Thailand pet-owners on high alert for dog-nappers
Authorities in Thailand have warned that kennels are fit to bursting after more than 2,000 dogs bound for dinner tables in South East Asia were seized in the last six months.
Dog is considered a delicacy in parts of Vietnam and China, and strays and domestic pets are being snatched in increasing numbers from Thailand's streets before they are transported abroad.
Sompong Lertjitcharoenboon's dog, Tao Tao, was stolen before Christmas. It was a month before Chinese New Year, when demand for dog meat rises sharply.
"We lost him after a fireworks display," Mr Sompong said. "I thought he was just scared and would come back. We would get up in the middle of the night whenever we heard dogs barking."
As the weeks passed, Mr Sompong and his wife came to accept that Tao Tao was not coming back.
Then Thai television broadcast pictures of a lorry laden with 800 dogs crammed into cages. The vehicle had been stopped as it attempted to cross the border into Laos.
The bust took place in Nakhon Phanom, where Capt Teerakiet Thong-aram from the Thai navy conducts patrols to try to prevent the smuggling of both dogs and drugs across the Mekong River.
"Dog meat is not popular in Laos. It's just a passageway. This is the easiest way for smuggling," he said, explaining that the planned destination for the animals was almost certainly Vietnam or China.
"People around here pay 300-400 baht ($9-13/£5.70-8.30) for a dog. The price goes up to 1,000 baht ($32/£20) or more in the third or fourth countries."
Dogs with dark fur are more highly prized, both for their skins and apparently a more distinct taste.
The seized lorry was 600km (373 miles) away from where Tao Tao had disappeared. But for Mr Sompong, it represented a glimmer of hope. He quickly made plans to head to the town of Buriram, where a shelter was recently set up to deal with the rise in rescued dogs.
There are already more than 2,000 animals at Buriram, ranging from once-pristine poodles to a motley collection of strays. Many of those taken for the food trade are soi (street) dogs, but at least a quarter are stolen domestic pets.
Paisarn Pattanadejkul, the head vet at the shelter, clearly remembers Mr Sompong's emotionally-charged visit.
"He (Sompong) came back carrying his dog in his arms," he said. "His wife said, 'Is that Tao Tao?', and he couldn't answer her because he was crying so much."
According to Mr Paisarn, hundreds of people have come to Buriram in the hope of finding their lost dogs, but Tao Tao is the only one who has been reunited with his owner so far.
"I felt very glad, but also very sad, when I saw his poor condition." Sompong said, with a tear in his eye. "It shouldn't have been like that."
But stopping what Capt Teerakiet calls a "billion-baht industry" is close to impossible under existing Thai law. It is illegal to steal domestic pets but not to round up stray dogs and pack them into cages. Animal cruelty is not banned, so a law is only actually broken when an attempt is made to smuggle the dogs out of Thailand.
"On the scale of one to 10, I would say it's a minus-one as far as the government's concern for animal welfare goes," said Roger Lohanan from the Thai Animal Guardians Association.
"Animal welfare poses a lot of burden on business, and that's why animal welfare laws have been postponed for the last 15 years."
At the shelter in Buriram, the rescued dogs are well-kept in fields, with thatched huts for shade. Despite their growing numbers and the strain on the Thai Department of Livestock Development, putting them down is not an option.
"I'm afraid that if we get many more dogs, we won't have the money to keep them in food and medication," Mr Paisarn said. "But we are a Buddhist country that believes in reincarnation, so to kill the dogs is a sin."
There is very little Buddhist calm in Somporn Kansuwan. His dog, Goh-dum, was rescued from the smugglers, but infected with a disease that eventually killed him.
"I hate those people who stole my dog," he said. "I hate it that those people make money from these little lives. If the police would let me, I'd kill those who took my dog."