Meet the Abandoned Animals Cared for by Buddhist Monks
Biochemist David Wooster took a break from his research with a trip to Thailand in 2007, and was immediately taken with the “temple pets” and their caretakers. He plans to make a book with the resulting images, after one more trip to photograph the monkeys and dogs living in the temples (his work began, naturally, with the cats). For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with him about the project.
Emily von Hoffmann: How did you learn about the animals living in these temples? Can you share how this tradition originated?
David Wooster: When I went on the trip, I knew I would take photos of the temples, but after a while I couldn’t resist taking some photos of the cats and dogs. When I began sharing with other travelers, they seemed to like the animal photos the most, and I began concentrating on the pets after that. I think the tradition of the monks and nuns taking care of unwanted animals probably began with the teachings of The Buddha.
DW: Buddha required followers to take a vow not to harm living beings, so that includes taking care of the animals too. I was never religious in a traditional sense, although I was raised Christian. When I first got there, one of the monks gave me a book in English about Buddhism and that helped me get more interested. Now that I’m back in the States, I try to keep up my meditation routine because I find it relaxing.
EvH: What brought you to Southeast Asia?
DW: In graduate school in Montana, two of the other grad students were from Thailand, and I got to know them and their culture somewhat. When the time came for me to use my frequent flyer miles (I’d racked up a lot of them going to medical conferences and job interviews), one of the places I had enough miles for was a roundtrip to Bangkok, so I went there.
EvH: Can you tell us about a few of your favorite images, and the situation surrounding them?
DW: My favorite images were almost always the ones where the monks clearly cared about their animals. I hope their affection for them comes through in the photos, because I saw it in their faces when I was there. Not all the animals in the temples are taken inside the residences and cared for personally by the monks, because there are often just too many.
But even the temple animals that have to sleep outside still get fed every morning after the monks eat their breakfast. Alongside the animals and the beautiful setting of the temples, there are also portraits of their caretakers.
EvH: Were you able to spend much time getting to know the monks who are pictured? Can you tell us about any of these interactions that particularly stood out to you?
DW: Like many people in Thailand, the monks were generally welcoming to foreigners at the temples. Some wanted to share Buddhism and show off the temples, while others wanted to practice their English (especially the younger ones). I found that the further I got from Bangkok or other large cities, the friendlier the monks and nuns became. I was a lot more likely to be invited to eat breakfast when I was out in the countryside of Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand rather than Bangkok.
One difficult thing for me was to see how much is changing in Southeast Asia because of globalization. Many people I encountered think everything in the West is better, and many of the younger ones are giving up their culture somewhat.
I happened to be walking around the temples on four different occasions in Thailand while a young man was being ordained as a monk. Their family and friends traditionally carry him on their shoulders and they all take him to the temple because (I learned later) they are reenacting a scene from the Buddha’s life 2,500 years ago when, as a prince, he left the palace in India to go out in the world to find enlightenment.
Because the newly ordained Thai monk and his family had been feasting and drinking the entire night before, they were usually quite friendly and often pulled me into their celebrations, even though I didn’t understand at the time anything about what I was doing. At another temple in the countryside outside of Bangkok, I met a 93-year old monk who was arthritic and blind in one eye, but he still cared for perhaps 30 cats and kittens every morning. Some of the cats were feral and he even took food out to them by the front gate.
He was so patient with me while I was photographing him that, before I left for America, I had one of the photos enlarged and framed. I presented it to him, and although we couldn’t really speak to each other, I think he was touched by this.
EvH: Do you think you’ll return to the region for future projects?
DW: I hope to return within the next few months so I can take more photos of the monks with dogs and monkeys, since I mainly concentrated on cats while I was there.