By Andrew Biggs
My beloved dog of 15 years is dying.
His descent into canine dotage has been swift. Gone are the days when he bounded down the driveway to greet me at my front gate, tail wagging, jumping for joy, pawing and slobbering over my mid-priced Robinson slacks and Platinum Plaza work shirt.
These days it’s enough for him to lift his head slowly and stare out towards me with milky eyes. The light has left those eyes, and he labours as he breathes. He’s deaf, blind and has lost his balance.
It felt wrong to allow him to suffer any longer. I decided to put my beloved dog down.
Only it didn’t happen.
My dog’s name is Akkradej, a strange name for a dog, since it is a respectable Thai male name for a human. Nearly 20 years ago a stray dog gave birth to a litter of ten. The tenth one out only had three legs. Nobody was keen on raising a three-legged canine. So I took it.
The locals suggested all sorts of nasty names for the dog. Tripod, for example. Triangle was another one. A British friend suggested Clover, which I had to reject since my mind associates clovers with four leaves, not three, and besides it’s a bit of a dicky name isn’t it?
I decided to give that pup a bit of dignity and named it Kanokwan, a very, very beautiful female Thai name. It was a bit like calling a dog Felicity or Millicent. Since then all my dogs have had fancy Thai names.
My dogs have an average life span of about five years which is about the norm in Thailand. Akkradej is an elder statesman in comparison.
For the first time in my life I had to contemplate taking responsibility for putting a beloved pet to sleep.
It was not an easy decision, but when I finally did announce it, it was greeted with uncomfortable silence from my staff.
“You can’t do that,” my accountant finally said.
“No, you can’t,” said the maid.
“Better to let him go to sleep himself,” said my assistant.
“It is a sin to take a life. It is better for Akradej to die naturally,” added my accountant.
“It goes against the tenets of Buddhism,” explained my assistant, batting his eyes, and sounding just a little too holier than thou for a Monday morning.
“That’s ridiculous,” I answered. “He’s in pain. He can’t even walk. Where is the quality of life?”
“That is not for us to decide,” said my accountant.
I wouldn’t expect anything less from my Buddhist staff. What I didn’t expect was the same point of view from veterinarians.
I live in a part of town where it was once almost impossible to find a vet. My original vet from 20 years ago worked out of his shabby shophouse. He was a natural with animals, but sadly he gave up his profession to sell Amway.
Now there are seven veterinarian surgeries within a two-kilometre radius of my home. They range from little shop houses to one that has four floors, a lift, doctors with stethoscopes around their necks, attractive reception staff and entire walls of medicine.
My local vet is very reliable and kind. He works from a little shop house. When I asked his staff about putting him down, I was told: “The vet wouldn’t perform that service.”
But he’s a vet.
I got my assistant to come down off his high horse and call the gaggle of vets that have set up practices around my house to find out who would do it. I cannot attest to the validity of my research, since my assistant was dragged to the task kicking and screaming, but apparently the verdict was this: None of them would do it.
This reminded me of another quirk of Thai vets. Remember Kanokwan? She may have only had three legs but boy, that didn’t affect her love life.
At eight months she was on heat and for three days slinked around my moo bahn like a brazen hussy. Finally I found a vet nearby and called her to have Kanokwan neutered.
“Has your dog had sex with any of the male dogs?” a woman asked when I explained my predicament.
She used the verb pasom pan in Thai – “to mix the genes” – and I foolishly answered: “I’d say she’s been mixing her genes as often she possibly could! It’s a veritable canine orgy out there!”
The joke fell flat. “Then the doctor will not perform the desexing operation,” she said. “She refuses to desex any dog that’s already mixed her genes.”
I put the phone down in shock. Clearly karmic retribution was more fearful that a proliferation of stray dogs.
Speaking of karma, remind me to come back in my next life as a Thai vet. They don’t spay. They don’t put to sleep. So what exactly do they do?
They charge. Like wounded, unspayed bulls.
Poor Akradej took a turn for the worst, and had to spend 10 long days and nights at my local vet’s clinic.
I received a frantic phone call from the vet’s on day eleven.
“Your dog is gasping for breath and the vet is upcountry for the day,” said the nurse. “He needs to go to another vet for the night.”
This meant my sending him to that five-star pet hospital. I had no idea there were such places — the Bumrungrat of the animal world. The next time I have relatives coming to visit I may end up putting them up there.
The very first two questions they asked were a portent of things to come: “What’s wrong with your dog?” followed by “How are you going to pay — cash or credit? We’ll need a down payment of 10,000 Baht.”
Poor Akkradej. Within minutes of our arrival he was surrounded by two doctors and some nurses, all jostling to prod and jab and needle and stroke him. I was told Akkradej would have to stay overnight; if only I’d invested in Bitcoin back when it was $150.
The next day I returned to be told he had “ear infections on both sides and trouble with vertigo and an irregular heartbeat and here is a bill for 10,150 Baht.” Believe me, as I handed over my credit card it wasn’t just Akkradej who was experiencing an irregular heartbeat.
That hospital told me they’d need to operate on Akkradej to relieve the problems, plus he’d need extensive physical therapy and the heart doctor would need to do a series of tests, and this would require my mortgaging my home and getting a short-term loan from my parents.
They got it all wrong.
The real issue was my beloved dog was very, very old, and dying.
I gathered him up in my arms and took him home, where at least he could die with dignity.
That night I thought through my decision to put Akkradej to sleep.
Could I really live with the fact I’d authorized the death of my beloved pet? This is something quite acceptable and normal back home in Australia, where even a dog’s attack on a neighbour, for example, requires the animal to be put down. This cultural more has resulted in an absence of both rabies and stray dogs, one of the rare but pleasant offshoots of a non-Buddhist country.
Not here in the land of smiles, where it is a sin to take even an old and pained animal’s life, be it in the case of a potentially pregnant Kanokwan or an ailing elderly Akkradej.
On this one, Thailand, we shall just have to agree to disagree.