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 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. I have just returned from my latest expedition volunteering at an elephant rescue centre in Thailand – 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.

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

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/

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

Blurred lines

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If you have access to any kind of media whatsoever, you would have probably heard about Miley Cyrus’ latest proclamation by way of Video Music Awards performance that she is not a little Disney princess any more. I haven’t actually seen the performance, or any of the VMA’s for that matter, apart from hilarious snapshots of celebrities in the crowd reacting to Miley’s twerking (e.g. Will Smith and his children). She was performing a duet of ‘Blurred Lines’ with the original artist, Mr Rib Thicke himself.

I have heard Blurred Lines on the radio a bunch of times. It was even played when I visited local bars in Thailand. It’s a catchy tune. It gets me bopping in my seat at work. I of course realised it was centered on the usual guy-lives-to-get-hot-girls attitude of so much mainstream music today, but I had never actually listened to it properly before.
Somehow I came across this little gem – a gender-reversal parody of the Blurred Lines music video. It’s actually really on the mark – I even played it side-by-side with the television version of Blurred Lines and they’ve done a really good job! Watching it I also felt a guilty sense of satisfaction at seeing the half-nude male dancers (from a boylesque trilogy called Mod Carousel) strutting around like daft idiots while the girls were suited up, very obviously the more dominant of the two sexes. It was kind of a ‘Yeah, how do you like it?’ feeling. Watching the clean Blurred Lines video, now that I had this interesting gender-reversal example to compare to, the Robin Thicke original did seem utterly ridiculous to me. The girls in his video truly do look like dull-witted daft things, with bright red lips and ‘Oh, don’t ask me; I’m just a girl!’ expressions on their faces. Not to mentioned their compulsory skimpy outfits which they trot around in while Robin Thicke and his entourage follow them like pervey creepers.

Last night one of the my friends posted some of the lyrics on Facebook, pointing out how utterly derogatory, and quite frankly disturbing, they are. Coincidentally, a work colleague today said she had heard that UK-based anti-rape group, Rape Crisis, was speaking out against it. A statement of the group reads:
“The lyrics of ‘Blurred Lines’ seem to glamorize violence against women and to reinforce rape myths, which we strive to dispel. Both the lyrics and the video seem to objectify and degrade women, using misogynistic language and imagery that many people would find not only distasteful or offensive but also really quite old fashioned.”
I’m going to be honest with you. As a woman, the lyrics of the song not only disgust me but actually frighten me to a degree because I know that sense of entitlement does exist in the minds of some men.
‘So what?’ many might ask in rebuttal. And I acknowledge that response; the song is not so different to many others on the airwaves, as I said before. So, I can ignore the lyrics. I was actually going to put it all out of my mind and brush it off with my usual ‘Ugh, gross,’ reaction. But then I was enlightened to the fact that there is a not-suitable-for-work version of the music video. I wasn’t sure how X-rated it could be – turns out it is pretty much exactly the same as the daytime TV-friendly version, with the guys in suits and sunnies following models (still with their dull ‘Oh I’m a girl, I don’t really need brains’ expression) around set like total creepers, but the main point of difference is that the girls have nothing on except for skimpy flesh-colour undies, flouncing about with their ‘lady lumps’ in every shot.

Blurred Lines, I get it, you’re a tasteless track about one of the most popular song themes today. I could get pas that. But your ‘original’ video makes me embarrassed to be to be female. And it makes me sad, really sad, because it’s not like women needed another example of ‘Girls are objects, do what you want with them – it’ll even make you classy and cool like us!’ material so viral even my granny knows about it. No wonder there are people out there who are honestly confused enough to think they have the right to act on their feelings of entitlement. The constant bombardment from popular media basically screams, “Get a female sex slave, that’s what they’re born for!”

