✦ 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.