✦ We all like to do our best to help others. It is ingrained into our society and psyche as a manifestation of doing good, an often selfless act that can enhance another’s plight or alleviate suffering. It feels good to do good, right?
For some, helping others is more than just a occasional gesture – it is a way of life, a passion fuelled by the heart and soul that cannot be truly measured, regardless of its level or reach. And by helping ‘others’ we don’t necessarily always mean people.
Toni Jessop has been on a one-woman crusade to help distressed and abandoned dogs in Phuket find a better life by way of adoption for many years now. She runs ‘Toni J for the Animals’, a volunteer led practice that helps man’s best friend find a permanent home, a real, loving home, a million miles away from the hardships and endless suffering they regularly endure on the streets of the popular tourist island in the Andaman Sea.
Heralding from the UK, animals have always been a part of Toni’s life. Growing up surrounded by pets from an early age, predominantly dogs, cemented her affliation with our furry friends and established a deep-rooted love affair.
Abandoned and neglected
It was during a holiday to Phuket in 2010 that Toni was first alerted to the plight of Thailand’s street dogs. Whilst enjoying the natural beauty the island had to offer, she was aghast at the sheer number of abandoned and neglected dogs that littered the streets, literally on every corner, in every direction she turned.
The pivotal moment for Toni was during a trip to the nearby island of Koh Phangan. Whilst browsing through a local street market, she happened upon a female dog who was in a sickly state, bereft of hair, malnourished and clearly very unwell but extremely well natured and gentle. The dog, sensing she had connected with a new friend and kindred spirit, followed Toni back to her accommodation, seeking a more lasting companionship. Toni did not know what to do, who to turn to or call for help for the poor soul and instead had to take the heartbreaking decision to take her back to the market then fool her in order to lose her.
It was an experience that cut deep and forever marked her.
“I returned to the UK but could not shake the image or memory of the abandoned dog,” Toni recalls wistfully. “I had no local contacts in Thailand or any idea as to how I could help which left me feeling frustrated and helpless.”
After conducting extensive research, she came across the Soi Dog Foundation, an NGO that provides assistance, care and adoption opportunities for dogs and cats on the streets of Phuket. It has since gone onto become a major international organisation with backing from the likes of celebrities such as Ricky Gervais and Dame Judy Dench and that recently saw its co-founder John Dalley receive an MBE from the Queen.
In 2012 Toni returned to Phuket to volunteer with Soi Dog, learning much more about the dynamics of an animal rescue practice including the horror stories of the dog meat trade, which was much more prevalent throughout the country at that point, and which led her to a life changing decision to become a vegan.
“I had been a meat eater all my life up to that point but it was like a lightbulb moment for me, a realisation that I had been discriminating one animal against another and which led me to reevaluating my beliefs and values,” Toni said.
Back in the UK once again, Toni studied an animal science course at University and applied for the role of an inspector at the RSPCA but was unable to secure a place. All the while, she continued to journey back-and-forth between her homeland and Phuket, volunteering at numerous animal rescue centres which gave her invaluable experience and insight and helped her forge a more coherent vision of what she wanted to establish - a positive, sharing environment with the welfare of the dogs front and centre.
She knew deep down for many years that Phuket was where she truly wanted, even needed, to be. All the trips back-and-forth and the notion of helplessness when back in the UK solidified this feeling and so it was in December 2016 that she finally took the plunge and moved there fulltime, along with her partner at the time and her two beloved dogs, Henry and Molly.
“I continued volunteering part-time at various rescue shelters while teaching and taking on online work in order to maintain an income,” Toni recalls.
However, it was to be a tragic turn of events that would really propel her towards finding her purpose as her beloved Henry passed away in the April, only six months after arriving, closely followed by Molly three months later.
“To say I was heartbroken is an understatement,” says Toni, tearfully. “It was one of the most devastating moments of my life that I still struggle to recall without being genuinely distraught.”
In an effort to combat her hurt and as a means to honour the memory of her beloved pets, Toni threw herself 100% into full-time work at the government-backed dog pound, wanting to do more to help the plight of the island’s canines. However, she was appalled at the conditions, the frequent cruelty and the shocking loss of life on a daily basis.
“My eyes were truly opened at that point,” she recalls. “There were over 1,000 neglected, abandoned, sick dogs in unsufferable, cramped conditions with a lack of food or medical supplies. The suffering they were enduring was unimaginable. It was like a death camp.”
She refused to accept or compromise the situation and so set about raising awareness and improving it. She helped drive donations to the pound, brought in much needed veterinary assistance and engaged Soi Dog who helped pull out hundreds of dogs for adoption while offering direct help and advice to the under-resourced and financed pound.
Going it alone
It was shortly after that Toni decided to go it alone. She knew she didn’t have the resources or funding to provide an actual shelter but that she did have the experience and passion to provide a more than capable service for helping at least some of the dogs find adopted homes.
