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Chiang Mai, Thailand – February 23 to March 1, 2015

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When we left for our year trip, people kept telling us that we would return different, that the experiences we would have, would change us. I often laughed in response not thinking much about it. I never thought that spending a week at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Northern Thailand would be an experience that would change us all. We spent a week cutting corn, scooping elephant poop, doing general park clean up, preparing elephant food under the hot dry sun and getting to know the other ENP volunteers. We felt like we were making a difference, even if it was a small difference. But what I was not prepared for was the informal education we received there. We learned why an elephant sanctuary like ENP is so important. Prior to coming to ENP we had never given it a second thought when we saw elephants performing and posing for photos with tourists, like the time we saw them in Ayutthaya. We did know that it was not right to ride an elephant (because it can cause spinal and other injuries) and we explained that to our children, but that was as far as we had thought.

At ENP we learned exactly how the elephants are trained to work in the logging industry, for trekking companies, for the circus and even to paint pictures for tourists. We met elephants that lost their eyesight at the hands of their owners, elephants that have become permanently marred by landmines while carrying logs, elephants who were forced to work logging while pregnant (often resulting in miscarriages), elephants who had their newborns taken from them in order to train the baby how to beg on the streets for money. Each one of the elephants at ENP, had some history of mistreatment and abuse.

In Thailand there is a huge contradiction between how elephants are treated and how they are portrayed as respected animals. In Thailand the elephant is revered. Elephants were even used in battles of the past, during wars between the Thai people and other nations. In Thailand (and throughout Asia) you can see marble sculptures/statues of elephants, wooden carvings, pruned shrubs shaped like elephants, paintings of elephants, jewelry and clothing with elephant themes, all because of how local people admire elephants and because elephants are an integral part of Asian culture. Then on the flip side of reality (the reality that most people do not know about) you discover how beaten and abused elephants are, by their owners to “train” and domesticate them so the owner can use them for logging (it is still legal in Burma to use elephants in logging), for working in camps giving tourists trekking rides, for being taken to the larger cities where they beg for money on the streets, or for performing in shows and circuses.

We learned how elephants become domesticated and trained. The practice is referred to as phajaan, and involves crushing the elephant’s spirit so they become submissive in order to be used for work, tourism or shows. Mahouts (elephant trainers) may starve them of food and/or deprive elephants of sleep for days. Elephants are not allowed to lay down so they are tied/chained up to poles and apparatuses that prevent them from laying down and cause pain or injury if they do try to lay down. Additionally elephants are inflicted with pain by poking them with elephant hooks, sticks, nails or by throwing rocks at them. Watching a documentary on this was heart wrenching, and many people in the crowd were brought to tears, watching footage of how badly elephants are treated. Previous to learning this we had never thought about how elephants became domesticated.

Spending a week at ENP gave us an opportunity to watch and learn about the Park’s elephants. We learned some of their likes and dislikes. We watched an elephant that had just arrived at ENP get to know her surroundings and gain weight she so desperately needed. We watched a baby have a temper tantrum and loudly trumpet because his mother didn’t want to nurse him when he wanted. We watched a teenage elephant break away from her mahout and raid the pantry. We watched an elephant tip our tractor trailer because we didn’t have food in it for her. We watched a baby cry out in distress and have all his aunties come running to protectively surround him and then soothe him. We witnessed the bond of friendship and loyalty amongst the elephants that goes far deeper than a human friendship could. We watched them smile when given food, or patiently wait for the cameras to stop clicking. We watched them bathe in the river and play and roll in the mud. We watched them roam freely, as they would in the wild.

