Dogs, Elephants & Nature
Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand was an experience to remember.
Nestled in the lush green hills of Northern Thailand, an hour’s drive from the town of Chiang Mai you’ll find elephants, dogs, buffalo and cats roaming among the grounds of Elephant Nature Park (ENP). The expansive animal rescue centre funds its work through ethical tourism (visitors may get tours of the park but not ride the elephants), volunteer programs and donations. This is how I spent a week at ENP – volunteering at the dog rescue shelter, which has about 450-500 dogs in its care, an international adoption program, and a clinic that provides free service to the pets of locals, particularly de-sexing.
ENP started as a rehabilitation sanctuary for elephants rescued from abusive situations – almost all of the 70 elephants here are somehow handicapped, whether it be one missing an ear, or having a severely damaged foot from stepping on a landmine, or an elephant blinded by its owner because it didn’t follow orders.
For others the scars are not physical but emotional. Every visitor to Elephant Nature Park is shown an educational film that details the horrors of how humans treat elephants. Baby elephants are found in the wild with their protective parents. The hunter often kills the parents so it may take the baby. Tied with ropes so it cannot move, over a period of time the elephant’s spirit is broken through a cruel and torturous procedure until it is depressed and in a state that it will do what the trainer wants.
These elephants are then used for dragging heavy logs, carrying tourists on treks, performing in circuses or walked through cities to beg for money and food. To see a group of elephants play joyfully in the rain and mud is to see the spirit of elephants alive and well – and that’s what I witnessed at ENP. The elephants here move around in their own herds, nurture each other, use their trunks to throw mud and dirt on their back (it’s a great sunscreen), and rub themselves against trees to get those itchy spots. The mahouts (carers of the elephants) use vocal commands for moving them around the park. We are told not to stand to the side or behind an elephant because it cannot see us.
The founders of ENP clearly love animals and want to protect them. It was during the 2011 floods of Thailand that dogs were rescued by boat and brought to the park until the owners could claim them. Many owners didn’t want their dogs back. When the word got around that dogs were being taken in, people started dumping dogs at the gate. Now there is an impressive dog shelter set-up to house dogs in ‘runs’ of about 10 dogs each. Most have a large fenced enclosure, with trees and protection from the elements, plus mahouts who care for them daily. About 50 dogs roam the park freely, hanging out in the dining area for the loving attention from visitors.
There’s also the Cat Kingdom, where just as many cats are rescued, de-sexed and up for adoption. A herd of buffalo roam through the park munching on the grass, and farmyard animals including horses, pigs and goats also live here. There are even rescued monkeys. The park has a no-kill policy and everyone seems cared for and loved.
My week at the dog shelter included living in the volunteer house with 13 dogs in our yard, a somewhat rowdy but endearing pack. The daily schedule started at 8am with walking the dogs in the clinic and cleaning their cages, giving them breakfast and tidying up. Until 11am we were given odd jobs such as bathing dogs with specific skin problems or visiting different runs to socialise with the dogs. After lunch, at 12.30 we’d give the clinic dogs a walk and continue with more odd jobs. At 3pm we gave the clinic dogs dinner and walked them, taking turns with other volunteers to clean the cages. By 5pm I was covered in dirt and ready for a shower.
This is probably one of the hardest weeks I’ve had in a long time, but the memories of each dog’s personality will stay with me. There was Liverpool, who was at the clinic to get a wheelchair as his hind legs became paralysed. The large and heavy Dr Yan, who had a bandage on his paw and would invariably need carrying once he stalled on the way back from his walk. And there was the gorgeous puppy Poppy, who was missing an eye but had so much cuteness to make up for it. Poppy is being adopted in Canada – she’s one of the lucky ones.
Perhaps you’re not up for working in the dog rescue shelter on your next holiday. But I would like to suggest this: carefully choose your holiday activities and put your money into ethical businesses.
Molly Furzer has been practising yoga since 1999 and teaching since 2007. She teaches Kids & Family Yoga, Laughter Wellness and Mindfulness for schools.
All photography copyright Molly Furzer. No reproduction allowed.