“With the help of numerous volunteers providing invaluable support and guidance online and offline, the goal since 2019 has been to get sick and distressed dogs out of the government dog pound, off the streets and into loving, forever homes,” Toni says proudly.
So how does it work, I ask her, and how can people get involved?
“Essentially I operate as an agent of sorts but with a support network of fosterers,” she replies.
“We will pull dogs that are especially sick or distressed from the pound or the streets and put them up for adoption with me serving as the first point of contact. I take them to the vet for a thorough medical check up and run an assessment on the animal’s disposition and suitability, as in would they be ideal to mix with other dogs, cats, etc.
“Once this process is concluded the animal will remain in my care or that of one of the fosterers until we find him or her a home. We will profile the dogs online via the website and through social media channels where people can review them and their backstory and decide whether they can offer them a forever home.
“Conversely, we have had instances of people coming across a dog on the streets or at the beach directly who they wish to adopt. In this situation I apply the same process aside from profiling them on the website.”
Once a match has been made, Toni oversees and facilitates the entire adoption process, navigating the often choppy waters around quarantine rules and airline restrictions for certain countries. Amazingly, she does not charge for this. The only fees are those to the new owners for transporting the newly adopted animal to their country, including any associated quarantine fees.
Eli was rescued by Toni and is now in his forever home in Canada
‘So grateful and happy’
There have been over 1,000 dogs lucky enough to have gone through this process in the last four years who now have secure, stable and loving homes – literally a million miles from what they endured on the streets.
One example was a stray called Gloria who, when discovered, was severely underweight and had endured several accidents with vehicles on the roads. Walking was very difficult and she was in pain and deeply distressed. Once Toni rescued her, Gloria then had multiple operations on her hips, was neutered, microchipped, treated for her ticks and fleas and vaccinated. She then found her an incredible foster home who helped with rehabilitation until a loving permanent home was found for her with a couple in Canada.
“Since Gloria had such a rough first 8 years of her life, she is so grateful and happy every single day,” the Canadian adopters have since said. “We are amazed at how simple acts of love and care can turn a dog’s whole life around.”
Just take a look at the before and after pictures and you will be amazed. A poor, sickly creature that many would turn away from in shock or pity was transformed into a beautiful, healthy, vibrant girl and a much loved pet. The love, care and dedication of Toni and her team, as well as Gloria’s new adopted family in Canada, prove that there is always true beauty lying beneath even when some people may easily have dismissed it.
Gloria was rescued by Toni and is now very happy after adoption to a loving new home in Canada
Currently there is a dog called Momma who is up for adoption. She lived in the jungle with her pack for over three years and Toni and her team had been feeding them, treating them and keeping an eye on them. Unfortunately, Momma got caught in a pig trap and her front left leg was almost severed. Upon being found, she was rushed to the vet but the damaged limb had to be amputated.
“However, she is currently very happy, healthy and adapting to life on three legs - she loves her new stroller!” says Toni. “She is four-years-old, so sweet and gentle and absolutely adores people. I would love to get her a suitable home.”
I ask Toni why people should adopt, specifically from her and Phuket.
“It is, essentially, saving a life. Providing a better life and opportunity for an often defenceless animal who, by no fault of their own, find themselves plunged into a life of unthinkable suffering,” she replies. “Naturally, I want to find as many dogs homes from Phuket as I can although adoption in general is something I strongly support, be it from overseas or in the person’s home country.”
Adoption over breeders
It is often commonplace for people to turn to breeders or private sources when choosing a dog, I suggest, to which Toni agrees.
“However, you’d be amazed that often there are breeds of dogs such as, for example, Huskies in animal rescue shelters that have been abandoned. I urge people to do a little bit more research before making any final decision, to be a little bit more open minded before turning to breeders.”
COVID, naturally, had an impact as the majority of international flights were disrupted and numbers have dropped as a result. Furthermore, new regulations from airlines are posing a challenge even now things are slowly starting to revert to a sense of normality. It is frustrating, admits Toni, but something she will tackle head-on and fearlessly, as she always does.
As we wrap up our chat, Toni informs me that she hasn’t yet adopted a dog to Australia, something that I am amazed by and that I genuinely hope can be reversed in due course.
As suggested previously, it feels good to do good, right? Toni strives to do beyond good everyday and has done for years now, through troubling times and often with her back against the wall. She does what she does with love and passion and there is no materialistic barometer or financial gain measuring her. Her mantra is positivity, love, kindness, help, hope. She is evidence of a true, genuine soul trying her very best to make a mark on the world, however small, while simultaneously trying to make it a better place. I, for one, take great comfort in that. It is something that deserves great respect while being both humbling and inspiring that I think we could all learn a great deal from.
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