17th June 2009
Ten years ago, the Mail told the heartwarming story of Kim Cooling and her husband Gary, who fell in love with Rama, a street dog, while on holiday in Thailand. Sadly, Rama recently passed away, but not before inspiring the couple to set up a charity. Here, Kim, 52, a social worker who lives in Woodford, East London, with Gary, 43, a roofer, pays tribute to the dog that changed her life.
My love affair with my beloved dog Rama started on holiday in Thailand just
over a decade ago, and it ended last week when she was put to sleep in a
treatment room at our local vet's.
As Rama slipped into unconsciousness, and slowly stopped breathing, I held her tightly and whispered to her how much I loved her.
When my husband and I returned to the house, my eight rescue dogs, seeing Rama was not with us, started howling.
Puppy love: Kim Cooling with Rama the street dog
They knew she was gone. A week on, and Rama's death feels as raw as ever to all of us.
Yet amid our grief, I have to keep reminding myself that this is not a terrible tragedy, but in fact the closing chapter in the life of a street dog who had incredible good luck.
I can still recall, as though it were yesterday, the moment in November 1998 when I first laid eyes on Rama.
My husband, who was then my boyfriend, had taken me to Thailand for a romantic break.
We planned a week in Phuket, followed by a week in Bangkok. During the first week, we decided to go to Patong, a bustling area with stalls and restaurants.
And it was there, as we sat drinking coffee in a bar, that I spotted an emaciated, fawn-coloured stray dog, weaving through the tourists and stall holders.
She was desperately searching for food and trying to dodge the firecrackers some boys were throwing.
My eyes followed the wretched-looking animal and after gulping down my drink, I raced after her.
In my bag, I had some tins of pilchards, so I quickly opened a can. She wagged her tail in appreciation and gobbled the food in seconds.
And that, I thought, would be it. Our hotel taxi was waiting across the road
and it was time to go.
But just as we were climbing into the taxi, the dog appeared and stood at our feet, looking up at us hopefully.
She had risked her life following us across a busy road heaving with cars, tuk-tuks and bicycles.
We made a quick decision to take the dog back to the beach area near our hotel, where it was safer and quieter.
She sat on our laps in the taxi and seemed happy in our company. We decided then to call her Rama, after the Thai King.
Back at the hotel, we took Rama to the beach and sat with her until we had to retire for the night.
We got up the next morning to see her sleeping under a deckchair exactly where we'd left her.
Ready to go: Rama with Kim's husband Gary before the big trip home
After that we became inseparable. Rama would spend the whole day with us on the beach, joining us for dinner at local restaurants, where she'd sit under the table waiting for scraps.
When it got late, Rama knew we would have to leave her - and she hated it. One of us would distract her as the other slipped away, but she would race past the guards at the hotel gate and run into the lobby searching frantically for us.
Every morning, she'd be standing at the hotel gates just waiting, her tail wagging furiously when she saw us. We suspected she'd been there all night.
Naturally, our worry over what would happen to this dog when we left Phuket to go to Bangkok grew, and we went to great lengths to try to find someone to take care of her. But no one was concerned about a street dog.
Then we heard that as part of an annual cull, all the stray dogs at the beach were due to be poisoned.
We were horrified and decided immediately: we would take her back to the UK with us - whatever the cost.
The first step was to purchase a cage so Rama could travel to Bangkok with us. Much to our surprise, at Phuket airport, Rama was checked in with the rest of the luggage.
She seemed to take it all in her stride, sitting in her cage with her front legs crossed as we hauled her up on to the baggage carrier.
As we arrived at Bangkok airport we were frantic with worry about Rama and had no idea how we'd find her.
But when we arrived at the luggage reclaim, we heard howls of laughter. There was Rama in her cage, with her front legs still crossed, going around the carousel with all the suitcases.
We were booked into a first-class hotel in Silom Road and had to plead with the manager to let her stay with us.
Falling asleep on the bone: Rama, far left with some of her rescued friends
Rama was allowed to stay in the basement in her cage. Over the course of that week, Gary proposed, which was the reason he'd arranged the trip in the first place.
I said yes, but the romance of the moment was lost in the sea of paperwork and endless phone calls.
Before we could take her on a plane, she had to undergo a full health check. We found a top veterinary hospital in Bangkok, where we were told she was about two years old.
Blood tests, however, revealed some bad news. Rama had heartworm, a serious but common condition in dogs in Thailand caused by mosquitoes.
She would have to undergo weeks of treatment once back in the UK and the drugs would cost more than £1,000.
The condition, which is linked to heart failure, also meant there was a slight risk to Rama on the flight.
But she was doomed if she stayed in Thailand, so we ploughed ahead.
We didn't see any of Bangkok's sights, instead traipsing around government offices filling out paperwork.
But at the end of the week, we'd managed to get Rama a ticket for our flight back to the UK and had arranged her quarantine in England.
When we boarded the plane, we were frantic with worry. Would they remember to put Rama on the plane? Would she even survive the flight?
Suddenly we saw an old truck racing towards the plane. On the back of the truck was Rama in her cage, and we were able to watch from our seats as she was loaded into the cargo hold.
We were so relieved, but it was only when we arrived at Heathrow that we dared to hope Rama now had a chance of a life she deserved.
Rama spent six months in quarantine, undergoing treatment for heartworm. Each
week, I drove around the M25 from our home on the Essex borders to visit her,
using up all my annual leave.
Meanwhile, I was busy planning our wedding and any plans for an extravagant affair were quickly shelved.
In all, it cost us almost £5,000 to bring Rama home.
Rama was finally able to leave quarantine a month before our wedding. As Gary and I drove home with Rama, we could hardly believe that after everything we'd been through, she was finally about to become our pet.
Taking in a stray dog is never straightforward, let alone one from Thailand. Rama suffered terrible separation anxiety for the first months, and howled in despair every time we left the house.
Before: The Coolings spotted the emaciated Rama
after she begged for food
After: Rama, back in the UK and looking much healthier
But despite having never lived in a house before, she was very clean and had good lavatory habits from the outset. She loved having her baths.
And about eight months after she came home, her separation anxiety suddenly came to an end. She learned that if we left, we would return and she was no longer on her own.
Rama constantly made us laugh with her antics. Once, she fell in a swamp when chasing a fox in Epping Forest.
I didn't recognise her when my husband dragged her out. She was covered in slime and you could only see the whites of her eyes.
She also had a phobia of having her claws cut and as soon as you said the words 'clippie clippie', she would be off under the bed or hiding behind a shrub in the garden.
Rama quickly settled into a wonderful existence. But I don't think she ever completely forgot of the horrors of her life on the street.
She always slept on a cushion next to my bed, and throughout her life would frequently have nightmares. She'd twitch, before waking up whimpering or howling.
As I watched Rama blossom, I found myself thinking about stray dogs and their plight. The more she flourished, the more I wanted to help other dogs.
In 2000, a year after taking in Rama, I went to Battersea Dogs' Home and got Tulip, a black poodle.
That same year, I returned to Thailand and came home with another stray, Peggy.
Then, the following year, I went on holiday to Sri Lanka. I was so upset by the problems experienced by stray dogs there that I started to return to the country as often as I could afford.
I'd fly there with a friend and spent my wages paying for stray and sick dogs to be treated by a vet.
It always broke my heart to leave stray dogs behind and, in 2004, I returned with one called Lavinia.
A year later, on another trip to Sri Lanka, I came back with two more, Scooby and Sid, who had both had their tails cut off.
In all, I've spent more than £10,000 bringing dogs home from Sri Lanka.
In 2006, I rescued Tinky, an apricot toy poodle, from a local dog shelter and Molly from another shelter.
The following year, I formalised my efforts in Sri Lanka by setting up a charity, Animal SOS Sri Lanka.
It was a lot of work and, even now, I often stay up until 3am working on fundraising and organising our local help.
But as a result, we've recently acquired a plot of land that we are turning into a shelter for unwanted dogs.
Finally, last year, I rescued Harry, a 14-year-old poodle who looks like a monkey and was abandoned when his elderly owners died. He's 15 now, but still going strong.
As for Rama, she seemed to love the new additions to our family and over the years became the definite matriarch to what was now a pack of dogs.
Happy family: Gary and Kim with the late Rama
And her devotion to us never wavered from the moment we met. Every morning, she'd leap up from her cushion at my bedside to lick my hand.
If ever she saw me in tears, she would place her head on my lap.
Rama was 13 this year and, in early May, I noticed a number of lumps clustered around her neck.
The lumps were removed and tests inconclusive. I was told they were fatty deposits and nothing to worry about, but from the outset, I feared the worst.
At the end of May, one of the lumps on Rama's shoulder suddenly grew rapidly and my vet removed it.
The lesion was sent away for pathology and a week later Rama was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma.
We were told there was no cure, and she had just weeks to live. Rama had chemotherapy, but the cancer was already overwhelming her. I think she knew her days were coming to an end.
One night I heard her stirring and turned my bedside light on to find her with her nose resting on the mattress. She let out a tired sigh and had a look of resignation in her eyes.
Then, Rama stopped eating. The Sunday before last, she started lying in the soil in the garden, which she'd never done before. It seemed as though she was asking to go.
The next day - June 8 - we took her to the vet and she was put to sleep. We didn't want her to suffer any longer.
Heartbreaking as it was, her death was peaceful and I know she would have felt loved as she left this world.
Rama was cremated and I'm planning to keep her ashes and have them scattered with mine when I die.
Rama's death has left a terrible void and I honestly don't think life will ever be the same again.
She's played such a big part in our lives and, by inspiring me to do all the work I do now, really changed the course of my life.
The last words I said to Rama were that I will see her at the Rainbow Bridge. I'm sure she'll be patiently waiting, wagging her tail, just as she was outside our hotel in Phuket all those years ago.
● To help Kim's work in Sri Lanka, visit www.animalsos-sl.com