Introduction

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Hi there,

Welcome to my blog, and thank you for visiting :-). I’m not sure how this will go as while I enjoy keeping personal records I’ve never done it in such a public way. I’ve created this blog with the aim of sharing and exploring adventures, experiences and passions close to my heart. I’m hoping it will give any readers something they can take away for themselves whether it be inspiration, ideas, awareness, new perspective, or simply just enjoyment from reading the posts.

Firstly, my name is Samantha. I’m 26 years old and living Auckland, New Zealand. I was born and raised here, and I know New Zealand will always be home no matter where I may find myself. Since I can remember I have enjoyed the company of critters great and small. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science (Wildlife Management and Animal Welfare), and I have always strived to work in some animal field or other from shelters to zoos to rehabilitation centres to veterinary hospitals.

When it comes to ‘To Do’ lists of experiences, I have two or three. There is the bucket list of things to do in my lifetime – things like visit Antarctica, go on a hot air balloon ride in Europe, see a soccer match in an English stadium – and then there is the list of things I want to achieve sooner rather than later. The latter is a list that came into fruition not too long ago and focuses mainly on exploring the things I am most passionate about – wildlife and their conservation and welfare.

Since I was little, non-human animals have been my fascination and main interest. I grew up in a house backing onto a reserve in the suburbs, and we’d always be out feeding the ducks and other birds. One thing I learnt more and more as I grew up is that animals cannot speak for themselves. Like human babies, they are dependent upon others to stand up for their welfare when it is in question. Animals have all levels of intelligence and a lot of the time I think it is forgotten how sentient they really are. We all have complex nervous systems, different methods of reproduction, brains of various sizes and function, and unique designs that give us the ability to fit into certain ecosystems. Different species work into different niches and through all these connections thus life on earth progresses. We are all important to each other in some way.

As species have niches in different ecosystems, another thing I have learnt ‘growing up’ is that as individuals we are encouraged to find our own personal niche too. I think this can be a struggle in different ways for different people – there is so much to be passionate about, but sometimes people are unable to follow their passions, or they spend their life without one. I find myself drawn to people who care about what happens to the world and who strive to personally contribute something positive. I talk about it often with a friend of mine who views the earth as doomed/a ticking time bomb. She gets exasperated because she sees there is just so much to do; human rights, individual and species health, ecosystem wellbeing, the environment in general – these are examples of things I care about too, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. But I’ve decided that the best thing to do is stick with the things you feel most strongly about. There is so much I want to do, but sometimes you just have to take it one step at a time, and prioritise and plan where need be. With our individuality and uniqueness we thus have individual and unique passions, and I really do feel that if each person contributed something to an issue they felt strongly about, the world would be better off.

So I suppose that is why I have set up this blog; to be able to recount and set up journeys of contributing to and exploring things that matter to me. I’m grateful to anyone who takes the time to read it, and hope it encourages others to share and think about their own journeys and adventures. My latest expedition was in Thailand where I volunteered at an elephant rescue centre for some time – in my blog you will find a lot of wolf-related information and in-between bits and pieces, but more recent posts will contain writings from and about Thailand and the elephant sanctuary.

Sam.

Note: All the photographs used in this blog are my own unless otherwise stated. If you would like to use them for anything please contact me for permission.

Join me on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/Blameitonmywildheartblog and Twitter – https://twitter.com/wildatheartblog

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America - Wolves: 2010

America – Wolves: 2010

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Thailand – Elephants: 2013

That taboo ‘D’ word

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I’m talking about depression.

Depression. That word sends a million and one thoughts and feelings coursing through me when I type it out and read it. Thoughts and feelings like:

Shame.

Darkness.

Anxiety.

Fear.

Weakness.

Loneliness.

Abnormality.

Pain.

Helplessness.

Worthlessness.

Shame is the biggest one, right now, for me. And ‘abnormality’. Maybe if this blog was anonymous I wouldn’t be questioning whether or not I actually write this up. To be honest with you, I am afraid to write about it. Because I’m afraid of how it might make me feel. And I’m afraid of how everyone reading this will perceive it.
I once mentioned that ‘clinical depression’ has been a part of my life. It feels so strange to say that. I want to whisper it to you with my eyes closed, so that I can’t see your reaction. We’re all just people, right? There are things about each of us that others wouldn’t ever understand. But I feel like if I open up to someone and say that I’m on medication, it gives me this automatic stigma and means every ‘normal’ person will want to back away slowly. But for goodness sake, we are all people. And the real, shameful dark truth is that, for me, on the inside it sometimes feels like a struggle to maintain a state of happiness – or to even just not feel like I’m going to break down, wide-eyed with tears dripping down my face.

Look, I’m a scientist (here we go, trying to rationalise things). I have studied a wide range of biology topics, chemicals in the brain and neurological function being some of them. I understand that this horrid darkness isn’t my fault. When I came to know and accept that, I felt so relieved. It took a lot of pressure off. It meant I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I wasn’t failing at life – it meant I could accept things, and just go forward doing what I could to work on it. For me, working on it meant trying therapy first (and we’re talking a good decade ago) – but when I realised I wasn’t really structuring action plans for myself, and the sessions weren’t helping a great deal, I decided to change tactic. Three things really impact my quality of life; friends and family, a comfortable living environment, and work conditions. I have always had a wonderful group of close, select family and friends, so that is one huge blessing that I have always been able to count on. As to living arrangements, well, when I started flatting it wasn’t so good for me, so I changed things. Now I live out in the country in a self-contained little place that is absolutely peaceful, free and relaxing (not to mention surrounded by animals). And I am finally in a job I enjoy, one that doesn’t leave me feeling mentally and physically exhausted at the end of each day. My employer allows me to trek off overseas for my passionate volunteer excursions, they support me furthering my education, and I can see a career with them. So getting these three things lined up together has done a great deal for my quality of life.

For me, depression has never been about self-worth. I look at the person I am, and I adore her. I adore this slightly nutty, wild-hearted, free-spirited tangle of brunette hair and long limbs who is full of passion and constantly dreaming about the next adventure. My warm heart and ability to see things through feeling and compassionate eyes are possibly the features I am most proud of in myself. So no, self worth isn’t the issue for me anymore. I think one main ingredient in the bubbling-hot concoction of my personal depression is how others perceive me. Or how I believe others perceive me. And what I believe is based on how these people treat me.

I was a late bloomer. In school I didn’t get asked on dates like my friends. Nobody wanted to dance with me at socials. People wouldn’t invite me to parties because they thought I would be boring. I was this skinny shell of a girl, a meek, quiet thing who was usually too shy to raise her hand in class to ask a question. I remember vowing to myself that if, by some incredible miracle, a boy ever wanted to go out with me, I had best marry that man! Luckily I changed my mind.
The first guy I felt seriously about completely changed me. When it comes to matters of the heart I utterly dedicate myself. So when we got together, I dedicated myself without a second thought. It was scary, and terrifying, but wonderful at the same time – this whole, new, ‘relationship’ thing. Having someone to go to the movies with. To text randomly throughout the day. To hold hands with. To chat on the phone with in between study and dinner. And I didn’t think about it going badly. I mean, it happened to other people, but they weren’t me, and they didn’t have this special thing I had. It was real. In my mind, life was set. I mean, I was this nice, smiley, free-spirited young thing who would drop anything if I was told I was needed by this person – there was no reason for him to do me wrong. I didn’t enjoy the company of my family or friends as much, but that’s okay, because I was in a proper, grown-up relationship that was important to me and not seeing friends much was just a normal side effect, right?
I didn’t realise that over time I was being manipulated. It is hard to remember, because I realise now that I blocked a lot of it out. The manipulation – the abuse – started out as mental. Emotional. Soon it incorporated verbal violence. Then it came to objects flying across the room. The neighbours banging on the door to ask what the hell was going on. Threats. The flatmates hiding themselves from it, leaving me to fend for myself. Being held down, helpless.
I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell my friends. I thought that it was normal. I believed, by this point, that I deserved it all. I was a crazy, ugly, inadequate, worthless girl. Nobody else would put up with me. I was lucky. I needed to stop complaining, I needed to stop being so difficult and selfish. And unbelievably, when he said he didn’t want me anymore, I was destroyed. I didn’t eat, so I lost weight that I couldn’t afford to lose. I couldn’t sleep. I remember lying on the roof at night in the rain in nothing but pyjamas, in winter, hoping I would die there. I cried all the time. That’s all I really remember.

Eventually, you begin to process things. I finally realised that abuse wasn’t normal, and I tried to convince myself I didn’t deserve it (even though I did believe that I was an ugly, crazy, difficult girl – this had been utterly drilled into me, and it took a bloody long time for me to see differently). And teenage Samsam just could not comprehend the fact that someone was capable of doing that sort of thing. Honest question – how is it possible that a person can do that to someone they apparently ‘love’? Teenage Samsam would have understood it more if she had been a nasty, mean, equally manipulative and abusive person – but that just wasn’t the way things were. She was a quiet, shy girl, not demanding or material-item obsessed. She wasn’t a bully, nor did she take pleasure in seeing others suffer even in the slightest. One of the hardest things to deal with was the fact that she had to go on living without having any of her questions answered. Without any honesty or truth. No closure, no satisfaction. Always wondering, ‘why?’

Anxiety secured itself firmly after that. A loud voice. A raised hand. Someone punching another person on TV. Boys in fast cars heckling me as they drove past. People yelling at each other. Anyone touching my neck. These sorts of things would cue the onset of a panic attack. Sometimes to the point where I would black out. Soon I realised I couldn’t go outside my room without feeling anxiety. And when I was inside my room, well, I was surrounded by a black cloud, suffocated, and terrified that I was going to break down. Depression had been in my life before that, but that whole experience built on it. Now I was just terrified of everyone. They say whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I have to disagree. Someone may physically survive a particular event, but never properly recover. Even as I think back to that time, nearly ten years ago, my little heart is racing, and my chest is constricted. And again I wonder: who the hell has the right to treat another person like that?
I managed to restrain the anxiety. But the depression itself was always evident. A usual day for me would mean waking up, trying not to think too much; trying not to let that dark cloud settle. I would go to Uni, or work, and feel inadequate in the eyes of others, but I would try to ignore it. Coming home I would continue to try and ignore the pressing darkness. It was like there was a rotten, sagging ceiling over my head that threatened to crash down on me at any moment, and suffocate me in that blackness. A normal day for me would mean just trying to carry on without being crushed. Because I didn’t know if I would ever be able to get up again if that rotten ceiling did finally cave in on me.

