Hello everyone! I just finished the week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park. Let me start off by saying the Park is much more than that; it's really a sanctuary. In fact I think the only elephant sanctuary in Thailand, a country with a strange dichotomy of attutudes towards pachyderms: they claim to revere elephants, and in fact they are cultural icons and used as symbols everywhere, yet the Thais have a centuries-old history of the most extreme brutality towards them imaginable, especially the young.
But I'll get to that later. I had a fantastic time at the Park; I shoveled manure (briefly) and planted corn and worked my duff off, and probably lost 10 pounds in the heat, and loved every minute of it!
I could list a detailed summary of what I did every day, but that would be tedious for both you and me, so let me just list a few memorable images from the week, with photos of most of them.
The whole complex at the Park is build of mostly renewable and/or recycled wood and bamboo, and for those who ever saw my toothpick "house", it looks quite a lot like that! It's got cool little walkways zig-zagging around that took me almost the whole week to figure out. And the forty or so dogs have plenty of places to hang out, sleep, and play. As I mentioned before, the Park is also a shelter for dogs, cats, water buffalo and other cattle who were all rescued. Sangduen "Lek" Chailert (the founder) loves them all, and her Park is a shining example of what can be done with a little love, some hard work, and a bit of forward-thinking.
Another memorable moment: "Hope" giving me a muddy kiss! The young elephant has been trained (by rewards) to give a big sucking smooch to people's cheeks-- it's the cutest thing ever! I never quite got a picture of him (yes, a boy) actually doing it, but this photo is right after one. Note: Hope is quite literally that: he's the first baby elephant Lek got that has not been "broken" by the primitive Thai "phajaan" elephant torture techniques, which are almost too horrible to describe here, but are assumed to be the only way to control elephants. Lek hopes to show the world that they can be trained and controlled with kindness instead of brutality. As you can see, it seems to be working!
Speaking of elephants, I think my favorite would have to be Medo, a sweet old lady pictured here with a broken back (or pelvis, I suspect) who was damaged by a greedy owner who tried to breed her with her foot already broken. But she holds no malice, and the old girl determinedly limps around the place, making sure she's included in the goings-on, especially the feeding and bathing! She's always gentle, and was a pleasure to sneak extra bananas to! Here she is in her usual spot, next to her big boyfriend "Uncle Max" who also happens to have an old broken foot. They seem to take comfort in each other, along with another old female missing a foot from a land mine. I was asked not to feel sorry for them, instead to be glad that they will spend their remaining years in loving care. I quickly agreed with that philosophy.
There were lots of other great volunteers-- too many to mention, but the two couples I seemed to hang out with the most were Paul & Barb, and Greg & Therese, all from Australia, pictured above at the Heaven Hut in the foreground. I wish I had known them when I was Down Under! Thanks, guys, for making it extra special. And thanks also to Matt & Hanna, Chris & Cathy, Jack, Lief, Lee & Anna, and all the rest. And Polly, you were a terrific group leader!
Let's see... there were also the delicious meals cooked up by Phom and her crew, sometimes joined by Lek herself who whipped up the best vegetable fritters I've ever had... and the Chang (which means elephant in Thai) beers given to me by Derrick (The one in the middle), Lek's partner, after a long day's work, which we drank along with Chaz, the head maintenance guy. Those two are the most talented handymen I've seen since Pappa; they can fix anything from water pumps to electric heaters. Unfortunately, they're both going on extended leaves this summer; I hope the place survives without them. Any volunteers? They could sure use you, Dad or Jim!
There were also trivia games and contests, memorable dinners--especially one where we had to use teams to represent animals (can you guess which animal they are above?), more elephant baths and feedings, and finally, best of all, a talk and video by Lek herself, about the current state of elephant care in Thailand and her plans to change it.
Later I got her autograph in her book and a great photo of her and Derrick at the final night's party.
The last day before I left I couldn't resist a final bath in the river with the elephants. I was glad I did, because Lek was there and I was able to get a photo of both of us-- quite an honor to be with someone who's won the "Hero of Asia" and "Hero of the Planet" awards!
Then all too soon it was time to go, but not before I said goodbye to all my new friends, human and otherwise!
For anyone who's interested in reading more about the park, and maybe to order some gifts or even visit or volunteer yourself, here's the link: