Our special Guest Blogger is Christine who shares her story of volunteering with rescued elephants and dogs in Thailand. Being educated on the plight of these animals and animal tourism allows you to make informed decisions on your travels. We hope you find this read as educational as we did.
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, by Christine Morrissey
I visited Elephant Nature Park as a volunteer with the elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2009. I went over quite naive about the welfare of animals used in animal tourism. After the experience of spending a week there my views changed forever. I felt drawn to return, and in 2015 I spent one week volunteering with the elephants and two and a half weeks with the dogs. I plan to return much sooner next time!
Heather from Eezapet
very kindly donated some Eezapet
for me to take over, and asked me to write this account of my visit, and a bit of information about the elephants plight.
Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary in Chang Mai for more than 60 elephants, over 400 dogs, around 200 cats and more than 70 water buffalo. There are a few horses and pigs too. ENP was set up by Lek Chailert in the 1990s to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants. ENP has grown over time and now cares for various animals. You can visit or volunteer at the park or join one of their other projects.
Most of the elephants at the park are retired or injured adult elephants that have come from the illegal logging, street begging, or trekking industries There are some a couple of babies. Baby elephants used for tourism or work in Thailand go through a horrific process called the phajaan or crush where the elephant is put in a wooden cage, tied and pulled, beaten and stabbed, dragged and hung, forcing them into submission. They are sleep, food and water deprived. Some elephants die though this process which can continue for weeks. It is very disturbing and upsetting to watch this video footage, but opened my eyes to the sad plight of the elephant, and an appreciation of what wonderful work ENP does. The babies at ENP will never go through the training crush!
Once the spirit is broken though the training crush the elephant will go on to work for their "handler" or" mahout". For elephants used in trekking, painting shows, or in the circus "training" continues.Hooks are used to control the elephant, jab though their sensitive ears, lacerate their heads. In painting a brush is forced up their nostril and they are jabbed with a nail to force them to "paint". Painting and balancing in a circus act is not a natural behaviour for an elephant!Their feet are chained and and they will seldom be fed sufficiently. Some elephants that have previously chained, struggle to walk without chains at first when they get to ENP, so sad. Logging elephants are drugged to force them to work, and many elephants are blinded by spot lights or a slingshot to the eye. Some elephants will be injured and old and forced to work. Many female elephants endure forced breeding and then the baby is taken away from them.
So this is all so grim right?
This is where Elephant Nature Park lifts your spirit. Lek has set up a sanctuary where the elephants can form family groups and just be themselves. There is no riding and no hooks. Positive reinforcement is used for example when elephants go to vet visits . Some elephants are so distrusting of people and other elephants, they stay quietly out of the public eye with one trusted mahout. But they are free and safe. There are many more social elephant groups that come down to the river during the day and visitors can see them interact with each other. Its a unique magical experience and privilege.
You can visit or volunteer here. ENP has no low season. Volunteering with the elephants involves picking up pooh (theres a lot of it!), cutting corn in the field, washing food and preparing food. On my first visit we helped build a retaining wall.
Volunteering with the dogs was incredibly rewarding
and really sticks with me. The amount of dogs overwhelmed me at first but then I adjusted. Close to 50 were adopted by volunteers to overseas last year. About 30 of the dogs at the park are platform dogs, this means they are free to roam the park and interact with the many visitors, getting maximum attention! The rest of the dogs live in the dog sanctuary at the entrance to ENP. Us volunteers stayed in a house in the sanctuary. There are also about 10 dogs who live at the volunteer house. A lot of the dogs come from floods in Bangkok in previous years,also the illegal meat trade, and places where mass poisonings are planned. They are all neutered/spayed, vaccinated and cared for. There are about 40 runs. Volunteers feed, clean, bathe and walk dogs, bring them for vet appointments. There are some disabled dogs who have their own run and dedicated volunteers. A lot of the dogs are looked after by the local ladies too. Locals from the village can bring their dogs for free treatment but the deal is they must be vaccinated and fixed.
It was very hard to leave the dogs when it came time to go!
If you love animals and want to visit somewhere reputable, go to ENP to volunteer or visit, or one of their other projects; Karen Elephant experience, Journey to Freedom, Elephant Haven, Surin and Cambodia projects, plus several day trips to ENP to walk with the elephants. ENP is influencing other tourism operators to take the saddle off as they see the success of ENP. You will also meet lots of other like minded people who find it hard to leave too! Plus there is great vegetarian food, cold beer available to buy and local ladies doing massage nightly for a bargain!
I have so much respect for Lek and all those who run ENP dedicating their lives to changing animal tourism for good.
Their websites were you can learn more: