Teacher Quits Job to Save Street Dogs in Thailand

In Tamara Johnston's local community in Thailand, people in general don't like dogs. And for the many abandoned dogs living on the streets, poisoning, abuse and starvation are a way of life. Following her heart, our newest Game Changer nominee decided to make a difference in these dogs' lives.

save street dogs in Thailand

STORY AT-A-GLANCE

  • Today’s Pet Game Changer is Australian native Tamara Johnston, founder of the Thai Street Paws Rescue in Songkhla, Thailand
  • Tamara’s first-ever dog and the inspiration for her rescue was a puppy, Bella, who she found abandoned outside a temple in Thailand where she was working as a teacher
  • Many years later, as Bella lay dying in her arms, Tamara promised her she would continue to help her friends — the starving, abused street dogs of Thailand
  • The daily challenges Tamara faces in her quest to improve the lives of the dogs of Songkhla often seem insurmountable, but she keeps going, grateful for every small kindness she is offered
  • Tamara is a shining example of why the Game Changer series exists; I want to bring awareness to the important work game changers are doing around the world
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Today my guest is Tamara Johnston, who was nominated for a Game Changer award by Susan W. Tamara founded the Thai Street Paws Rescue, which provides shelter and veterinary care for Thailand’s abandoned, starving, and abused street dogs.

Tamara’s organization also strives to educate the local population about the importance of sterilization and vaccination so that hopefully, the suffering these dogs endure can come to an end.

Rescued Puppy Bella Leads to a Life of Rescue Work

Tamara explains that her rescue journey began two decades ago, when she found a beautiful little puppy outside a temple in Thailand, where she was working as a teacher.

"She would’ve been run over or poisoned or killed," Tamara explains. "I took her in. She was my first-ever dog, and the reason I fell in love with Thai dogs. She became my life, of course. When she was three years old, we moved back to Australia from Thailand, which was a long process. We lived in Malaysia for six months, and then she had a one-month quarantine in Australia.
In Australia, I went back to teaching, but I kept returning to Thailand because I wanted to help the dogs here. Every school holiday, and on long service leaves, I'd come back and help dogs. My heart was drawing me back here. But taking my dog from Thailand to Australia and then back to Thailand again was not easy.
In the end, I decided I needed to come back here to stay. I started Thai Street Paws Rescue, and all because of this one little puppy. She’s gone now. She passed away two years ago at 17. When she left me, I promised her I would continue doing this and continue helping the dogs here in Thailand, and in particular in the town where I found her."

I asked Tamara if starting a rescue from nothing in a foreign country felt overwhelming to her.

"It was very overwhelming," she replied. "It started with just a few dogs. I was feeding, sterilizing, and vaccinating dogs. And then some dogs were poisoned along a road beside my home, and I decided the rest of the dogs couldn’t stay here.
So, I admitted them to a vet clinic, and then we opened our foster home. It kept getting bigger. I was still trying to juggle teaching part-time, but I'd often have to cancel at the last minute because I was at the vet with a sick dog. I knew something had to change.
These days, I still do some teaching at a university, but my life is really about dogs. My whole life revolves around the rescue now."

A Very Harsh Environment for Dogs

In the Thai culture, dogs are misunderstood and mistreated. I asked Tamara if through her efforts she’s seen any change in the way dogs are treated there.

"That's a good question," she says. "Where I am, there’s a large Muslim population. They don't like dogs in general. Some of them do, but they don't want dogs around them. I try to get across to them that I'm trying to help the situation through spay/neuter and vaccination programs.
But they’re like, ‘Just take the dog, take the dog, we don't want the dog.’ They don't understand that I can't take every dog. So, I'm trying to educate and provide services that can help.
Sometimes it feels like I'm banging my head against a brick wall, and I wonder if things will ever change. But I think I can see a slight change in things when people come to me and ask, ‘Can you please take my dog to be spayed or neutered?’ Parvo and distemper are also a big problem here, so vaccinations are essential.
When they come to me and ask for help with skin problems, ticks, sterilization, vaccination, or something else, that's a win. And when they want the dog back, that's a bigger win. So, I always tell them, ‘I'm more than happy to help you, but I can't take your dog,’ unless it's an extreme case. So, I do feel like some progress is being made."