A few years ago I hit a very sudden, unexpected low point. Something that would usually be viewed as trivial affected me so much, so strongly, that I found myself pulled over in my car with a knife to one wrist. It was the first time I had even gotten close to physically harming myself that way, and I was terrified because I couldn’t actually remember getting that knife out. It happened so damn fast. I knew I needed more help.
Thus, the meds started. From what I hear about other peoples’ experiences with medication, I was lucky. I didn’t turn into a monster. I didn’t have horrible dreams, or feel unbalanced emotionally. Over time they made me feel, well, nothing – I just realised I felt like myself again. Occasionally that dark cloud would come back. Occasionally I’d feel lonely, or low. Every now and then a certain experience would bring me back down, despite medication, despite the wonderful support system I now realised I had, despite the tricks you learn to change your thought patterns and keep you from giving in to dark suffocation. But I can say that I’m still proud of my achievements; proud of my passions and the way that despite being hurt I haven’t gone on to become another abusive individual who takes their pain out on others. I was making plans and living life, and it was good. I could see that it was good.

I was spurred on to write this post a couple of weeks ago. My blog was designed to be a record of adventures, the worlds I thrust myself into in the name of “doing something good”. I’m damn passionate about conservation, the environment and animal rights – but lately I’ve also become more expressive about how I feel in regards to the ways people treat each other. I have always believed in honesty, compassion, treating others the way you want to be treated, etc. etc. I realise that I am still extremely naive. Innocence is very rare in our society nowadays, and I never used to see it as a weakness, but as something that others should nurture and cherish. In the perfect world innocence and trust would be positive qualities, but I’m sure we can all agree that this is not a perfect world, and in our society naivety and trust are excessively exploited.
Recently I put my trust in someone that I shouldn’t have. I was probably told a hundred and one times not to trust this person. And I didn’t at first. But I have this ridiculous, fatal flaw where I strive to see the best in anyone – absolutely anyone – close to me. Still, I was very vocal about the fact that I had no room in my life for lies, mind games, dishonesty, or anything but being honest and truthful. I was clear and concise in my beliefs, and I lived the way I talked – meaning I didn’t say one thing and then do another. And this person told me, non-stop, about how these qualities of mine were so good – and not just these qualities, but my passionate wanderlust, my spontaneity, my ridiculous sense of humour, my childish silliness… aspects of myself that I thought would be difficult to warm to. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. This person – this genuine person – sees me as I am, and actually admires the parts of me that I love the most.’ And slowly, I began to trust. You might say that I was groomed – over months of being told “you are safe,” “you can be vulnerable with me,” I began to believe it.

Edge of darknessWhen you live with fear of being exploited by other people, it can be a challenge to let someone in. It feels as though you are standing on the edge of anxiety’s cliff, atop a mass of waves that threaten to suck you in and drown you if you fall (by making the wrong decision). And you expect to be pushed by anyone in your near vicinity, so you stand there with your walls up, pretending you can’t see the black waves below you; pretending that you’re okay and everything is fine.
Now, when you are standing there on the edge of the cliff, trying not to freak out and pretending everything is fine, and someone gently takes the time to come over to you, put out their hand, look into your eyes and tell you it’s alright to come away from the cliff; that they aren’t going to push you, that you are safe… It’s like suddenly being wrapped up in a heavenly warm, beautiful blanket of protection, and you are led away from that cliff in safe arms and taken to a place where you can see the sunlight, and smile. And relax. It’s like being able to breathe after years of being strangled.

So, imagine what it’s like, after months of being told you are safe to trust, safe to let your walls down, safe to be vulnerable – and then suddenly and violently be pushed off that f**king cliff.

That’s how it felt. I knew I had been pushed, but I didn’t even feel myself fall. I told you what bearable days are like, when I would ‘fake it to make it’ in order to keep that rotten ceiling from caving in. Well, let me tell you, this time a few weeks ago that ceiling fell on me. It crushed me. It flattened me, pushed me all the way down to the bottom of that dark, raging sea. And I couldn’t get up. I don’t know if I would have gotten up if someone hadn’t intervened and picked me up off my bedroom floor.

So, once again I am left sitting here wondering. Asking myself “Why?” It could be a lover, a brother, a father, a mother, a best friend, an employer, a teacher, an idol – anyone you respect and put your trust in… To have it broken can be devastating. It can disrupt your world, and make you forget what is truly important. It is hard being faced with these feelings. Right now that darkness is clawing at my stomach, tightening the knot I’ve had in there for weeks. Slowly, slowly (because it always takes time with me) I know I will build myself up again. I’ll get out of the water and claw my way up the side of that cliff. But this is me telling you that I am terrified of that journey. I have made that climb before, and it takes a lot to clamber up the side of that cliff – especially when you know you may reach the top only to be pushed again, or to fall on the way. But talking helps. People who genuinely listen help. People who will sit with you in silence if need be because they care help. So anyone out there who is going through something that may feel unbearable – talk about it (even blab to me, I’m always up for hearing from those I have things in common with). It’s not forever. It may feel like it will be forever, but it’s not. And don’t forget what is really important in life. I give myself moments (in this case, weeks) to feel what I need to feel, but don’t abandon your passions, or the parts of your life that deserve your attention. Remembering that you care about something can be a great motivator. Right now I have two little tortoiseshell cats curled up on my lap – these fragile bundles of innocence help me remember that despite the horrid, nasty things that happen out there, the world is also full of goodness. Choose to be a part of that goodness.
One thing you can do straight away is make the conscious decision to not be one of those people who carry the cycle of pain out. “Hurt people hurt people.” Being hurt yourself does not give you the right to then go and hurt someone else. Shut that cycle down. Concentrate on yourself. Concentrate on peace, positivity, passion. Do things that make you smile. Watch a stupid movie. Congratulate yourself on little victories, like realising you’re laughing, or getting through another hour. Let others take care of you, you aren’t alone.

So as much as I would like justice, and closure, I have to shake that loose (not easy to do when there are SO many things I’d like to say…!) I have to forgive myself for tripping up and getting pushed again. I have to stop calling myself ‘fool’, and instead call myself ‘wonderful’, ‘caring’, ‘deserving of good things.’ So, over the next few posts as we gear up to another trip to those howling wolves countless miles away, I’ll probably show you a few things I’ve been getting involved with that make me smile.

If you’ve read through this essay, you get a huge high five for bearing with it!

Sam

Original image captured by Creative Photography Ltd

Jane Goodall in Auckland – a public presentation

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Last night I headed out to the heart of Auckland City to see Jane Goodall speak to a sold-out crowd. Where to begin. I have a good 30 minute drive home from the city (plus the time it takes for me to un-lose myself and find the motorway away from all those bustling streets), and the best word to describe how I felt driving home was, well: Good. I felt good after hearing Dr Goodall speak. I also wanted to cry – she talked about many topics that I care deeply about. And you know what? Wanting to cry also made me feel Good: because I do, very obviously, care about those things.

The two strongest words I took out of her presentation were ‘magic’ and ‘hope’. Jane is full of hope for the future, despite how bleak the world looks at times. And she is still able to describe so many of her experiences as ‘magical’. Really, she is a prime example of an incredible spirit; she has done so much good in her life, and has seen some horrific things, and yet she still smiles on and lives with hope. That’s the best way I can describe what I took out of the evening: Hope.

Jane has been travelling the last few days up New Zealand, speaking firstly in Dunedin, then Wellington and last night Auckland where I live. Each evening has sold out, and she has spoken publicly to over 6,000 New Zealanders while she has been here in the mere space of a few days. It has been her first ever public talk here – hopefully not her last, as there were so many more who wanted to come and see her.

Dame Jane Goodall is, of course, a pioneer of sorts – not only for science, but also for women. She is extremely well known for discovering much of what we know about chimpanzees today, and for her environmental/conservation/animal welfare work in general. As she stepped up to the microphone after carefully walking across the stage in front of 2,500 people, she greeted us in a way she knows best.
“This is me, this is Jane, I’m announcing myself.”
But she said it in chimpanzee.

(Sample, from another talk, below.)

Jane started life as any typical animal-lover would; totally intrigued with all critters and crawlies. She said one thing that really set the path ahead for her, though, was the support of her mother. She recalled a time when she was about a-year-and-a-half old, and her mother found her with a pile of earthworms in her bed! Jane said she had been staring at the little worms with a look of wonder on her face, as if she was thinking “How do these things walk without legs!?” Most mothers would probably be quite deterred, but instead of scolding her baby, Jane’s mother scooped the earthworms and Jane up in her arms, took them all outside, and returned the worms to the ground. She explained to little Jane that the worms wouldn’t survive in a bed; they needed the earth to live.

A few years later Jane got to visit a farm with her mother, and being face-to-face with all these incredible animals just intrigued her. She told us last night that she had been given the job of collecting the chicken eggs – and just how a big egg came out of a chicken had utterly perplexed her. That was surely impossible, she thought! She looked at the chickens, and couldn’t see any hole so big that an egg that size could come out, so she decided to solve the mystery herself by following a chicken to see if it would lay something.
The first chicken she watched went into a coop, and four-year-old Jane crept in after it. Of course, laying hens can be very timid creatures, and with many loud squawks and a fractious flapping of wings the chicken fled the coop after seeing this wide-eyed child stalking it. So, little Jane decided to change tactic. She found an empty coop, and sat inside and waited. And waited. And waited some more. She waited for four hours, until finally a chicken came inside, and Jane witnessed the laying of an egg. She solved the mystery for herself. It was after dark that she returned to her mother, who was of course extremely worried about little Jane going missing for so long. However, instead of berating her daughter for running off, she sat and listened to this delighted child’s wondrous tale of how a chicken lays an egg.