I remember the first time I ever stepped in a club after I turned 18. It was a whole new world to me, a world which turned out to be quite a bit more seedy than what I was expecting. I was born in November, so my birthday was quite late compared to most of my friends – they had already been-there done-that and knew what it was all about. I was mortified, however, when I was casually walking over to my friends and a guy put his hand on my bum – I remember spinning around suddenly, only to see him smiling at me sleazily with a knowing look in his eyes.
Now, we’re not talking about a guy grabbing the butt of a girl who is wearing next-to-nothing, going around grinding on people and running her hands over them. It took me a long time to gain real self-confidence, and my teenage years were well before this. I hadn’t had a proper boyfriend yet – guys just intimidated the heck out of me – and wearing a dress that didn’t go past my knees was as equally terrifying. I walked into this club, wearing jeans that probably didn’t fit me very well, flat shoes and an uncomplimentary top, and by the end of the night couldn’t count the number of times on one hand that guys had touched me inappropriately. And this wasn’t on the dance floor; I am talking about unassuming situations such as going into the bathroom, coming out of the bathroom, walking over to my friends, heading to the bar to get a glass of water (I didn’t touch alcohol back then)… Somehow these guys, people I had never spoken a word to in my life, felt like it was their right to do that as they liked. It made me feel vulnerable and objectified, and because it was so obviously normal I would just ignore them and move away quickly.

My point is, we don’t need any more men-entitled, misogynistic, objectifying material to reinforce messages that women are there to be used – especially in a world where we are supposedly fighting for equality and human rights. But somehow this is the norm, and it just keeps coming. “Robin Thicke and Miley are obviously doing something right – people are talking about them!” Yeah, yeah, I hear that too – but just because people are talking about what these celebrities say and do, it doesn’t mean they are ‘doing it right’.  For those of you who visit my blog enough, I talk about certain things a lot. For example, I talk about poachers a lot. Does that mean poachers are ‘doing it right’? No. I don’t support poachers. And I don’t support the message of Blurred Lines. I’m not going to buy Mr Thicke’s single or go to his shows. I’m talking about this because I think it’s important we consider a little more about how we perceive others and our expectations of them. It’s about respect, and when someone lacks this quality I find it very hard to take them seriously.

Sam.

A few other thoughts.

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In New Zealand I work for a wonderful pet food company. The company’s ethics are great, the people are fantastic (pet and animal lovers), and the boss is great. I can say this is probably the first permanent job I’ve had where I really enjoy the work, all the people, and feel valued as an employee all at the same time. I think that last part is extremely important – if your employer doesn’t make you feel like a valued part of the team I think something needs to change.

Yesterday I felt like I infiltrated some high-up society I don’t belong to. I was sent with our marketing manager to a full day seminar on food standards in New Zealand. It was centered on the standards of food for human consumption, but a lot of it we could relate to what we do in our company. In the morning I had woken up, slipped into a little business dress (tailor made in Thailand!) and headed into central Auckland. There were important representatives from all over the human food industry and I felt somewhat out of my comfort zone. The day’s proceedings were interesting, though, despite me not understanding all of what was being said.
One aspect that did stand out for me became very apparent during one woman’s talk. She was speaking on the different scientific ways human food producers can verify the nutritional value of their products – i.e. product testing. Nutritional analysis in a laboratory is one way, but to prove that actual health benefits are obtained through the consumption of a particular product you have to test it on actual subjects. This is where the marketing manager quietly said to me “Sit down, Sammy,” because we both knew what was about to be discussed. And then there it was – a cute picture of a little lab mouse.
“Now,” the presenter said, “We can sacrifice animals as much as we want, but we can’t really do that with humans!” At her comment, the room laughed. It was clear the general feeling was of the common theme that animals don’t matter; if we do things to them for our own good it doesn’t require second thought. I wondered at which point would each of the seminar’s participants say “Stop” on seeing escalating forms of animal use, abuse and torture. Obviously, the general consensus was that laboratory testing isn’t something that is deemed as unkind or even unpleasant – in fact, it doesn’t even merit thought or hesitation.

Is it bad to ‘test’ food on animals? I figure if you are feeding an animal a diet it wasn’t designed to eat, then that is some form of abuse. It was even brought up at the seminar – “Is mouse the same as man?” meaning that even if a mouse shows significant health benefits from eating a particular diet, does that mean the same benefits will translate across to humans? Our physiology is completely different, and so to really find out if your food product can provide humans with health benefits, then of course the only real way to be certain is to test it on humans.
And, of course, there is the issue of testing particular food products in order to determine if they will have negative effects; illness, disease, physiological malfunction etc. This is what I have more of a problem with. For the sake of creating a product with a substantial ‘point of difference’, food producers may test a product to rule out negative side effects, and this of course requires subjects that may very well develop illness or even die from malnutrition, nutrient toxicity or any other particular reason.
There is also the fact of lab animals in captivity. Without getting into specifics, I would rather animals not be in cages or captivity. No lab animal has a natural life, which I believe all beings are entitled to. Again – let’s not get into details here, as I know that in many situations animals are actually safer in captivity that they would be in their natural habitat. My perfect world would see animals living free of captivity (but not necessarily domestication), in their natural environments, not being hunted by humans or having their habitats destroyed. And yes, my perfect world has lots of butterflies and rainbows and world peace.