That is ultimately the purpose of ENP, to retire elephants from their abusive circumstances and let them live out their life with the freedom to roam, form herds and family bonds, basically let them be elephants without humans abusive demands. Lek Chailert, the passionate founder of ENP, began the Park in the 1990’s with the goal of giving a sanctuary to rescued elephants, setting them free of human demands of logging, tourism and show purposes. The Park now has 44 rescued elephants that they care for. They provide: wide space for them to roam; daily food, water and shelter; and provide for whatever medical needs the elephants may have. The elephants all have Mahouts, hired by the park, that are required to care for the elephants with only positive and non-harmful methods, so the elephants are not mistreated in any way. Visitors and volunteers to the Park can photograph and watch the elephants, and also feed the elephants and do other jobs related to the daily care of the elephants. Lek’s love of animals has resulted in her having other rescued animals in the Park including, dogs, cats and water buffalo. In addition, she is in the process of setting up a sanctuary for approximately 70 monkeys. Another important goal of ENP is to educate the public, visitors and volunteers about the plight of Asian Elephants (and all elephants), which includes their population decline at an extinction rate, the horrible slaughter of elephants for black market ivory and jewelry and the horrible mistreatment of and poor conditions that most elephants live in. If you are interested in learning more about ENP and the issues facing elephants, have a look at the ENP website at http://elephantnaturepark.org

I think I can speak on behalf of all four of us in saying that we all left our week stay feeling very good about our participation at ENP. We all are profoundly more aware and sensitized to the plight of Asian elephants (and all elephants) and ultimately all animals in general. Having watched, photographed, stood by, hand fed elephants, and been a volunteer to do the mundane jobs related to elephant care, has given us hard to describe feelings, but incredibly good feelings. We felt in awe of the majesty of the elephants, felt privileged to have been so close to such incredible animals and to see them roaming, playing in the mud, trumpeting and just being themselves. We’ve all seen elephants in movies, television and at circuses, but to have been up close and personal with these elephants was so much more incredible. We will never look at an elephant again and not think of the elephants of ENP and what we learned in that week. To have been even a little part of Lek’s movement to make a better world for elephants and animals in general, has given each one of us a sense of hope that things will be better. We also know that educating the world about the plight of elephants and animals in general needs to continue. As one staff of ENP, Jodie, said so well, once we stop thinking of animals as “its” that exist only to serve human’s needs, once everyone starts thinking of animals as living beings with the same basic needs we have as humans, then and only then will animals, wild and domestic, be treated properly and humanely.

The memories we leave with are forever etched in our minds. We know that if our little family of four doesn’t ride an elephant, there are other families, presumably who like us, don’t know any better, and that will come and pay for this experience. Our hope is that our blog stops some families from coming to engage the tourist industry which mistreats elephants for show and entertainment. We hope for a ripple effect that elephants will not be abused for other human economic purposes such as logging and the slaughter of elephants for ivory. We hope that your act of reading our blog, will have a positive effect on your understanding of the plight of elephants and all animals, and that you will be further educated and spread the word about how all animals deserve better treatment. Thank you for reading about our incredible week at ENP.

Other “Side Effects” and Experiences of Our Time at Elephant Nature Park
Our week at ENP was commonly good for all four of us, but it had different effects on us, and we all experienced it in different ways. I would like to share some of that with you.

Aurora is an animal lover, and her week at ENP further reinforced that. Her love of cute soft furry critters began at an early age. She even loves non-furry critters such as ladybugs, butterflies, frogs, toads, geckos and fish. Any living creature can be adorable to Aurora as long as it is not a spider, snake or rat. We knew she may be afraid of the elephants at ENP, because of her experience with camels, and our earlier contact with elephants in Ayutthaya, where she would not get close for photos, even with baby elephants. For the first day and a half at ENP we managed to get her to come along with us in the park, close to the elephants. However, that was all she was willing to try because she was genuinely afraid of the elephants (they are huge and I can see how she was scared of them). From Tuesday afternoon forward, we lost Aurora to “Cat Kingdom”, where she spent the rest of her week. She blogged about her experience in Cat Kingdom, in her own blog, where you can see how she felt about helping out with the 140 or so stray/orphan/sick cats. The cats in Cat Kingdom had 100% of Aurora’s attention and love and even at times she was not there she talked, thought and worried about the cats. Those cats were spoiled with abundant love and attention, probably like never before. It was so heartwarming to see Aurora approach the Kingdom and to see, simultaneously about two dozen cats walk up to and gather around her, as though she were the Pied Piper.