Jane’s mother encouraged her to read books from an early age, and one of the first she ever bought herself was Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Jane said she read this book cover to cover, and of course “fell passionately in love” with this great man of the jungle. Sadly, though, he broke her heart. “What did he go and do!? He married the wrong Jane!” (This really made me giggle.)

Jane’s curiosity, intrigue and sense of adventure was obvious even from a young age, and is something so many of us can relate to. To be honest with you I didn’t know a lot about Jane’s background until I went to her talk last night. I knew she was a learned woman, but I had no idea that when she first arrived in Africa she didn’t have any kind of degree under her belt at all. She told us that when she was in her early 20s, a friend of hers invited her to Kenya. Perhaps it was that brave, rugged man-of-the-jungle’s story that fueled her fascination with all things African, but it was an invitation she just couldn’t pass up. She worked as hard as she could to afford a return boat passage to Africa, and waved her mother goodbye at the age of 23.
As Jane pointed out last night, it is not uncommon for much younger women to head off across the world on adventures nowadays – but back then it was practically unheard of. Thus not only was Jane a pioneer in the field of biological science and conservation, but also for the independent, traveling woman. She described her journey to Africa as “total magic”; watching the grey waters surrounding England turn to blue, the smells of Africa in the air, flying fish and other new creatures right in front of her. She ended up getting a job with Louis Leakey, renowned paleoanthropologist. She impressed him with her knowledge of Africa’s nature despite never being there before or having a graduate education. He eventually secured six months of funding for an observational program, and sent her on her way to what is now known as Gombe Stream National Park, a part of Tanzania only accessible by boat that was home to indigenous chimpanzees. Jane wasn’t the only non-African to lead this excursion, though; once again, her mother lent amazing support and actually came along for four months of the journey! In Jane’s presentation last night, she thanked her mother countless times, recognising that without her curiosity, dreams and wild inspirations being nurtured, she would never have turned out the way she has.
Jane spent four months on Gombe without observing too much that she would consider as ‘ground-breaking’. Her mother tried to convince Jane that the young pioneer had done amazing work; she had been getting glimpses of the way these animals live; their social structure, their territorial behaviour, the way they care for one another. But Jane said the most breakthrough observation happened just after her mother left Gombe and returned home, four months after the excursion began. ‘David Greybeard’ was a male chimp that Jane had named for the grey colour of his beard. He was the chimpanzee Jane first grew closest to, and she believes he helped the other chimps trust in her as they learnt she wouldn’t hurt them. One day, Jane was watching David Greybeard as he sat near a termite mound. He picked a long blade of grass out of the ground, and stuck it in the termite mound. The chimpanzee pulled the blade of grass out of the termite mound, which was now covered in termites, and Jane watched in awe as he picked the termites off the grass with his lips and crunched them in his mouth. He then repeated this action of dipping the blade of grass into the termite mound to collect insects before sticking them in his mouth to eat them. This was ground breaking, because this was what is known as tool use.
Not only did Jane discover that the chimpanzees knew how to use tools, but they would also do things such as strip a twig of its leaves and go fishing for termites. This is called tool modification, and it is the beginning of tool making. Back then, scientists believed humans were the only species intelligent enough to make tools. When Jane reported her findings, her mentor told her that it was incredible. “We will either have to redefine ‘man’, redefine ‘tool’, or accept chimpanzees as humans!”

Thus Jane completely changed what humans then thought they knew about non-human intelligence.

Something else Jane said last night really stuck in my mind. She said that through watching the chimpanzees, she came to see they were far more like us than we ever realised. They had evolved to use touch, posture, and gestures as forms of communication – like we have. She proved that certain knowledge was passed down in different communities from generation to generation – this is known as ‘culture’ in human terms. She showed they have incredible social bonds. She also said, however, that “tragically, like us, they have a dark side.”

A dark side. But their dark side, and our dark side, are on extremely different levels in my opinion.

Jane learnt that the chimpanzees can be very aggressive. Groups of neighbouring territories fight, and some individuals – sometimes many individuals – die from their wounds. To establish hierarchy inside a group there are always physical tests of strength, fights and arguments. To get to the top, a male chimpanzee has to beat the current highest-ranking male. Jane learnt that different chimpanzees would use different strategies to do so. A chimpanzee she named Goliath was quite fond of throwing rocks. He was overthrown by Mike, a male who wasn’t the strongest or biggest chimpanzee in the Gombe group Jane was watching, but “he had brains”. Mike learnt that he could use empty kerosene bottles from Jane’s camp as tactical weapons, throwing and kicking them at opponents during challenging displays. Mike ended up reigning for six years. He was eventually overthrown by a chimp named Humphrey, who didn’t have brains but possessed a lot of brawn and would only challenge Mike when his brother was around – the two of them would team up against Mike. Humphrey was at the top of the hierarchy for a year-and-a-half, before losing out to another male. And so on and on it went.
“But they also have a good side – like us. They show compassion. They show altruism.” Of course, in the science world you can’t claim that a non-human animal is ‘compassionate’, or ‘caring’, or ‘kind’. Or even ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. Jane witnessed countless examples of times where the chimps expressed a quality we had only ever used for ourselves. For example, it is common for a young chimpanzee to be adopted by an older brother or sister if it loses its mother, but Jane witnessed an unrelated male adopt a young baby in need – he ensured it was fed, he kept it safe, tucked it against himself when he slept; he saved its life despite social and survival rules dictating otherwise.
After Jane’s initial six months of research, the National Geographic offered to fund the program for another six to seven years. Louis Leakey did want Jane to have more credibility, though, and made sure she did a PhD. For someone with so much knowledge and experience as Jane, she said she felt terrible when her professors constantly told her she was “wrong”. She was trying to explain that chimpanzees are capable of thinking, and emotions, but in the world of scholars this is not allowed. You have to be very careful about your wording if you are to be taken seriously in science. Jane told us last night that if anyone had a dog growing up, or lived caring for a cat or cow or rabbit we would know animals have personalities, minds and feelings – but she could not communicate this the way she wanted in her higher education. A friend of hers came up with a suggestion, a loophole for this if you will. Instead of saying, “the young chimpanzee behaved that way because it was jealous,” she simply would say (and here’s a tip for all you biologists out there!) “The young chimpanzee behaved in such a way that if she was a human child, we would say she was jealous.” Clever!

Jane said she never meant to get into the “sanctuary business”. It is a huge commitment to take on a chimpanzee for the rest of its life. It is expensive, and requires resources. She said it is the most difficult thing to fundraise for. But Jane was walking through a marketplace one day and saw a little chimp, chained, in a cage, surrounded by tall local men laughing and shouting loudly. The little thing looked at her, as if to say ‘Won’t anyone help me?’
The bush meat trade is still going strong. Roads carved through natural habitat for foreign logging and mining operations (etc.) have created an easy access way for poachers to travel along and shoot whatever they come across – elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, birds, bats; anything they want. I have talked about the use of wild animals as photo props – and Jane reiterated last night that the only way to get a young wild-born primate is to kill its family. Mothers and family groups are slaughtered for the bush meat trade, while tiny youngsters are taken in and sold illegally. Hotels buy them because it attracts tourists. Sometimes ignorant (and often non-ignorant) foreigners purchase them. It is all funding the same killing. Jane called the authorities in regards to the little fellow she found in the marketplace, and he became her first rescue chimpanzee.
Now Jane is involved with dozens of sanctuaries in different areas. Rescuing a chimp, to her, is a pledge that it will be safe for the rest of its life. It will be physically cared for, its intelligence will be nurtured and it will be kept mentally stimulated. It will be free from harm and distress. Chimpanzees can be difficult to look after; they are strong, potentially dangerous (I definitely know this after working with dear old solitary chimp Janie at the zoo!), and they do require a lot to keep them busy. They can live for over 60 years. It is no small commitment. “Is it worth it?” Jane asked out loud last night. “Every single chimpanzee is worth it.” She said it is also worth it when people come through one of the sanctuaries, realise they relate more to chimps than they could have ever imagined, and walk away saying something like ‘I’ll never eat chimpanzee again.’ That is a small but important victory.

Jane spurred biological science on to accept that chimpanzees (and, consequently, other animals) are extremely intelligent. They not only use tools, but actually modify and make tools. They have families; they care for each other even if it is not beneficial for themselves as individuals. They learn from each other. They pass knowledge down through generations. They mourn for lost group members. They are extremely intelligent. “But,” as Jane points out, “what is this in comparison to we who build rockets? Make robots that walk on Mars? Send a man to the moon?” It just doesn’t compare. So then how is it possible that us, a species so intelligent, is utterly destroying its one and only home?

“Where have we gone wrong?” Jane asked us, pausing to look around the theatre. I know I couldn’t answer.

Jane went on to say that she believes we lost our wisdom along the way. We have experienced this explosive spurt of intellect, but now we are making decisions without thinking about how it will affect our descendants and the future. We base decisions on the next political campaign, on the next paycheck, on “what I want right now.” I think of it in the sense that humankind is in its teenage phase: going around doing whatever it wants without thought of the consequences. Unfortunately, there is nobody wiser around to make us stop. We will be left to learn from our mistakes all by ourselves – but what happens if it is too late to learn? What if the mistakes are so drastic we can’t ever fix them?

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, not every man’s greed.”
-
Mahatma Gandhi

Jane has seen a lot in her time. She now spends 300 days out of every year in some foreign place, dedicated to spreading awareness and supporting conservation. She said she hasn’t stayed more than three weeks in the same place in a very long time. You would think, with so much happening in the world, that she would become as so many people do – weighed down, hopeless, helpless. But she is filled with more hope than I have seen in a lot of people. Last night she noted that she meets a lot of ‘young people’ who are depressed, desperate, and even angry about what goes on. They do not think anything will ever change, and they have almost given up. Jane disagrees. She believes we have a “window of hope” – a very short time in which we can change what goes on. She set up her Roots & Shoots program, which gets people to take part in three projects: 1) people (e.g. volunteering with a woman’s refuge), 2) animals (e.g. fostering an animal in need), and 3) the environment (e.g. clearing rubbish). Roots & Shoots started with twelve students, and has spread across to 136 countries with thousands of active groups. Jane says it encourages people to go back to “watching plants grow and playing in the dirt,” the thought of which I absolutely love.

