The "Seven Dwarfs" were left in a box beside a garbage bin last January. But that's when volunteers from Bangkok's Soi Cats and Dogs animal charity spotted them.
If they hadn't, the seven black-splotched white pups, subsequently named after the seven dwarfs in the children's tale, would at best have ended up at a Buddhist temple – the routine destination in Thailand for discarded pets – reduced to a life of neglect and a diet of scraps. Or the little mutts, if they survived, might have joined Bangkok's estimated 300,000 disease-ridden and malnourished soi (street) dogs, trying to survive underfoot on the crowded roads.
Instead, thanks to Sheridan Conisbee – the British-born founder of Soi Cats and Dogs (SCAD), a nonprofit group working to improve the lives of Bangkok's stray and feral animals – the pups Bashful, Happy, Dopey, and the rest have since found welcoming homes overseas.
They've followed on the tails of some 700 other dogs rescued by SCAD and placed for adoption worldwide, a third of them in the United States, through SCAD's "Ambassadors of Love" home-finding program.
"A dog in need is a friend in need, no matter where it is," Ms. Conisbee stresses. "If we can't get them adopted here, we'll look elsewhere."
With her dimply smile and mischievous wit, Conisbee appears at first glance to be out of place amid the makeshift pens serving as temporary homes to rehabilitated strays.
Yet before you know it, she's gleefully cavorting with the canine residents at SCAD's small, leafy headquarters with its animal playgrounds and veterinary clinic. She pays no heed as her protégés, tongues licking and tails wagging, proceed to plant paw prints all over her stylish outfit. She barks playfully back at them.
Conisbee and her dozen helpers are the only friends these dogs have ever known. "They're sentient beings, not vermin on the street," she insists. "They have no pedigrees, but they have excellent 'pet degrees.' "
Thailand's soi dogs can make for piteous sights. Often hairless or disfigured due to disease or untreated injuries, they skulk listlessly or sprawl like discarded rag dolls. Dogs rounded up by municipal agencies are often sold clandestinely to Laos and Vietnam in the dog-meat trade, animal rights advocates say.
"The general attitude is, 'Not my dog, not my problem,' " laments Edwin Wiek, director of the Wildlife Friends of Thailand. "As with domestic violence, everyone sees the problem, but no one does a thing about it."
But SCAD does.
Aided by "dog aunties," who agree to watch over their neighborhood's strays, the group's volunteers locate the neediest cases. They delouse, vaccinate, and nurture the animals back to health and then find adoptive owners.
Foreign sponsors underwrite SCAD's "Three Mutt-keteers" program (a publicity campaign headlined by four rehabilitated strays – the jaunty Ruffos, perky Pawthos, suave Tailamis, and catty C'Atagnan).
Before and after photos testify to astonishing recoveries. In one set, YoYo, a sickly, completely bald dog, metamorphoses into a poised Pomeranian look-alike with lush cream fur. In another, a skeletal, mangy specter turns, over a few months, into a regal affenpinscher doppelgänger posing beside Natalie Glebova, a young Canadian woman who was Miss Universe 2005 and is a keen supporter of SCAD.
"For years I walked past soi dogs, feeling sorry for them but thinking it wasn't my business," says Conisbee, a longtime Bangkok resident who now divides her time between Thailand and Singapore. Then one day in 2002, "There this flipping dog was in my path – no hair, boils, blisters all over, limping badly with swollen feet," she recalls. She called him Boy and tried to befriend the wretched creature.
"[He] bit me," she adds, laughing.
Returning with thick bite-proof gloves, she began tending to the hurting, scrawny animal. "He epitomized everything unfair and frightful about life as a stray," Conisbee says. "He was untouchable and unlovable with a litany of [health] problems, living on discarded bits."
After months of dedicated care, Boy bounced back. "He grew long, shaggy hair like an Afghan hound and had a definite wag in his walk," she recalls. To save him from a return to the streets, Conisbee searched for an adoptive owner. She found one in the United States. Boy was flown to Boston in September 2003 and welcomed by Jennifer Gaucher, a property consultant in Spencer, Mass., 50 miles west of Boston. More than five years later, Boy lives it up, occupying two dog beds alternately – when he's not out chasing squirrels. "They drive him crazy," Ms. Gaucher notes. Today, "He's extremely loving and trusting," she adds.
Soon, Conisbee started offering free medical, vaccination, and neutering services to Thai pet owners at a mobile clinic staffed by volunteer veterinarians. SCAD also promotes the long-term benefits of sterilization to control the ballooning population of strays.
SCAD educational campaigns in schools and neighborhoods introduce the group's cartoon characters – "Teacher Tub" and his assistant "Miss Meow" – to children to encourage responsible pet ownership. That includes caring for animals even after they lose the puppyish "cuteness" that Thais often look for in pets.
"Many people are very poor, so you can't expect them to buy [fancy dog food] for soi dogs," notes Annelize Booysen, the charity's general manager. "But communities can take ownership of animals on their streets."
"In a world apathetic about animal suffering, we must plow ahead and do the best we can," says Dr. Chinny Krishna, director of Blue Cross of India, a leading animal charity. "Sherry has shown what one committed person can do, and I salute her spirit."