Buddhists Perpetuate Bangkok's Stray Dog Problem

Tonight, there are six.

Six stray dogs. Six snouts. Buried in six soggy mounds of rice.

The pack dines in a semi-circle around Khun Somthanat, a housewife squatting near Pheung Mi Lane. Her left hand, fitted with a neon-orange industrial glove, rests in a pot brimming with rice and chicken bones.

Each dog eats from an upturned tin lid. And above the din of traffic, there is the smacking of dog tongue and metallic scrapes as the dogs nudge their lids across the pavement.

"I've been doing this for three years now. It's a form of making merit," Somthanat says in a lilting rasp. "They come with saliva spilling out of their mouths to eat here. I see them and feel extreme sorrow."

It is difficult to view Somthanat's nightly deed in a bad light. But municipal dogcatchers and animal welfare groups agree: Soft-hearted Buddhists are perpetuating Bangkok's stray dog problem.

Buddhists, 95 percent of all Thais, are taught to revere living creatures and perform selfless acts called "making merit" that reduce suffering in the next life. Few merit-making acts are as public or entrenched as feeding strays. Each night around dusk, merit-makers across Bangkok dump leftovers into the street -- often on a banana leaf or scrap of cardboard to dignify the meal.

"Feeding dogs, without sterilization, makes them healthy enough to produce bigger litter sizes," says Sheridan Conisbee, founder of Soi Cats and Dogs, a Bangkok-based stray animal advocacy group."Soi" means side street in Thai.

"With the merit-making idea so firmly entrenched," she says, "it's really difficult to change this."

Greater Bangkok is home to some 140,000 stray dogs, according a 2007 Bangkok Metropolitan Authority survey. But animal rescue groups dispute that count, suspecting the figure is closer 300,000.

The math of reproduction, however, is hard to dispute. Female dogs, on average, can birth two litters per year. Fat pregnant dogs typically birth more puppies. And with well-fed strays delivering up to 10 puppies each pregnancy, many can become great-great grandmothers before they die.

Exempting the city's sanitized downtown, stray dogs fill Bangkok's streets. They roam the night in packs, eyes glowing green in the headlights' glare, slinking through traffic, toppling trash bins for food (more Tramp than Lady).

But in Thailand, most strays are regarded as "community dogs," which Humane Society International distinguishes from "ferals." Both are homeless, but community dogs stick to one area, receive food from locals and produce bountiful litters. Ferals are wanderers, diseased and desperate, and typically produce weak and puny litters.

This isn't to say community dogs are pretty. Some female mutts are so weathered by pregnancy, their teats drag on the dirty asphalt. Others, crippled by run-ins with motorbikes, are reduced to pogoing around on one good leg. More still are devoured by mange, forever clawing at pink, sticky sores.

"There's no one to clean them up. No one to bathe them," says Wee Pornsawat, a furniture maker grilling shrimp off Bangkok's Sumkhumvit Road. "But there will always be someone to feed them."

Giving food is among the simplest and truest forms of merit making, says Phra Mahajatuphom Thummopalo, a monk and radio disk jockey at Bangkok's Thammongkol temple. Thais, aware of monks' devotion to sustaining all life, often drop their unwanted dogs at temple gates after dark. When food is scare, he said, monks will actually forego dinner to feed the strays.

"Us monks, we don't know that overfeeding dogs makes more puppies. Maybe the laymen need to educate us," Thummopalo says. "We have a lot, we give. We have a little, we give also."

Along Pheung Mi Lane, a seventh arrival waddles towards Somthanat. The soi dog godmother reaches behind her back for a fresh tray. Tonight, she's offering Charoen Pokphand chicken -- a brand name -- and it falls from her glove with a wet plop.

"I pity them," she says. "People who are hungry can ask for food. Animals can't." launches January 12, 2009.