Dame Jane Goodall has hope. One of her favourite trees is a giant English oak – a ginormous tree that starts from a mere, tiny seed. “How can something so small become so big? There is a magic in the seed – a life force.” I love how she uses the word ‘magic’ to describe so many things that many of us take for granted. The magical life force in that tiny seed allows it to slowly, slowly but surely reach down into the ground for nutrients and shoot up from the dirt for sunlight. And eventually, the huge oak tree can break bricks and crack houses in two. This is the power Jane sees in young people. She has hope because of the people who haven’t given up yet, who see the time ahead of them as an opportunity to contribute something good. She has hope because of the human brain – there are people doing and creating amazing things to help change the way we are abusing the world. And Jane has hope because of the resilience of nature. She used the story of the Black robin in New Zealand as an example of this resilience:
The Black robin as a species got down to only seven individuals. Only two of those individuals were female. One was infertile, and the final remaining female (affectionately named “Blue” for the blue band on her leg) had an infertile mate. These birds supposedly mate for life, but the very last fertile female Black robin in the entire world decided to find herself a new mate, and with a little help from some very dedicated conservationists, there are now over 200 Black robins.

“Don’t give up,” urges Jane. “We possess an indomitable spirit. Live with love and compassion.” Nurture fresh curiosity. Be a conscious consumer. Support good things. Have a look at Jane’s Roots & Shoots program – if every person in the world started out by doing three small, good deeds, how different would life be?
When someone asks “So what do you do?” don’t give the standard, “Oh, I work in retail” answer. Be able to tell them what you actually do – what is important, not for money, but for our home, for our descendants, for the innocents out there who don’t deserve mistreatment.

If you read through this whole thing and it resonates with you, that’s a damn good start, and like Jane you give me hope.

Sam

- http://www.janegoodall.org/
- http://rootsandshoots.org/

RIP Ms Dawson

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Just watched a short doco on the late Charlotte Dawson. Maybe I should keep this post to myself, but I suppose a blog is designed to be public, isn’t it? I could look up the statistics of how many people fatally hurt themselves on a daily basis, but I don’t really want to. The other day Mum and I were watching the film The Book Thief, and got talking about nuclear weaponry for some reason. “The world is such a scary place,” I had said. Her eyes on the Nazi Germany war scenes before her, Mum replied, “It always has been.”

Charlotte Dawson was a TV personality here and in Australia. Google Image search her name and a hundred beautiful photographs of this stunning, smiling woman come up. But as she pointed out in her final interview, no matter how much positive media coverage she got, it did not make her immune to hurt.

You never know what someone is going through – physically, mentally, emotionally. You know by now I am an advocate of compassion towards animals, but it goes for people as well. People use and abuse each other. Take each other for granted. Hurt each other, intentionally or unintentionally. It was reported in this documentary tonight that Charlotte was plagued with horrible, vulgar, spiteful Twitter messages from people. Telling her to hang herself, saying things like “No wonder you can’t breed – nobody would want to touch you” (she wanted children so badly). In the piece below, she confronts some of these “internet trolls”, reportedly after she had already been driven to a suicide attempt.

I can’t put into words how it makes me feel. Individuals who excuse horrible behaviour by simply saying something like “Well this is Generation Y. Get over it.” The reality is, some people don’t “get over it”. Charlotte, a high profile personality, is now a case in point. And as her friend Alex Perry pointed out, every single one of the people who ever sent her a horrible Tweet, who ever said anything hurtful to her, who ever called her a name or disrespected her: each one is partially responsible for her ultimate action to kill herself. For some people, social media is a deadly concoction of viral negativity that manifests itself into everyday life despite it originating from a computer or phone screen. I never met Charlotte, and I don’t want to write as if I knew her, but in this documentary tonight her family pointed out that she had an addictive personality, and it drove her to read and reread horrible hate messages directed at her, and seek these “trolls” out. Some people can easily brush negativity off, and in a position of cyber bullying would simply ignore spiteful messages. But some people can’t do that. Some people care so much about what others think of them, even if those other people are on the other side of the world and will never meet them face-to-face. Maybe it is a trait of low self-worth or a characteristic of depression. I don’t know the first thing about psychology, and it is hard to place yourself in someone else’s shoes, but I am fairly certain that if I was in the spotlight and I was faced with an artillery of written abuse I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from reading such messages either. Some people can stop it from getting to them. Some don’t find it that easy.

I can see why Charlotte wanted to confront those trolls. Maybe she wanted to understand their behaviour a little better. Maybe she hoped that if she showed them she is an actual person it would make it harder for them to type out horrible messages so quickly. Perhaps she just wanted to give them a little taste of what they gave her. But I think that no matter how many times she did it, no matter how many trolls she managed to successfully track down and confront, it would never bring her satisfaction. I feel heartbroken for her. She wanted to campaign about this bullying and make a difference – because she truly understood its worst effects. Not only was she emotionally invested every time something hurt her, but she also poured energy into trying to bring an end to something that affected her so deeply. All I can say is that people are cruel. People are never going to stop hurting each other, not unless something inside all of us changes drastically. But she fought so hard. She fought too hard. It breaks my heart.

It frightens me how easily people hurt each other. It frightens me that people can go through life without caring about how their actions affect others, even others that are meant to be so close to them. People hurt their family, friends, partners – those you love are the ones that can hurt you the most, no? And yet we keep doing it. We excuse ourselves, our behaviour. I often wonder how individuals can be so different; how some people care about the affects they have on those around them, while others don’t even let it cross their minds. I don’t know what the point of this post was. Thinking out loud I suppose. Today I can’t wait to get back to the wolves, those beautiful, howling, gentle giants who have also been hurt by human actions. I wish I could hold people like Charlotte close, and help them feel that they aren’t alone and that there are other options. Being consumed by depression is utterly spirit-destroying – you can’t do it alone. Reach out. And if you are worried about someone near you, reach out to them. And stop hurting each other, for goodness sake. Every decision has a consequence, no matter how big or how small. Every action, every word. These are your choices, and they are your responsibilities.

Countdown to takeoff resumes

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Do you ever sit, ponder life and wonder “What am I doing!?” I am pretty sure I have this thought at least a hundred times every single day. I don’t even want to count the number of months I have been back in New Zealand since visiting the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand sanctuary. It’s completely impossible for me to feel satisfied with life unless I believe I am putting my passion to good use – and as much as I love my job, the desk work doesn’t compare to being out in the field where you are fighting relentlessly for a sometimes seemingly unachievable cause whilst learning so much along the way. My sister and her partner have just relocated to Canada (after years of waiting for Visa approval they finally made it!!) and on having a chat to them the other night they told me it was just like coming home; they knew it was where they were meant to be. I felt this way very quickly after being around the elephants and the Thai locals in the sweltering, gorgeous Southeast Asian heat. New Zealand is my birthplace, its people are my main family, but I always feel an impossible-to-ignore pull to other spaces of the globe. Rural Thailand could quite easily be home; I couldn’t think of anything better than to campaign for a cause I feel so strongly about by working directly for it while still educating others all over the planet and raising awareness through the use of social media and the like. Plus any chance to be away from western living is one I’d gladly take.

It is less than three months until I depart yet again for an overseas volunteer expedition. There is far too much to do out there, and my list of things to get involved with is just getting longer and longer – yet for this journey I just couldn’t resist going back to the wolves; those stunning, incredible scapegoats. I leave in early August, and will be back in November, so expect to see updates resume as I travel around. I will be visiting a few extra sanctuaries on the west coast of the USA, and will also be heading up to Canada for the very first time. I still have lots of loose ends to tie up here before I head off, but in all honesty if you threw me a backpack I would up and leave tomorrow.

The plight of wolves is not a secret, and it is something I have talked about a lot; for some reason these species are extremely close to my heart and no matter what the reasons are for them to be discriminated against, it all saddens me. Last time I worked with them I was at the White Wolf Sanctuary in Oregon, and spent a good three months there bonding with the wolves and learning about their captive husbandry. This time around, while I will go back to those particular animals I miss so dearly, I will also travel a lot and hopefully learn more about the nitty-gritty problems these creatures face from state to state (and country to country), as well as conservation and preservation efforts. Sure, I could just read a few books and online articles about it all, but in order to be able to tell a story properly I believe I have to see it and experience it for myself. So that is the next big travel adventure.

In the mean time, what does one do to keep oneself busy? This I am always asking myself. The selfish gene theory says I should be breeding, my culture tells me I should be buying a house and working overtime, but my heart tells me the that point of life is to be happy – above power, money, a career and all that is expected of us, we should focus on happiness and joy. For some of us that is self-happiness. For some others, it means bringing others happiness. For me, I find myself drawn to ventures in which I can contribute positively to the life of another. Usually I find it is in the form of reducing suffering as opposed to nurturing “happiness” (for want of a less anthropomorphic word). While I type this, however, I look down at my little foster kitten Elphaba (named after the supposedly wicked witch in the production ‘Wicked’), who is softly purring in my arms, cuddled as tightly as she can against my chest, and I think to myself: surely this is an example where I have nurtured happiness into a little soul.

There is suffering everywhere you look. Sometimes I get so frustrated at myself that I am not doing more in the world – but you have to remember that you don’t need to travel for miles to make a world of difference to someone, or something. When I got back to New Zealand from Thailand I moved out from the suburbs into a little studio flat in the country – Karaka; horse kingdom. On the overall property we have rescue dogs, chickens, horses and of course my constant litters of foster kittens. I love the difference this has to suburban life. I like the fact that some mornings I am woken up by the sound of a big Buff Orpington pecking away nonchalantly at the cat biscuits after it has managed to somehow get into my flat. I like the fact that if I am painting on the deck, the beautiful stocky dog Rhino will probably come along and stick his nose in my paint and run it through the paddocks. I love getting home from a late clinic shift to find the horses grazing freely around the driveway, and how the smell of them can make you forget absolutely any stress. I like the constant reminder that all of these animals are cared for now, and have the kinds of lives they ought to live. I look at little Elphi, and my grown-up foster kitty Jasmine (who has been with me for over a year now), and I realise I had a main part in assuring their freedom from stress and suffering. A big proportion of humankind have shaped the world into a ruthless, power-hungry machine, and I just want to get out there and tackle things head-on – but sometimes you need to remember that every day holds the opportunity to do something good, and even the tiniest act of kindness can ripple out into something much bigger for someone other than yourself.