Local Foster and Forever Homes Are Almost Nonexistent

Part of Tamara’s work is trying to re-home dogs to other countries that are dog friendly.

"Adopting locally is very, very rare," she explains. "We had four orphaned, two-day-old puppies and trying to find a foster was almost impossible. So, adoptions locally don't really happen.
I have done a few adoptions locally, but most of ours are abroad. We were adopting to the U.S. with partner rescues, and Canada, but the rules are changing. Europe is still okay. We do rabies titers and are able to send them to homes in Europe.
During COVID, there were so many starving dogs on the street. We took in a lot, but there just wasn't enough food for them. And now our sanctuary is overflowing. We're in the process of building a new place and we hope to be in very soon. But our funds are very low right now because we’re trying to look after about 250 dogs every day."

Unfortunately, in addition to all the other challenges, there aren’t many local people volunteering to help Tamara’s rescue efforts.

"We have a small school, the International School, that just told me they would like to help more and are trying to get their students to come in and help," she explains. "We used to rely almost 100% on volunteers, and then COVID hit. I've had to employ local workers, but that's also difficult, because their mindset and my mindset about how animals should be treated are very different. So, it's really tough."

Some good news is that Tamara has forged a great relationship with a local veterinarian.

"He's amazing," she says. "He’s very big into spay and neuter. He’s phenomenal at what he does, and he’s performed some amazing surgeries. We had a dog whose muzzle had been cut off with a machete. The vet had never seen a case like it, but he went home, did some research, and he told me, ‘I can do this surgery.’ And he did. He did an amazing job. I am very lucky to know such a talented vet.
He gets me. I’ll tell him that my goal for the day is to bring in some dogs to be spayed or neutered. If I’m lucky, I might catch a few and I’ll come back to him and say, ‘I’ve got three,’ and he's just as happy as I am. He really gets it, and I really appreciate that. I’m lucky to know him."

Finding a Way to Keep Going

I think we can all agree that Tamara is one incredibly strong human being. I asked her, given the seemingly insurmountable challenges of trying to make life better for dogs in an anti-dog culture, what motivates her.

"It all comes back to my Bella," she replies, "She was the reason I started this. As she was passing away in my arms, I promised her that I was going to continue caring for her friends here and I'm not going to give up.
There have been so many times lately when I’ve thought, ‘I just want to go home, it's too hard, the cultural difference is too hard, people are ripping me off and I don't have enough money and I'm tired and I don't get a day off.’
Then I go out to feed my street dogs, and I ask myself, what would they do if I wasn’t here? I come home to my dogs, and yeah, they drive me crazy sometimes, but walking away from that is not easy either. So, I just have to find a way to keep going. I need to find a balance."

As Tamara is speaking, one of her dogs, Frosty, comes looking for attention. Believe it or not, Frosty is one of 15 dogs in her home right now. I asked Tamara what one thing she would like the world to know.

"I think I just want people to be more compassionate with living beings that have no choice," she says. "I look at these little puppies. They didn't ask to be abused or poisoned. We're all living beings. Let’s be nice to all living things on the planet, and respect them and try to help where we can. When I see people who don’t have much but are really trying to help, it makes me happy."

If you’d like to learn more about Tamara’s Thai Street Paws Rescue, you can visit her website (where you can make a donation — even $1 helps), or her Facebook or Instagram page.

Tamara is a shining example of why the Game Changer series exists. My goal is to bring awareness to the important work all these amazing game changers are doing around the world. It's such an honor for me to connect with people like Tamara, and my hope is that people see this, recognize the need, and want to support her work.