to join you and your family. And the best thing is, if you decide to move home it’s now easier than ever (and a lot cheaper than you may think) to transport pets abroad from Thailand!

Beauty, a "soi dog" on arrival at Care for Dogs

Beauty, a “soi dog” on arrival at Care for Dogs

Beauty, after a few months of love and being adopted

Beauty, after a few months of love and being adopted

The Care for Dogs slogan is “Saving one dog won’t change the world, but surely the world will change for that one dog.” Take a look at their website or Facebook and see what they are up to or if you might be interested in making a donation, volunteering, or maybe even adopting (www.carefordogs.org, www.facebook.com/street.dog.rescue). If you live in other areas in Thailand, maybe they can help you get in touch with an organization near you.

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Cats

The Cat Sterilization Program

I’ll give you one guess what the  Cat Sterilization Program does. Yes, you got it. Here is a short description of the work of the program.

So many cats and kittens have a tough time here. Sterilization and vaccination are not normal practice for the majority of cat owners, (it’s often cost prohibitive) and many cats of course don’t even have owners. Cats can get pregnant before they are six months old, and in this warm climate, it’s always kittens season.  It’s common for a mommy cat to give birth to four litters of kittens every year.

Many kittens don’t survive but for those that do, they are often dumped in Temples, left to fend for themselves, often attacked by dogs or starving to death.  Most of the calls I get for help are from monks and nuns, overwhelmed by a cat population that’s out of control. The program always responds to these calls to organize sterilizations. We’ve been doing this for about five years and have set up the Cat Sterilization Program – a simple program to get as many cats sterilized (and returned to their homes), as possible, both males and females. (We do not have a rescue shelter). We rely completely on donations.

We believe the only way to help with the overpopulation is to get cats sterilized. There are markets where cats are poisoned, but this doesn’t work.  Cats go where their is food, so no sooner are cats killed than new ones move into the territory. Sterilization is the kindest thing you can do for your local street cat.

Cat checkup before sterilization

Cat checkup before sterilization

Volunteer vet vaccinating cats.

Volunteer vet vaccinating cats.

For more information or to donate online contact: http://www.catsterilization.org

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