Sam.Row of miaows

Your photos with exotic animals on the street are not impressive!

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I’m very excited to say I’ve got another journey planned for a few months this year (thanks to work for giving me the time off to get stuck into overseas wildlife rescue again). The first leg of the trip will begin in Thailand; I truly didn’t get enough of that rural countryside and will be heading back to the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s rescue centre. When people find out I am passionate about animals and that I’ve been to Thailand or that I’m going back they generally pipe up and say either: “Oh I love the elephants! I rode one while I was there!” or “Yeah I’ve been to Thailand! The animals are amazing, they’re so friendly and you can get so close to them.”

Of course, people thinking of the ‘friendly animals’ are referring to the ones you find in packed tourist areas on the street with a handler. Animals are thrust in tourists’ faces: pay a small fee and get a photograph with this cute or impressive exotic animal. Someone showed me a photograph on Facebook of them in Asia sitting on the street next to an orang-utan who was crossing her arms, and they were copying her pose. The picture itself had so many Facebook ‘likes’, but of course I was heartbroken. I worked with orang-utans back when I was zoo-keeping, and I know how devastated their populations have been by palm oil plantations, pet trafficking and the like. Without getting too fired up about the issue I will just say it makes me utterly sick that people actually support any of this. The palm oil thing is more difficult for people to not support because it can sometimes be hard to tell what products contain it, but come on – orang-utans on the street is a pretty easy thing to not give in to! It overwhelms me how thoughtless people can be. A traveler sees a big orang-utan on the sidewalk with a handler and what, just thinks “Oh let’s go get a photo taken with him!”? How can people be so utterly incomprehensive?

One of the most popular Photo Prop animals you’ll find in Thailand and Southeast Asia in general is the slow loris. These little guys are super cute, and having one wrapped around your arm for a photograph would make anyone think they are the most chilled out creature in the world. You know what I’m about to say though, and you’re right – their apparently relaxed demeanour couldn’t be further from the truth. Slow lorises are nocturnal by nature and carry the name “slow” for a reason – they are extremely careful, quiet creatures that travel very slowly and cautiously. Bright lights, loud noise or any kind of big surprise can cause them to freeze instinctively. They actually have the ability to secrete a type of venom from certain glands and mix it with their saliva, and coupled with a bite this can cause a toxic reaction in their victim. This doesn’t really make them sound like appropriate candidates for use on the streets as cute photo props, does it? As always, though, humans get around this inconvenience: when a slow loris is taken in as a pet or for use as a photo prop its teeth are removed to prevent bites. Of course, this also means that if the creature is rescued, any rehabilitation would be impossible – without teeth they are completely unable to survive in the wild on their own.

Slow lorises have a very low reproductive rate and live in low population densities. Most loris species are listed as VULNERABLE on the IUCN Red List. Their biggest threats are the wildlife trade, use in traditional medicines and habitat destruction. Who supports this? We do.

WFFT went and investigated the use of endangered wild animals on the streets of Phuket, as this is technically an illegal act in certain areas and not meant to be “tolerated” by local law enforcers. However, their footage shows it is far from monitored and is still as popular as ever.

When I went to the Phuket Fantasea show I was disgusted at the use of elephant calves, tiger cubs and other animals as photo props, and people would eagerly step up and pay for a quick snap with an exotic creature. Does anyone stop and think, “Is this normal for the animal?”

You can’t tell me that any amount of breeding is going to turn a generation of tigers absolutely docile. The reality is that many of these animals are drugged to keep them subdued for visitors. They are beaten into learning poses that make visitors laugh, smile and feel entertained. Nocturnal animals like slow lorises are surrounded by bright neon lights, camera flashes, and are kept in a heightened state of anxiety and innate frozen fear – hence they appear tame. (NB: In my opinion you cannot ‘tame’ any wild animal.)
The physical and mental strain on these animals takes its toll, and eventually an animal becomes unsuitable for use as a street photo prop. Perhaps it stops behaving in the way the handler wants it to. Perhaps its body condition becomes so obviously unhealthy that even unfamiliar tourists begin to notice. Perhaps it stops looking or acting as cute as it needs to in order to earn its handler money. When this happens and the animal is deemed useless, it is disposed of. Another is then obtained to take its place.

Animals are easily poached from the wild in certain areas. It has been estimated that in order for one street animal to be obtained, up to fifty others are killed in the process. When a young animal is targeted, often its parents and/or family group are killed out of necessity. Then comes the preparation for working life: teeth removal, claw removal (which can lead to infection and death, remembering that these procedures are not going to be carried out at a sterile clinic under anaesthetic), and the brutal ‘training’ process (for example, Phajaan in elephants).


Awareness is spreading, slowly. When Rihanna snapped herself with a slow loris in Asia there was an outcry. But it is not enough. People still take the ‘opportunity’ to have their photo taken with an exotic animal, and many don’t look past the cute or impressive factor. The family in the above picture with the chimp talk about how cute the animals are on their travel blog, whereas I look at that photo and it makes me want to cry. A young chimpanzee dressed in human clothes, smiling for the camera. Yes, so cute. But where did she come from? What of her parents? Her very close family group? What happens when she gets too old and big to be ‘cute’ enough for photographs? If there is one thing you can do when you travel, it is to ask yourself these sorts of questions before supporting any kind of venture like this.

When I was last in Thailand I saw a few photo prop animals. A leopard cub. The tigers at the Kanchanaburi Tiger Temple. At WFFT lorises are very commonly brought in, either as rescues or because their ‘owners’ no longer wish to have them around. It is sad to know they will not be able to be reintegrated back into the wild due to the physical mutilation they had to go through in order to become someone’s pet, but at least at the Centre they have large, immersive enclosures that mimic their natural habitats. They have food, shelter, veterinary care and will never have to work again.

Something I urge for anyone traveling to countries where animal use for entertainment is high: before you make the conscious decision to support something, think about what it is you are endorsing. Ask yourself: is this natural for this animal? Where did it come from (captive bred, or poached from the wild and its family killed)? What mental and physical changes was this animal put through before it could be used in this way? And ask yourself: is this animal suffering for my entertainment? It’s simple: if you support the use of animals as photo props, you support abuse and wildlife poaching. It can stop, but only when we let it.

Sam.

http://wfft.org/

Photos taken from Google and edited.

Thailand – Elephants: Looking back

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Thailand was a very different experience to everything I had ever been used to. I loved the place, the people, the weather, the animals, the scenery. The culture is incredible. New Zealand is relatively young; we don’t have the deep-rooted culture of other places that is written all over the colonised landscape.

I really enjoyed the company of the Thai people I got to know. Joy, one of the girls working at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, would greet me with a huge hug every day and a big smile. Mostly everyone would greet you with a smile, actually. And the boys – the mahouts – they were just so funny. It took effort to convince some of them to go out of their way to do something really good for the elephants; it was just a job for several of them. But being on good terms with the guys really helped, and I think the more passionate the volunteers around them were, the more they realised how important good care was for the elephants in their charge.

Working with the elephants was nothing at all like my internship with the arctic wolves in Oregon. The husbandry of the two species is completely different, as were the protocols and methods of the different organisations. At the White Wolf Sanctuary it had just been myself and the director most days, whereas at WFFT I was hardly ever alone. While I would often seek time to myself, to write and reflect on the day, it was a positive thing for me to be around so many chirpy people. I had gotten very lonely during my several months in Oregon; I had been looking for a quiet escape where I could focus on purely the animal work, but I did surprise myself with how on my days off I would be wishing to have people I could share the beautiful setting with. I spent many nights in the carpark up the coast in view of my favourite lighthouse, with the moon as company and the waves far below the cliff as the only sound.

I remember that no matter how I was feeling, though, as soon as I arrived at the wolf sanctuary in the morning, one look at those gorgeous beasts would wash away any thoughts of loneliness or the like. They were perfect companions, even the ones who had little to do with me. Tehalin became my best wolf buddy; we would spend hours and hours together, playing, having a bit of a cuddle, or just staring at each other while I talked time away to him. I could drown in those sweet honey-brown eyes of his.  And despite all the abuse most of those wolves had faced, many of them were willing to trust in certain people again. I think I almost assumed they would perceive me with a neutral view. That I got to bond with individual animals was amazing – but I got used to having those relationships with the wolves. Perhaps it put a slight preconception in my head about how things would be with the animals in Thailand – but that was not to be the reality.

As much physical effort and emotional investment I put in to working with the elephants at the WFFT Elephant Rescue and Education Centre, I can’t say I truly bonded with any of them. True, the elephants would see so many people every single day, and volunteers would come and go like the rain – whereas with the wolves it was a lot more intimate. But it’s more than that… If I were to be anthropomorphic I would say I almost felt a sense of bitterness from the ellies. After everything – an unnatural life of work and torture and mental abuse – it was like they realised they didn’t have to put up with people any more now that they were in this environment of their sanctuary, and they really wouldn’t stand for anything they didn’t have to. On my very last day of work at WFFT I was feeding banana balls to Duanphen. A second after this photo of us was taken, Duanphen rammed her head into the fence at me, crushing my thumb between the metal bowl I was holding and the wire barrier. Had I been feeding her too slowly? Had she just done it because she felt like it? Was she intentionally trying to scare or hurt me? I’m not sure. But you can’t hold any such behaviour against any animals. And I have mentioned before in my Thailand posts that you couldn’t take anything personally with the elephants – Boonmee scared the life out of me when she charged me, and it took a few moments for me to not feel offended, but you just can’t. Especially considering the life those animals have had to endure because of humans.

