Visitors feed pigeons at Wat Rakhang despite a sign warning them this could pose a health risk. (Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin)
Like many lay Buddhists in Thailand, Pratana Laoterdkiat likes to make merit by freeing or feeding animals to restore her spirits when she feels gloomy, but experts warn the tradition needs to be curbed as it can cause damage to property and harm the animals while potentially helping to spread infectious diseases.
Ms Pratana, a native of southern Trang province, occasionally journeys to Bangkok to pay homage at Wat Rakhang Khositaram (“Temple of the Bells”) and engage in such merit-making, which is believed to help determine the quality of the next life and assist a person’s growth towards enlightenment.
She was in the capital last week to pay her respects at the Grand Palace to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away last October at the age of 88. While in the city, she dropped by the temple to feed the pigeons at a nearby pier and throw bread to the fish in the Chao Phraya River.
“I feel good when I see the fish eating the bread I’ve prepared for them,” she said. “I feel like I’ve helped them and that makes me happy.”
Even though freeing animals from captivity or saving them from certain death is an accepted part of Buddhist practice, and one that proponents believe will remove bad luck, reduce illness or boost good fortune, it has come under attack from environmentalists, animal lovers and even health officials.
Nowadays, for example, Wat Rakhang Khositaram suffers from an overpopulation of pigeons that is causing headaches for its caretakers, damaging its property and also affecting nearby communities.
In another case, a turtle called Orm Sin that had spent a quarter of a century swallowing “good luck” coins at a temple died of complications after a second operation to save her failed. Nearly 1,000 coins were removed from her stomach, many from merit makers.
After the incident, Vet Nantarika Chansue asked them to refrain from using animals as a tool to make merit.
But Ms Pratana said she was brought up in an environment where such good deeds were praised, suggesting that more work is needed to educate people about the complex issues at play.
“We’re taught to do good deeds,” she said. “We often release fish into water or birds into the sky.”
“Animals provide food and in this way it is giving back to nature. We can’t say for sure whether this will help us in our own lives, such as overcoming some form of hardship, but we certainly feel better when we do it.”
According to local folklore, different animals are associated with different blessings.
For example, pla mor (climbing perch) is believed to keep illness at bay, probably because its name sounds similar to the Thai word for doctor (mor); eels can bring wealth; and catfish can help you avoid conflict, or even war. Meanwhile, thanks to their long lifespan, turtles may give you a long and healthy life.
Ms Pratana said she had never considered the negative impact of the ritual, especially the risk of pigeons spreading infectious diseases to humans.
“From now on, I may consider making merit in other ways,” she said, adding that she has in recent years lost her faith in Buddhist monks because of the mounting reports of their unholy acts.
Meanwhile, in response to Wat Rakhang Khositaram’s pigeon problem, Pracha Pattanarat, the local district chief, has ordered a large placard be put up in front of the temple warning visitors of the risks.
“Pigeons breed very quickly,” he said, adding that before they are released the birds must be tested for disease.
He urged the public and animal vendors to cooperate with the authorities in supporting the bird control programme initiated by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), which is also aimed at reducing the local bird population.
“If we keep feeding them, they’ll just come for more. They will see the temple as a food source,” Mr Pracha said.
On March 23, a combined team of city officers led by Mr Pracha and officials from the BMA’s Communicable Disease Control (CDC) Division, led by director Methipoj Chatametheekul, inspected the temple and ran random blood tests on the pigeons there. They were assisted by the Veterinary Public Health Division.
Two sets of blood samples were taken from 10 pigeons, Mr Methipoj said, adding that the preliminary results had not yielded any indication of disease.
More detailed results will come in a few days, he said.
Mr Pracha said another issue is that of the birds’ waste defacing public and private property. Their droppings also contain dangerous fungi and bacteria that are potentially harmful to humans, he added.
In the meantime, officials from the CDC have been hanging wax on trees inside the temple to try and keep them away, Mr Methipoj said, adding that educational campaigns for lay Buddhists have also been launched.
According to Phra Kru Samuwatchara, who assists the abbot, the temple has already spent over 10 million baht repairing a sermon hall and improving the condition of other historical sites tainted by pigeon droppings.
One of the problems is local vendors, some of whom sell birds to temple visitors so they can free them.
When interviewed, a vendor calling herself Aunty Lek said she was aware of the issues but seemed reluctant to lose her livelihood. However she said she supported the idea of the authorities catching the pigeons and removing them to other areas.
Aunty Lek said she has cooperated with the authorities and also educates customers who want to make merit in this way by teaching them about what not to do to ensure the animals themselves are not harmed.
For example, terrapins and turtles cannot survive in rivers because of the fast-flowing water, she said. They need calm waters with land nearby where they can rest to survive, she added.
Yongyuth Yukong visits the temple regularly with his son. He said he hopes parents educate their kids about animal welfare to minimise the damage caused by releasing them.