Thailand floods: On patrol with Bangkok's pet rescuers
- 10 November 2011
- From the section Magazine
In Bangkok, it's not just humans who are suffering the worst flooding the country has seen in decades. Thousands of pets have been stranded by rising waters - but huge efforts are being made to find them and take them to safety.
In central Bangkok, there is a car park that has become a temporary new home for some of the city's flood victims. They are furry, noisy - and wet.
Samran Mupangklang surveys the scene from behind a pair of sunglasses. Normally, he works on making cattle vaccines for Thailand's Ministry of Agriculture. Today he has a different task - rescuing cats and dogs.
"I felt bad for the pets. I heard the government wanted volunteers, so I decided to come here," he says.
The car park is the headquarters for the group of rescuers Mr Mupangklang belongs to. Within the city, there are about a dozen similar government-run teams, each with about 10 volunteers, who criss-cross flood-ravaged areas in metal boats laden with brightly-coloured cages.
They are in great demand.
Many Bangkok residents fleeing the flood waters will go and stay with relatives. Others will go to one of the government-run evacuation centres. In many cases, they cannot take their pets with them when they leave their flooded homes, or they are unable to care for them if they do.
The authorities have set up a special pet hotline. When a request for help comes in, one of the volunteer rescue teams is instructed to respond. (You can see a slideshow here).
A mobile phone rings and Mr Mupangklang gets word of his team's next mission.
A woman has called the hotline to say she is stranded, and will not leave her home unless her cats come with her. All 48 of them.
Over an hour later, the team reaches the location, a partly-submerged one-storey house.
A relieved-looking woman waves to them. Her name is Tuanjai Chanpeng, though people in this neighbourhood affectionately call her "Maew" - the Thai word for cat.
She thanks the rescue team profusely, as one by one, her pets are lifted into plastic crates, which are then stacked carefully on the boat.
"At first, I didn't want to burden anyone, but I decided to call the animal department because I couldn't bear it any more," says Mrs Chanpeng.
"The water kept rising, and I couldn't feed my cats any more. I was really afraid they would die."
For the past week, Mr Mupangklang has waded through polluted waters to reach frantic animals.
He has a few battle scars - like deep scratches from terrified cats. But that's not the only threat.
"One day, we had to rescue some dogs in one of the suburbs," he says. "All the neighbours were telling us the waters were full of crocodiles. We were not that scared, because there were a lot of us. But we didn't really know what to do if we saw a crocodile."
Luckily they didn't.
Today, his team head north to another of Bangkok's hard-hit suburbs, where the streets have become a maze of canals. People float by on bamboo rafts, plastic tubs, and old styrofoam containers.
They pull up to a house. Inside, the waters reach up to chest-level. They help an elderly woman, Somsee Paibounsou, shuffle onto the boat.
She brings along a bag of diabetes medicine, a clock radio, and a hairless poodle called Benz. She also clasps a book of Buddhist scripture.
Many people here believe in the cycle of birth and rebirth - that a human can be born again as an animal, or an animal as a human.
Human and animal lives may not necessarily be considered equivalent, but practising Buddhists preach kindness to animals and empathy for their suffering.
"Most people in Thailand describe themselves as Buddhist", says Sulak Sivaraksa, a writer on Buddhism based in Bangkok. "Buddhists care for all sentient beings, animals included."
Mr Mupangklang says he feels a spiritual connection to the animals he rescues.
"I think pets and humans are alike. I can see into their eyes, their emotions, how they feel. They'll stare at you if they are angry," he says.
"They have emotions too."
He has lost count of how many pets he has rescued today.
In the past two weeks, the volunteer rescue teams in Bangkok say they have picked up more than 6,000 pets stranded by the floods.
When animals are rescued, they are taken to a dry location, like the central car park, and registered so the authorities know who they belong to, and where they came from.
After a few hours, they are taken outside the capital to areas not so badly affected by the flooding, where they are housed and fed at the government's expense.
And there the pets will stay until their owners can finally reclaim them.
You can hear a radio version of this piece at PRI's The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH in Boston. The radio report was first broadcast on PRI's The World on November 2, 2011.