Written on Tuesday the 4th of June
It was a long drive from Bangkok. My driver picked me up at 10:00am from my hotel, and I said goodbye to deliciously air-conditioned rooms and a soft bed. I was filled with apprehension – would there be people my own age at my new temporary home? English speakers? Would I be lonely? Would I be comfortable there? Would I miss home? I am always a little anxious when I don’t know what to expect – i tried not to think about it as we drove along for hours, as views of tall apartments turned to jungled paddocks and fields.
Eventually a sign – “Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand”. The vehicle took us up a dusty winding forested path, past Spirit Houses and Temple grounds. Local Thais sped past us on scooters. Then, a tall metal fence threaded with educational signage indicated that we were finally here.
I was nervous that first afternoon. I had been astounded to see dozens of volunteers – Canadian, French, Australian, American, British – all confident and at home. Apparently there are about 40 of us of us – it’s a big group. It was awesome knowing i wouldn’t run out of people to chat to.
WFFT is massive. Along with the elephants there is a wildlife section full of primates, bears, cats, birds, reptiles, an otter, a horse, goats and I’m sure I’m missing some. It’s a fantastically huge set-up – there is an Isolation Ward, a hospital centre, and a massive array of different enclosures. As with any rescue centre, funds are limited. I want to do a fundraiser to get some more enrichment in for the elephants and primates – at the moment it’s limited, and more and more animals are being brought in – not one is turned down. All animals are rescues – from the pet trade, the black market, street entertainment, etc. many of them, because of their lives so far, have disorders – mental, behavioural, or physical. If animals from communities can be housed together, they will be. Some, however, being raised in captivity, just don’t understand others of their species and could never appropriately survive in a group. It is truly sad. Right now the gibbons are singing their calling songs – but they should be out there in the wild living freely. Don’t support the exotic pet trade. No matter how cute or impressive an animal is, by buying into the mindset of keeping wild animals as pets you are supporting the capture of wild animals. Cute baby monkeys have had their whole families slaughtered. As long as people support this it won’t stop.
After seeing the WFFT I’m definitely less certain about Kanchanaburi’s Tiger Temple. A woman who has been working here for eight years on-and-off told me the animals at the Tiger Temple are most definitely drugged under the guise of medication being labelled as ‘vitamins’. I’d like to believe the staff at the Tiger Temple – the ones I spoke to truly were passionate, but I can’t help but view the daily hordes of tourists that handle the tigers as a form of exploitation. I understand that’s how they make their money, but surely there are different ways – a more hands-off approach. What is the point of breeding animals if you aren’t going to release them eventually and instead keep them in this life of service…?
I’m into my second day at WFFT. It’s incredible here. They have done an amazing job for a centre that only began 12 years ago. I haven’t seen the entirety of the elephant enclosures; they are huge and include jungle, swamplands, mud wallows, gazebo shelters, and more. There are currently seven elephants at the centre. Four live in pairs, the rest are solitary (but are able to see or even touch each other through wide rope and wire barriers) due to the fact that they’ve never lived with other elephants and most are well into their 40s or 50s.
Alongside the volunteers are permanent staff and the mahouts. Some elephants you can’t go near without a mahout present. You can tell the mahouts that truly care about their animals, while some are just here because they get paid. Volunteers help ensure each animal receives special attention throughout the day. I’m already starting to see the different personalities of the animals. The one bull elephant at the sanctuary – Khan Kluey (8 years old) – is feisty towards humans, but loves to swim. Three times a day we put fruit around his large lake – he swims through it to gather them all, and if they sink he will actually dive down to retrieve them. He rolls, splashes, and covers himself in muddy water.
Khan Kluey was a dancing street performer. He still dances whenever people are near; it is his way of begging for food unfortunately his behaviour is constantly reinforced because he is always fed. But when he swims and explores his enclosure for goodies, it’s so great to see him do things that an elephant should do. At the moment the sanctuary director is in Australia fundraising to purchase more land for Khan Kluey – they want him to have a gigantic enclosure through which he can roam.
Back to work for me! I will update when I can.