NepentheBut in saying that, there was only one wolf at WWS who ever did anything close to offending me, and I know he was just asserting his dominance. Nepenthe was his name, and he had been rescued from an illegal fur farm when he was very young. The cage he had been kept in was so small that he couldn’t stand, and his hind legs were underdeveloped; he couldn’t use them at all. Once he had been nursed back to health at the sanctuary (and regained the use of his legs) he remained there with his sister and habitat mate Ventana. Both have passed away since I saw them last, but they were over a decade old – that’s good for a wolf, even in captivity. I remember that Nepenthe used to jump at the fence if anyone walked too close. He would do it to get a reaction; it was absolutely intentional. You could tell he would be so proud of himself when he made a person start or yelp. It bugged me a little that we couldn’t just be around each other amicably, but again it’s a case of him not having to put up with people. Yet, he was the only wolf that did anything like that. And others had been far more beaten and abused than he and his sister. When I think about it, I really feel like that old saying is true: elephants don’t forget. I’m not saying wolves do forget, but if I had to describe it I would say that the wolves were almost forgiving.

Sam.

www.whitewolfsanctuary.comwww.wfft.org

Creative Collaboration – fashion for charity, and my own discovery

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Copyright Evoke Studio

Copyright Evoke Studio

 Back in July, an email circulated around some professionals of the fashion industry in New Zealand – it was a search for interest in a massive undertaking of a charity project which became known as Creative Collaboration. Franc Starr, a top hairdresser in New Zealand, had a vision: to unite fashion industry professionals in a fundraising effort for the Child Cancer Foundation.

The Child Cancer Foundation is “the calm in the eye of the storm” of dealing with child cancer; the Foundation offers emotional and other support, financial aid (such as school scholarships) and even provides holiday homes around New Zealand where families can escape the routine of hospital and have a relaxing vacation. Franc Starr, a parent himself, acknowledges the unimaginable impact cancer has on families; “As a parent, I admire people who struggle with the simple everyday living trying to care for these kids and give them hope and comfort to pull through every day… That’s reason enough for us to make a difference in any way we can.”

Franc’s end goal was to raise money for CCF by holding a ‘Fashion for Charity’ evening, where various designers would show collections on a runway. It involved pulling together these designers, models to of course show the clothing, makeup artists, stylists, hairdressers, photographers, videographers, and technical crew to make it all come alive. In the months leading up to the final event (held on the 24th of November), Franc sought out different locations to utilise for ‘Mini-Shoots’; photo-shoots with the aim of gathering images to run as a background during the ultimate catwalk show.

Copyright Evoke Studio. Dress + accessories - Lucy Mae'd

Copyright Evoke Studio. Dress + accessories – Lucy Mae’d

Somehow, I was lucky enough to be involved in this ambitious project. A year or so ago I signed up with a Wellington-based modelling agency, and while all the Creative Collaboration shoots were unpaid work, my agency wanted to get involved as much as possible. And I would never say no to an opportunity to contribute to something I believed to be worthwhile. The first Mini-Shoot I participated in was held at a Porsche showroom in Auckland. There were about a dozen models, the same number of cars, and a handful of photographers with their own ideas and artistic style, two incredibly hard-working makeup artists, a fantastic stylist and of course Franc, who was there to oversee the whole project and lend his professional flare to the hair-styling of the models.

Copyright Evoke Studio

Copyright Evoke Studio

I consider myself a shy girl – but I am nothing compared to how I used to be when I was younger. Kids are mean, and everyone gets picked on about something or other in school: I was no exception. I have fought clinical depression since early high-school, and self-esteem issues probably my whole life. During my teenage years I believed I did not possess a single external attractive quality, and bullies helped cement that idea in my head. Yet years later, the height that kept boys away from me in school (I was a “freak” of course) and the frustratingly fast metabolism that led to people of all ages telling me to “Go eat a pie” and referring to me as “flat stick”, contributed to me being asked to get in front of the camera for some reason that was totally a mystery to me. The first time a photographer friend of mine asked to shoot me, I was completely bemused. Why would anyone want to take my picture? I had never picked up a fashion magazine unless it had been a last resort, I didn’t know the first thing about nice shoes or how to make my hair behave – I worked with animals, wore steel-capped boots and was constantly covered in mud and dirt. I gave up on trying to fit in with the ‘pretty’ people; my work made me happy, and it still does.
Yet now, I find people judge me for different reasons – they might see a glamoured-up photograph, and think that this is who I am. I don’t believe anyone knows the internal, emotional battles I struggled with inside my own head to just try and convince myself that the teasing didn’t matter: I took every negative comment to heart, but I tried so hard to not let it all define me.
The truth is, I am bloody proud of myself that I can stand in front of a camera with even a handful of confidence. I take incredible pride in the work I do no matter the area or industry, and I look back at the skinny, metal-mouthed, anxious girl I used to be and I want to tell her it’s ok to be herself. Confidence develops over time. Somehow I overcame certain hardships, and while a few particular struggles might never be over for me, I can say I possess some strength now.

Still, that first Creative Collaboration Mini-Shoot felt like a big step for me. I was nervous, I didn’t know anyone (representatives of the agency I belong to are based in Wellington and I haven’t actually met any yet), I had never worked with so many professional photographers before, I was armed with a bag full of clothes that we had been asked to bring and I was sure that none of them would be suitable.
I was grateful when I realised the other girls were very nice. I wasn’t the only one who felt new to this sort of gig. The stylist did ask me to wear pieces she had brought along as opposed to my own dresses, but once I got myself into a beautiful gold sequin outfit I suddenly felt like a new woman. I’m not saying it takes an expensive dress to provide artificial confidence, but for some reason I suddenly thought “I can pull this off.” I lost the slouched-over ‘I’m an unattractive giant’ attitude, and held myself with stubborn pride. I felt rebellious in a way – rebellious against those inner demons from my past that didn’t ever seem to shut up.

Copyright James Yang Photography

Copyright James Yang Photography

The shoot went well. All the models looked amazing, and the photographers produced some stunning images. The next Creative Collaborations Mini-Shoot was at another car showroom – this time Rolls Royce. I’ve never been a car fanatic but I could appreciate how expensive the vehicles were – we were constantly being told not to lean on them with too much weight, no kissing them, no lying on them, if you scratch one you pay for it. I definitely don’t have that kind of money!

Copyright B-Linephotography

Copyright B-Linephotography

 

The next and final Mini-Shoot I participated in was at a place near the Auckland International Airport called Butterfly Creek. I was excited to have this as our location as I had never been there before. It is like a mini-zoo; it has a farmyard with domestic animals for petting, a huge, humid butterfly enclosure that you can walk through while colourful wings flutter about you and fuzzy bodies land in your hair, and more recent additions include cotton-top tamarins (I miss those little guys from my zoo days!), huge crocodiles and baby alligators. For this shoot we had two extraordinary designers – Annah Stretton and Lucy Mae – provide outfits for us to model. Annah’s stylist brought an incredible array of stunning floral dresses that we floated around in with vibrant heels to match, and the Lucy Mae’d brand saw us in tribal, colourful and earthy pieces.

Copyright Evoke Studio. Dress - Annah Stretton

Copyright Evoke Studio. Dress – Annah Stretton

The Creative Collaboration Fashion for Charity final show was held on Sunday the 24th of November – I was unable to make it, but it looked like a fantastic time. Feedback was great, although it did not get the numbers in that Franc was hoping for. CCF themselves called it a great event though, and I think if anything it goes to show that all kinds of people are capable of doing something for a good cause.

A friend from the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand elephant rescue centre recently mentioned that she realised she may have judged people – and me – too harshly. While I was completely oblivious to it, I think she saw me as ‘one of those’ – the superficial, magazine-obsessed girls that don’t care about anything but makeup brands and what to wear. I have such a huge lack in care for fashion sense that I couldn’t imagine anyone in their wildest dreams would ever perceive me this way, but everyone has different life experiences and it all influences the way they view the world and other people. She thanked me for teaching her not to stereotype so badly. I didn’t know what to say. If you’re reading this, you changed my life too.

People are diverse. We grow, we change, we learn lessons, sometimes we forget them, sometimes we don’t develop into better people. I feel like a lyric from The Wallflowers’ song One Headlight is suitable – “Man I ain’t changed, but I know I ain’t the same.” I’ve always had the same kind of heart, the same passion and drive to be a voice for those animals that can’t do it themselves, the same desire and ambition to make a positive impact on the environment and world. But my character has changed so much – before I found it hard to pat myself on the back for any small achievement. But now I am able to look at myself in the mirror and say “Sam, you do good.”  And after feeling invisible, afraid, unconfident and timid, I can stand up tall without a hunch and be proud. I’m not saying I am now full to the brim with confidence – I am still one of the most shy people I know, and as I said earlier I still struggle with certain things – but I’m no longer embarrassed to be seen. And realising this, thanks to the help of a huge fashion collaboration (of all things; the world I have been most afraid of), was a momentous turning point for me.Copyright James Yang Photography

Sam.

Creative Collaboration
Child Cancer Foundation
Evoke Studio
James Yang Photography
B-Linephotography
Annah Stretton
Lucy Mae’d

Thailand – Elephants: Fifth Week Summary

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Experiencing a period of reflection is common for me when I know I’m about to walk away from something big. I still had a whole week left, but in those final days of working at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand I was already beginning to miss it. There is nothing like falling into bed at the end of a long, productive day of actually doing something meaningful. Going to care for the elephants was not a selfless act; I am one of those people who feels a huge sense of satisfaction when I believe I’ve done something good by my ethical standards. But obviously that’s not why I went over. I wanted to learn, for myself and for those I would end up telling stories to. Awareness is a cheap but powerful tool, and I am a sucker for putting myself in situations that have the potential to raise my awareness in regards to something I care about. And of course I went over to dedicate my time and energy to this sanctuary and the animals in its care. These intelligent creatures that had long been abused are now free from those burdens. Sanctuary life is not perfect – no life in captivity is perfect, in my opinion – but the animals are no longer slaves, and I wanted to support that.
I hadn’t known what to expect when I got to the Centre. I wasn’t sure if I’d be the only one, if I’d struggle to find English speakers around, and I didn’t have any idea about the extent of required work. My WFFT friends and I were always talking about how much more social it was than we had expected – it is so easy to feel safe in a big group surrounded by friendly locals, and when we weren’t working during the day we would explore everything around us that we could. I was probably more relaxed than I should have been – you ought to never take anything for granted, especially when you are in a foreign country you have no experience with. But I did feel an affinity for many of the people there. It is incredible how in our fast-paced western world we seem to lack so much. Going to harvest with the mahouts would see us exploring the rural countryside in our rattling truck – I can’t count how many tiny shelters I saw that were home to many people. And just at first impressions, by our standards we would say that these people have nothing – yet they were always smiling. We would say that they are lacking – in money, material objects, sophistication, technology – yet we obviously lack the secret take on life these people have that keeps them smiling so very often. I had never had a huge desire to visit any part of Asia before I decided on this trip, yet I felt so at home out in the fields of Petchaburi province, eating pineapples in tropical rain with people whose language I didn’t even speak, swimming in the river with villagers after a long afternoon’s harvest, taking in the calm of the local temple. I had thrived in Bangkok, revelling in fast-paced adventures and constant sight-seeing, but rural Thailand gave me a deep sense of home and peace.