Aurora was so protective of the cats, whom she had under her mother hen wing. She was so angry and upset when she saw some children in Cat Kingdom (day tourists) whom were treating the cats roughly. And, when one of the elephants escaped from the designated elephant area and was right next to Cat Kingdom and was causing mayhem at the elephant food supply centre, Aurora was in the Kingdom moving the cats away from the fence, that the elephant was only meters away from. She was protecting the cats in the Kingdom without any regard for her own safety. We were more worried about the rogue elephant possibly deciding to walk through the Kingdom, which would have destroyed the flimsy building and fence of Cat Kingdom, and most likely hurt Aurora (she was alone in the Kingdom). Despite her fear of elephants, Aurora did not think twice about putting herself in-between a rogue elephant and her furry little friends. While in the Kingdom Aurora insistently kept asking for more work to do in Cat Kingdom and was angry when she was not given any jobs to do. She did everything in her power to give herself completely to the cats in the Kingdom.

After her week in ENP Cat Kingdom, Aurora became more sure than ever that as an adult she will either be employed or at least personally volunteer in some way to help animals. However, she will probably not go as far as to become a Vet, because she is not able to deal with the messy stuff… blood, needles and so on. Aurora has told us numerous times that she is not going to have children when she grows up, but she will have a household full of cats, which she will lovingly take care of.

Aurora grew up under our noses during her time at ENP. In no other place have we ever left Aurora on her own, to be responsible for herself and others (even though the others were cats) and simultaneously felt at ease. During the week there were many times when Aurora was literally the only person in the Kingdom. Most of the time, she was unsupervised and completely on her own, because the supervisor of the Kingdom had other responsibilities that frequently took her away from the Kingdom. Aurora, for one of the first times felt independent, like she’s becoming a “big girl”, being in charge of the Kingdom and all the furry inhabitants. Aurora met, talked to and engaged more people at ENP than we did, because of her time in Cat Kingdom. It seemed that many, if not most of the volunteers and staff at ENP knew who Aurora was because of her time and dedication with the cats. Many people knew her name and knew she was the cat volunteer. Only a few people knew us, everybody knew Aurora!!! We could always find Aurora, because if she was not with us, there was only one other place she would be, somewhere close to the cats. Over our week at ENP, Aurora became more talkative, more assertive and more confident overall being out of our radar zone. We too, felt comfortable leaving her on her own, in charge of herself and the cats. We are so proud of Aurora, how she matured and how she passionately spent her time caring for the Park’s cats.

During the week at ENP, Noah too became a little more independent of us and matured. There were a few times when Len and I skipped the volunteer group routines, and Noah had the opportunity to as well, but he chose to stay with the group and help out with the chores. Following those times and at other times during the week, we had comments and feedback from others who observed Noah that made us so proud of him. People were telling us that he was a dedicated, hard worker who was an integral part of the group. In general we heard from others that Noah is a fine young man, who we can be very proud of. And we are so proud of Noah. He really is an amazing young man.

Another nice side effect of our week at ENP, was that we got to meet and become friends with some very nice people from other countries. There was a large group of volunteers at the park for the week, so workgroups were created for the assignment of our daily tasks. The groups remained the same throughout the week so we, got to know our co-volunteers a little bit, by the end of our week. They are a great bunch of people and it was wonderful to have met them. Here’s our “Workgroup D” photo.  Hazel and Martin (Liverpool, Great Britain), Phillip and Denise, Peter, Wayne (Australia) Larry and Sandra (USA, now Budapest, Hungary), Judy and George (USA).

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