From when I was studying my degree, I remember one session of our Animal Welfare paper where the lecturer asked us what we thought of animal testing. In general, us students seemed to agree that if it wasn’t necessary or if there were alternative ways to test (e.g. using stem cells), then it shouldn’t be done. Our lecturer asked us what we thought we would do if we were required to perform painful tests on rats that we might disagree with personally, but we would lose our jobs over if we didn’t carry out – would we go through with the tests even though we felt our actions were unethical, or would we give up our employment? I remember the whole class saying (despite the fact that we were talking about ‘just rats’) we would rather lose our jobs than do something we found contradicted our personal beliefs or values, but it is a difficult question because you don’t really know what you would do unless in that situation. I remember being challenged as a veterinary nurse once where one woman came in with a healthy adult male cat that had a really bad form of ringworm. She couldn’t be bothered treating it, and couldn’t afford the cat anymore. So she asked to put it down as opposed to sending it to a rescue shelter because she said it would just get put down anyway. Veterinary nurses are required to assist the veterinarians – but I immediately stepped out of the room without apology because I didn’t want to talk to the woman any more. I did worry the vet would reprimand me for not doing my job, but of course nobody held it against me – in fact nobody else wanted to go through with the woman’s request.

Laboratory testing is a huge issue with many facets to it. I suppose having it brought up in the seminar in such a generalised, nonchalant way made me realise it is very difficult to change the mindsets of people who are simply not bothered by a particular issue. We can be so passionate about something, but again, there are so many people that just don’t see it the same way or understand why you might care so much. So where do we start?

Sam.

A few thoughts

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Something a friend said to me recently has been slyly grating away at the back of my mind. Social media is now a volatile thing – it would be extremely rare (if not impossible) to find two people with exactly the same views on every single aspect of life, let alone having everyone on your friends or contacts list in agreement on every topic. I tire of somewhat heated online debates between people with differing opinions – sometimes the differences aren’t even that great, yet people will try and passionately disprove the other. I find it even more careless when the topic of discussion is based on the quality of life and welfare of others (including other species – either as a whole or on an individual level). Coming across a person who lacks measures of compassion just astounds me. Talking to such a person is like smashing one’s head against a concrete wall. I believe a person can develop compassion over time, but it isn’t going to happen in the space of one conversation. You might place the person in a situation where they are witnessing the extreme pain and suffering of another person or creature, and if they don’t bat an eyelid or even look away then there is nothing you can say that will suddenly trigger the part of the brain that allows us to relate to the victim and think “This is not right.”

How incredible it was at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand to be around like-minded people working towards a common goal and promoting a particular ethical view. I have come home and not had too much chance to talk to anyone face-to-face about the types of struggles I witnessed in Thailand. When I talk in burning excitement about my plans for early next year (which I will go into more detail on once things are a bit more set in stone), I am often met with blank looks on faces that seem to say, “I don’t get your point.”

I remember one of my grandparents once asking me, “Why the hell wolves?” In fact, it felt less of a question and more like a disapproving judgement. She didn’t understand why I wasn’t just content to get a job in New Zealand, make some money and have a normal western life in suburbia. How do you explain a particular issue to someone who just isn’t interested in lending a single thought to it? In her defense, Gran is from a totally different generation, and has a totally different mindset. I have long given up on bringing up my passions with a lot of people I have known for a long time – you get to the point where you realise they simply either don’t care, or don’t understand and have no desire to.

