Caring for strays a world away

2012-01-31T00:00:00Z 2012-01-31T08:00:07Z Caring for strays a world awayBy DONNA HEALY dhealy@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette
January 31, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Thailand's ubiquitous street dogs tend to be "lovey-dovey" rather than snarling and fearful, said Stephanie Naftal, a Billings woman who delivered food to those street dogs in the aftermath of the worst flooding Thailand has seen in half a century.

Last year, Japan's earthquake and tsunami dominated disaster headlines. But months of flooding in Thailand affected 12 million people, forcing tens of thousands from their homes and killing more than 800.

In November, the floodwaters inundated large swaths of Bangkok, Thailand's capital, a sprawling city with a population of about 7 million.

"When the floodwaters came into the city, they were saying it was like a slow tsunami," said Naftal, who arrived in Bangkok in early December, after the floodwaters had receded.

For eight days, she worked at an animal shelter with other volunteers from the Kinship Circle, a nonprofit group that helps with animal rescue operations after natural disasters. Two Thai animal rescue groups set up and ran the emergency shelter in Bangkok. One group was dedicated to helping street dogs; the other was typically dedicated to the well-being of elephants.

Naftal was moved to volunteer after she saw news reports on animal rescue groups working in Japan after last spring's tsunami.

"These people lose everything. It's really nice if you can help them not lose their beloved pets," she said.

When volunteers go to a disaster area to help animals, people inevitably ask why they would help dogs rather than the people, Naftal said.

"It's because they're the last ones," she said. "They are the last ones to get help."

In Thailand, people regularly feed 20 or more street dogs. Every Buddhist temple has its own contingent of street dogs, fed by the monks.

"Their attitude is why would you not feed a dog that's hungry," she said.

Naftal saw one woman, who was forced to flee during the flood, come to the shelter to reclaim her dogs.

"Even though they're street dogs, they're her dogs and she knows them," Naftal said. The wire cages for the 10 or more dogs filled a truck for the ride back home.

While Naftal was at the shelter, rescue workers helped deal with a case of animal hoarding that was exacerbated by the flooding. She also heard from a pair of Thai rescue workers about Thailand's illegal dog meat trade. The rescue workers wanted to publicize the illegal trade to shame politicians into clamping down on smugglers who transport captured street dogs to Vietnam to be sold in meat markets.

Most of the 100 dogs Naftal helped take care of at the shelter were strays. One had a broken pelvis. Another was blind and deaf, with a half-amputated leg. Many were puppies.

Having worked in the field as a wildlife biologist and as a veterinary tech, Naftal figured she had the right combination of skills for rescue work.

"I'm not afraid to go out in boats in the dark and capture animals," she said.

She paid her own airfare, and after working her stint at the shelter, she spent an equal amount of time sightseeing in Thailand.

Naftal spent much of her youth on her family's farm in Maryland and has always had a soft spot for animals. She owns two Brittany Spaniels.

After getting her biology degree in 1999, she worked on wolf research and recovery projects in Minnesota, Arizona and Montana. She has lived in Billings two and a half years and owns land in Columbus.

To earn a living, she often works several jobs. She is certified to teach Spanish and does substitute teaching. She also works for Stillwater County's Weed District, runs her own small business and is a massage therapist.

In late November, she needed to finish writing a grant proposal before she could leave for Thailand. When she arrived in Bangkok on Dec. 10, volunteers no longer needed boats to rescue stranded dogs. Since the capture work had ended, Naftal helped care for the shelter's dogs and assisted vets treating injured animals and doing spay and neutering surgeries.

She spent one day delivering bags of dog food to pet owners in a section of Bangkok that saw heavy flooding. The volunteers walked along some streets, leaving small piles of food for groups of street dogs.

"One dog comes out, so you give him food and then a bunch of other dogs come out," Naftal said.

They delivered dog food to one woman who was living in a corrugated metal shack. Although the woman had lost everything in the flooding, she and her pets had survived.

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