A big tradition for Centre volunteers during my stay were the ‘Hua Hin Thursdays’, where groups of us would pile into taxis and travel for almost an hour to the heart of Hua Hin’s bustling town. Thursday nights would be a rush of roaming the walkways in search of traditional street-food, bartering at the very tourist-oriented night market, talking ourselves into or out of getting tattoos, and spending the rest of the evening at the Sam Sam Bar until our taxis came to pick us up again at midnight. Hua Hin Thursdays took us to a whole other world from the rural rescue centre. It was teeming with nightlife, crawling with tellers calling to you to buy their wares, and you would always see a mixture of native Thai and foreign travellers on every street. In Auckland, where I come from, there are homeless people dotting the city but it is not such a prominent matter. Hua Hin saw a complete lifestyle transformation from the rural setting I was used to into this accelerated hustle of crowds, with people hounding you to give them money one way or another. I am definitely no good at bartering, and I always give in to people that make eye contact with me to purchase goods or donate. Hua Hin was a terrible place for this; every few paces you would be hailed by someone new. I remember during my last Hua Hin Thursday we were yet again over at the Sam Sam Bar, and two young kids – a boy and a girl (who only had one eye) – walked in with a bunch of wilting red roses. They went around to all of the volunteers, asking them to buy some flowers. Most of us were used to this by now and had developed a skill of brushing such advances off. You begin to detach yourself from this select group of people who ask for money, no matter their age, race, disability, etc. I got talking to the young girl, though, as I was still completely taken aback by the fact that children their age were out doing this at night – incredibly naive of me, of course, because each of us come from entirely different lifestyles. The girl told me that she and her brother were out there every night as they weren’t allowed to return home unless they had sold all of their roses, otherwise they would be beaten by their mother. I didn’t know what to say to that, and I can’t remember where our chat went afterwards, but I know just then my perception of the world around me was instantly different.

A night after this, when I was in Phuket following my final work day at WFFT, a girlfriend from the Centre and I were at a pub on the beach near our resort. We were talking to a local guy who spoke great English (and knew all about New Zealand’s reggae bands, which really surprised me!) about the work we had been doing – we were both incredibly proud of the cause we had supported, and would speak about it without thinking twice. This guy scorned us for our elephant rescue work though – we were interfering with peoples’ livelihoods, he said; people who had families to feed and homes to support. To him, an elephant was a piece of property to be used – abuse was not a real term because what you do with your property is your own right, and you do what you need to do to survive.

I hear what he is saying, and I understand. I think back to those children sent off into the city of drunk foreigners every night to sell flowers. Again, they are treated as property, but with their brain capabilities are able to speak with free will about it. They accept their situation because they must, and to them it is normal, standard life, and they know that money must be earned. Enslaved elephants are also trained to understand that undesired behaviour brings about harsh punishment, but they do not associate their behavioural requirements with the fact that they are earning money for their owners. They do what they are told because they must. And perhaps one could say that for the families who own these elephants and have these children there is no other way. But me, with my moral code and interfering nature, I refuse to believe that. And so I won’t stop pushing for abused animals to be rescued and taken out of human enslavement. And I won’t agree with or support the use of children as money-making tools when they are threatened with cruelty or violence. I will be the first to admit I have a limited knowledge on world economics and how the use of such ‘property’ aids a family and a community – someone has to stand up for the individuals, and that is what I am going to do.

Heading to busy cities was not the only option for volunteer free time in the evenings. I have already talked about the Kuiburi National Park we visited during my second week of WFFT work where I saw my first herds of wild elephants, and during my final week at the Centre we headed out to another national park that was very different to Kuiburi. I wasn’t told the name of this other national park, and can’t remember it to date (possibly Khao Yai?). All I knew was that we would be sitting in the back of vehicles as we drove up and down a long road where we would have the chance to see more wild elephants (in a much less natural setting). I heard the trip could be dangerous and that we had to be careful to remain in the vehicle at all times, even when stopped.

About a dozen of us volunteers hopped in the back of the WFFT trucks and we made the hour long journey to the national park through beautiful countryside and jungled landscapes. There were a couple of signs, but on our approach I hadn’t even realised we were truly at the park until all of a sudden we rounded a corner and there was a magnificent bull elephant standing on the side of the road. He was just standing there as cars zoomed around like it was a very normal day for him.

I had thought people would be a lot more careful driving past these massive creatures. The WFFT drivers were very cautious to pass by the elephants only when they felt safe to do so, but so many other cars would take corners at a very high speed and have to skid to stop. It seemed to be the norm, though – drivers would race around these big elephants like there was nothing in their way. Some would even lean out of the window on the way past and outstretch their arms – whether they were showing off to these white foreigners in the back of marked trucks I’m not sure. I don’t like to think of how many accidents there would be involving young elephants along the roads. It was a good experience however, even though it didn’t quite feel as ‘wild’ to me as the herds at Kuiburi National Park that we watched with hushed voices from the cover of trees and scrub from far away. And I did not like how there seemed to be a big lack of respect for the elephants from people who obviously travelled the roads frequently. I was sitting with like-minded people, though, so it was good knowing there were many who felt the same way as me.

I had seen a lot of people come and go from the Centre, and made so many friends. The last few days of work went far too quickly, and my final day there was very difficult – packing was a slow process, and it was as hard to pull myself away from the people as it was from the elephants. You share something great when you are all working so hard towards a common goal, and it makes you realise that despite how dark the world can seem sometimes, there are always going to be people in it that care about something great.

Since I left the Centre beautiful Nam Chok has passed away. She was a great old girl; wonderful with a fiery personality. It is hard not being at a place where you care so deeply about the inhabitants, and I am planning on not only heading back to WFFT next year but also to the White Wolf Sanctuary in the USA, which has also had some major changes since I was there a few years ago. Until I get there, though, I remain in touch with the fantastic people I have met on these journeys, and look forward to meeting more in the near future.

Sam.

http://www.wfft.org/

http://www.whitewolfsanctuary.com/index.php

Thailand – Elephants: WFFT Ellies – Boonmee

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Boonmee

Boonmee

Through over a month of working at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s Elephant Rescue and Education Centre I got to spend time caring for each of the seven elephants the charity had currently rescued. Boonmee, however, was the individual I spent the least amount of time with. I of course made an effort to meet her and hang out with her in between daily work shifts, but I didn’t have much to do with her husbandry until the last couple of weeks of my time at the Centre.

Boo is another of the eldest elephants currently housed at the Centre, and is about 65 years old. Her background is not 100% clear but she probably started working life as a logging elephant, as so many of them did, and was then moved into the tourism industry once logging was illegalised. Boonmee arrived at WFFT last November (2012). Originally, due to lack of space, the team decided to split Nam Chok’s enclosure in half and have the two girls share it. About three months before I arrived at the Centre one of the late elephants passed away, and Boonmee was eventually moved into the exhibit this elephant had inhabited. Boo has been in this enclosure since then. It is the smallest at the Centre, but it suits her well. Boonmee is blind in one eye and responds very well to routine. She has colic, which means care must be taken with her diet. She eats only fruit, ‘banana balls’ (a mixture of powder supplements, banana and nutrient pellets), tamarind, pineapple tops and banana leaf – no trunks or stems, nor can she efficiently digest corn.

Boonmee bathing in the lake

Boonmee bathing in the lake

When the Centre has a tour on (groups or individuals can come along for the day on a pre-booked trip where they are shown the entirety of the Centre, assist with feeding wildlife, walk and bathe an elephant, and hang out with volunteers) Boonmee is the go-to ellie when it comes to walking and showering. She is regarded as the easiest ellie to work with on a normal day – but in saying this she can charge without warning if she is hungry or something is bothering her. One of my good friends was kicked by Boonmee one work day – my friend was knocked completely to the ground, and the bruises on her legs were horrible. Considering the size and effortless strength elephants possess, she was extremely lucky it hadn’t been any worse. For tours, though, Boo will contentedly go for an afternoon walk following the mahout or volunteer with her food basket, forage for a while in the jungle and then head back to her exhibit to be scrubbed down by the visitors of the tour.

One of the last mornings at the Centre I was working with Boonmee and cleaning her enclosure for the day. Because you do not need a mahout present before entering her enclosure, more work can get started earlier. Before entering, however, you need to provide her with some snacks to keep her busy – otherwise she will follow you around looking for food. On this particular morning I provided her with a few bits and pieces of her usual morning diet while my teammate for the day was in the kitchen preparing banana balls for Boo and Nam Chok. I had my rake and my wheelbarrow, and was sweeping up all the dried food and mess from the previous night. A most important tip when working hands-on with animals is not to turn your back on them at any point. Thus I kept Boo in my sights the whole time, ensuring she was happily munching away. At one point, though, she turned to see where I was (being blind in one eye), and came plodding towards me. I had been chatting away to her, as I did with all the animals I worked with, and automatically asked her what she was up to. I moved my wheelbarrow over to the next pile of muck, and as I raked it up Boo moved a little faster over to me. There is a point where you have to decide when to simply get out of the way – I did not know any of the elephants well enough to even dream I could predict they would stop before walking right into me, and so I went to make my way to the outside of Boo’s enclosure. She saw this, and spurred herself into a slow jog, which worried me. I sped towards her fence, and she also increased her pace. Not knowing if I would get to the fence line without blatantly sprinting, I dashed behind a tree, taking advantage of her faulty vision. She stopped, giving me a chance to safely get myself over to the fence and climb out of her enclosure.
Sometimes it is hard not to get offended by these things. When you dedicate yourself day and night to working with animals that you just want to love and protect, it is hard to admit to yourself that usually they aren’t going to personally reward you. Sometimes, to remind yourself that you are really doing good work, you have to go back and look at the kinds of situations these animals were forced to be in before they were rescued. Doing this really helps you realise that you are part of a positive effort, despite how tough some days can be.
Boo probably charged me because she wanted more food. One of the WFFT western staff said Boo charges her as a sign of affection, but I’m really not sure whether this is the case or not. I often feel a lot of frustration in captive animals. I can imagine I would also have the odd out-of-character moment every now and then if I was in their place.
And, as I have said before, it is nice to see that even though these animals have had their spirits broken so long ago and have worked at the mercy of their human masters for decades, they still possess a certain fire or fight within that goes to show you can never truly tame every animal no matter what you do.