The other night i was sitting with a friend, a real smart gal who is nearing her final year at high school. She was telling me how her school is doing a petition against palm oil – and if you don’t know about the very unsustainable palm oil industry that is a huge part of deforestation and species decline, then I would recommend reading up on it – it is a topic we really pushed to get into the open back when I was working with primates at the local Zoo. Needless to say, I thought it was fantastic that a school was making this a primary extracurricular focus. My friend, however, seemed to have mixed feelings about it. I was going on about sustainable alternatives and she simply said, “Yeah, but they are trying to expand the industry.”
At first I wasn’t sure if I had taken it the right way. So I asked her if she didn’t think a viable sustainable option was a fair alternative to the mass destruction that is being wreaked because of this greed-fueled industry; wouldn’t that be better than the huge toll that is being taken on the environment? “Well we don’t really need the rainforest; it’s just for tourists now.”
I didn’t know what to say. How do you counteract that, when you are speaking to someone who obviously doesn’t see this as a real issue? I come from a country utterly built on deforestation – the natural habitat of New Zealand was absolutely destroyed once settlers came along and farming was established. Intensive farming is now our biggest industry and it has completely taken over. The remaining natural forests are a miniscule portion of what there once was – of course, this is a common theme in populated countries. I read a story recently about edible meat being successfully grown in a laboratory – this is significant in that it could lead to us potentially producing tonnes of meat without the slaughter of so many animals, and to me it is a really exciting prospect. Of course, people turn around and say that for a country like New Zealand a development like this could ruin what’s left of our economy. Money isn’t going to sustain us after the environment is gone, though, and I firmly believe this. We can destroy the whole earth if we like, but to me there won’t be a whole lot left worth living for if we have annihilated every flora and fauna species that doesn’t serve our own race some kind of important economical purpose.
So, economically the rainforest might not be worth much, but does that mean we ought to practice our well-known destruction and rip it down for the sake of more money? I really don’t think we should be so egotistical to say we have that right. Deforestation has completely changed the world already; we should be preserving what is left for the sake of the flora and fauna species we haven’t managed to exterminate yet. Also, there are intelligent animals in those rainforests – animals just as capable as us of feeling pain and distress; to be burnt alive for the sake of the palm oil industry is a disgusting waste. I feel sad when I meet people that aren’t fazed by the thought of another individual’s pain and suffering. I can’t wait to get to Borneo where I will be working for a few months in the jungle at an orang-utan rescue center. Primates are so closely related to us, if there is any way to get an effective message home about the utter grief we put others through, it will be by sharing the orang-utans’ stories and demonstrating first hand at what we as consumers condone. On that note: have a closer look at products you buy next time you are at the supermarket. In New Zealand it is not a legal requirement to label the particular oil used in a product; ‘vegetable oil’ can in fact be the unsustainable palm oil that is ripping down jungles, slaughtering animals and steadily building the rate of species decline. As an individual you may not have the power to change the whole world, but you do have the power of ethical choice and the ability to choose what industries you support.

Sam.

Thailand – Elephants: Walks

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All kinds of people volunteer at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s different animal centres – The Wildlife Rescue Centre or the Elephant Rescue and Education Centre. It’s a definite trend that people prefer to have hands-on contact with animals even if it isn’t entirely in an animal’s best interest. I guess that’s just part of human nature; wanting to feel like we’re connecting with something. And, of course, many people want to be able to say “I cuddled a monkey” or “Here’s a picture of me with a bear cub.” Most volunteers were about 18-20 years old, and I would often hear different Wildlife Rescue Centre volunteers admit that they were disappointed they didn’t have the same contact with the wildlife rescues that the elephant volunteers had with the bigger animals. If you ask any EREC volunteer what their favourite parts of the job were, I can guarantee that ‘walking the elephants’ will be one of the top responses. Potentially this is why the mahouts seem to view elephant walks as having the point of pleasing the volunteers as opposed to benefiting the elephants themselves.