Sam.

Thailand – Elephants: Fourth Week Summary

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Days go so quickly when you are busy and productive. As I approached a month of working at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s Elephant Rescue and Education Centre, I was really beginning to feel part of the whole lifestyle. By then I was ‘Leading’ most days; training up new volunteers and passing on knowledge so that the ones who would be staying several weeks could do the same once I had gone back to New Zealand. The Centre is extremely reliant on volunteers. I have mentioned this before, but one big thing I found lacking at WFFT was education. Volunteers arrive, are given that day to look around and get familiar with where things are, and then the next day they are thrown into work – you are organised into small groups, and your leader will be a volunteer who may have only been there a few days longer than yourself. You rely on your leader for everything; to know the daily routine, to know how much to feed the elephants at every meal time, to know each elephant’s background, and to know the best way to work with each elephant in order to maintain the highest possible level of safety. I think safety is definitely something that was looked at in a casual way at the Centre. More than once I saw volunteers get way too close to Khan Kluey’s enclosure – within reach of his trunk. He would swipe under the fence and try to wrap his trunk around peoples’ ankles. He would also pick up rocks the size of your face and hurl them at you with exceptional aim. The reality of his strength and determination was made clear later in that fourth week, in a very sobering way.

I remember when I was working on a daily basis with the solitary chimpanzee, Janie, at the Auckland Zoo. At a place like Auckland Zoo, of course, safety is one of the main dictators of how animals are managed. I required extensive training before I was able to be left alone to care for Janie; like the lions and tigers she is classed as a ‘Red’ animal: highly dangerous. One slip of the mind forgetting to padlock a door correctly or secure her in her den when you went in to clean her main exhibit would be a fatal mistake. I adore Janie, she is an incredible animal, but she has had a long, tough life. She was taken from the wild when she was only a couple of years old, transported to a zoo in Europe before being brought to New Zealand to be part of the ‘tea-party chimpanzees’. The four young chimpanzees would eat cakes and drink tea with visitors – this is over 50 years ago, of course, so right back when the zoo was solely focused on human entertainment and had not yet matured into more of a conservation and educational facility.

'Tea party' chimpanzees in New Zealand, 1956

‘Tea party’ chimpanzees in New Zealand, 1956
Maggy Wassilieff. ‘Zoos and aquariums – Zoo animals and entertainment’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-May-13

Janie now has diabetes, heart issues as well as other medical problems. This is of course no thanks to her absolutely abysmal diet growing up, which has certainly now been transformed into a more natural, nutritious and carefully monitored regime (but she still gets the occasional cup of tea with low-fat milk; almost her favourite!). I found her quite difficult to work with at times – you put your heart and soul into caring for these animals, and with her she came across as very bitter a lot of the time. I couldn’t blame her, of course. She was taken from the wild, shipped across the world, made to do and eat completely unnatural things and since all this her three chimpanzee friends have died and she is all on her own.

Hanging out with Janie, who is watching from her den.

Hanging out with Janie, who is watching from her den.

She is completely neophobic; afraid of new things. For a long time she had a plastic toy phone that she would tuck in between her tummy and her leg; it was her safety blanket. The zoo had tried to integrate her with other animals, but she just wasn’t chimpanzee enough. They tried to put her in a new enclosure but she was terrified. So she spends her days in her long-standing exhibit, with a dedicated team member that spends all day with her, cleaning, feeding, reading books, putting on a tv show, letting her paint, and several times during the day her enclosure will have different things put in it to keep her enriched and aware. But, as I said, she does come across as quite bitter. You can scratch her back through the fence but often she will suddenly turn around and try to grab you. I remember having a safety talk with a student zoo keeper, and I was explaining the importance of staying well away from her fence. As we were talking Janie was sitting there chewing on a large piece of bamboo she had pulled from a tree. She seemed quite content to just sit and listen, but then all of a sudden she loudly vocalized in her excited but warning manner, pulled the bamboo stick out of her mouth and threw it like a javelin out of the enclosure fence at us. She hadn’t simply been chewing the bamboo branch; she had sharpened it with her teeth. Chimpanzees are a species known for their intelligence; other animals may attack out of sheer carnivorous instinct, but one of the reasons Janie was so dangerous was her ability to think incredibly intelligently and even plan.

Janie using a tool to get breakfast spread out of a jar

Janie using a tool to get breakfast spread out of a jar

Elephants are also very intelligent animals. They can of course be aggressive when they want to be, especially males, and their massive size is not something you can take light-hearted. It is something I really did find incredibly worrisome at WFFT; hardly any safety protocols were communicated to me when I started, and while I’d like to think I have worked with wild species long enough to develop related common-sense and practical awareness, most volunteers were fresh out of high school or in the midst of studying something unrelated to the care of captive wild species. If you expressed an interest and were happy to pay your way to WFFT, then of course the Centre would not turn down your help. This also means, though, that many people who come through the gates to work with the elephants have had absolutely no experience, and are by no means trained to work with these animals and do not possess a mindset that allows for practical thinking as opposed to simply “I’m going to get up close and personal with elephants!” This is something I really would like to see changed. I would also like to see a vast improvement in the amount of education volunteers receive at the Centre. As it stands you may or may not be shown a brief video related to the treatment of captive animals in Asia, including the process of Phajaan. In five weeks of me being at WFFT this was all the education volunteers received. You were free to ask questions and do your own research, but I think many people came with the expectations that they were going to learn something great aside from the hands-on experience of working with the elephants. Over a dozen new volunteers might arrive in a week, from all corners of the world – I see this as a lost opportunity; the Centre really could do more to educate these people who will then go home and spread awareness, not just with tales they can tell of how they showered an elephant, but of the plight of Asian elephants, their cousins and of course all animals in Southeast Asia. Aside from prompting people to support WFFT, more could be taught about conservation in Asia and other projects to support, and of course how to be a responsible tourist when travelling.

See Puak and Duanphen out foraging

See Puak and Duanphen out foraging

On the Sunday of my fourth week, I came up from lunch to get started with Khan Kluey, Somboon, Pai Lin, Duanphen and See Puak a little early. See Puak and Duanphen were happily foraging away outside of their enclosure, but not a mahout was in sight. I found this a little strange but it was not unheard of; sometimes mahouts would let the girls out to graze in the large paddock by themselves while keeping an eye on them from the somewhat sheltered work area just behind some scrub next to the clearing. As I came into view of Khan Kluey’s enclosure, though, I saw the mahouts rushing around madly near it.
Khan Kluey and Somboon have a main enclosure. They also have a side-exhibit that is connected by two large metal gates and a short passageway of electric fence. Every lunch time the two elephants will be moved from their main enclosure into the heavily vegetated side-exhibit so that volunteers can spend a couple of hours cleaning and putting enrichment around the larger enclosure. While the other elephant enclosures are cleaned out at least three times a day, this is the only time Khan Kluey and Somboon’s exhibit will be empty to allow for cleaning, so it can be quite a big job.
As I approached the mahouts, I saw that Khan Kluey and Somboon were not in their main enclosure – they must have been moved across already. Then I saw the state of the fences of their connecting passageway – my jaw dropped and my heart raced.

Khan Kluey had smashed his way through the massive metal gate of his main enclosure and bowled over one of the huge concrete poles, ignoring the strong electric fence’s current. How the mahouts managed to successfully get him and Somboon into their side exhibit to shut them away before he got free just amazes me. I have no idea how they did it. From the sounds of things it is not something Khan Kluey had intentionally done; the pair are always bribed with food to move across to their side exhibit, and Khan Kluey had apparently gotten extremely excited. He had barged through the gate before it was fully open, flinging it off its track. As he sped to the side-exhibit he had also knocked over the concrete pole you can see leaning out of the ground in the above picture.
Whether he had done it on purpose or not was beside the point, in my mind. The fact is, he had proved he was completely capable of destroying his fence. And now he knew it, too. Quite often Khan Kluey will test his electric fence, walking up to it and touching it with his trunk or even his forehead. The boy is frustrated, and he isn’t even sexually mature yet. WFFT are desperately raising funds to build him a much larger, much safer and more enriched enclosure – and this really can’t happen soon enough.
It took a few days for the maintenance team to appropriately rebuild the fence and replace the broken gate. In this time the mahouts had to stay at the Centre all day and all night; Khan Kluey was, of course, unpredictable, and he really does not like being shut in his side-exhibit for too long. The first night he had been kept in it he constantly trumpeted and tested the fence, and seemed utterly distraught. Thus, the mahouts had to stay overnight and take turns keeping watch of him, and keeping him distracted where need be. As you can imagine, everything about this situation is not ideal.
It seemed the longer I was at the Centre, the more things came apparent to me that really could be improved or changed. WFFT do amazing work, and nobody could run a sanctuary like this easily. The people involved with the Centre that have their hearts in the right places are incredibly passionate, and are determined to make a difference – which is extremely admirable. But most definitely, where safety and volunteers are concerned, I really do hope things change for the better. So much more could – and should – be done in these respects. It is a great place to volunteer, and if you are thinking of visiting I would definitely recommend it – but I do implore people understand they need to keep themselves safe and work practically.

Sam.Janie

www.wfft.org
www.aucklandzoo.co.nz

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