One of the biggest problems I have with captivity is that animals are extremely restricted in the physical ground they have available to cover. So many animals in the wild roam large areas or defend huge territories. In a good captive wildlife establishment animals will have no lack of nutritious food (preferably that which mimics their natural diet), protection from parasites and disease where possible, veterinary care, freedom from poachers and other potential dangers, supported breeding programs and other pros. Of course, the major downsides are that animals are not able to form natural groups at their will if they so desire, they have no way to escape negative situations and this can lead to a problem with individual animal management if an organisation is not equipped to deal with conflict between animals etc., they are not leading natural lives and can develop stereotypic behaviours due to boredom or stress, their lives are completely dictated by humans and often involve being surrounded by tourist groups, and of course they do not have the ability to roam freely as they would in the wild. There are pros and cons for everything, and while animals in captivity are as safe as possible, I can’t help but feel like the ability to move freely across as big a space as desired is a very important factor to many creatures.
Maybe it’s just because I tend to go a little stir-crazy in the same place for an extended period of time, but I feel like there is a huge enrichment value of venturing across a different place. We walk our dogs so they can get exercise, but I also let any dogs I walk stop and sniff at what they like, mark what they like (within reason) – it’s all part of being a canine! Wild wolves will roam their territories, ensuring they methodically mark boundaries and check for visiting strangers. Travelling is very important for finding prey and having a successful hunt. Elephants are completely different, of course – they are not territorial but do ensure they are never far from a body of water, and may use ‘home-sites’ for particular parts of the year.  Elephants are constantly moving though; female-offspring groups will use their days to forage, bathe, forage and forage some more. Individuals in groups will not all sleep at the same time. The same can be said for male ‘bachelor’ groups, but they usually roam more in search of viable mates. When walking the elephants at WFFT, the point ought to be to allow the girls to roam and forage at their will – but this requires cooperation from the mahout. The mahouts in general will walk an elephant around a short circuit then head back to the enclosure. Often it is up to the elephant volunteer to ask the mahout to stay longer out in the bush or forest so the particular elephant can browse for a longer period of time.

The girls at WFFT (Khan Kluey, the only male, is far too aggressive to have anyone near him let alone to be allowed out of his enclosures) will be lured out with a big basket of fruit. Some of the elephants are more confident in heading out than others – a mahout will always be present, often at the elephant’s side or ahead of her to show her the way. Sometimes the girls are led out to a large open clearing to graze, in which case mahouts can get on with their work while still watching the elephants.
Bullhooks are rarely used at WFFT – and if they are, they will be rested above the elephant’s ear; it serves as a reminder of their former training, which would have been an extremely negative experience, but that’s as much as the tools are utilised at the Centre. If more control is needed during walks, a mahout will simply hold his hand on the elephant’s ear lobe – again, it is by no means a painful gesture but works in two ways; 1) it’s really one of the only parts of the elephant you can get a decent hold of, and 2) it is a psychological reminder of the elephant’s previous training. Mahouts will tug if need be, but never aggressively. As much as I would love to see the animals doing whatever they want, I understand that they are huge, potentially dangerous beings, and some form of control is needed for safety. I often am in awe that no major accidents have happened – so many people have very intimate contact with these animals that have had very painful lives; the potential for serious accidents is there, but so far all has been well.
Walking the elephants is used as a big draw for tourist groups that can come to the Centre and have a day-long experience where they have a full tour of the complex, meet the different animals, walk the an elephant (usually Boonmee) and bathe her. Groups range in numbers from one person to dozens – Boonmee seems to cope well with groups and you’ll often see her in the trail of a number of visitors – with her mahout right next to her, of course.

On the left is a photo Boo and Namchok on a walk together despite not being housed in the same exhibit. Sometimes the girls are walked at the same time. Social interaction is rare, but mixing up the dynamics of a walk is enriching in that it’s something they don’t always experience – and I think this is positive.

Some elephants (namely Pai Lin) need some constant encouragement – even once arriving right out in the bush. Mahouts will throw fruit around, scatter it on the ground, hide it in tree stumps or branches; anything they can to keep the particular elephant occupied. Other elephants go ahead and lose themselves – nothing beats the sound of an elephant crashing her way through the forest, and the sight of her reaching as high as she can to reach the tastiest leaves. When I left the Centre I asked the newer volunteers to continue trying to get mahouts to allow the elephants to stay out for longer periods of time. The first walk I went on we actually sat down for about an hour while the elephant we were walking just foraged around us. It should be like this every time – the girls get walked once every second day, and there is always time to allow for a decent experience.

Nam Chok forages

Nam Chok forages

Sam.

www.wfft.org

Pai Lin out and about

Pai Lin out and about

Boonmee heads through open forest

Boonmee heads through open forest

Pai Lin watches a mahout on a scooter

Pai Lin watches a mahout on a scooter

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