Written on Saturday the 15th of June
Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand was set up 12 years ago by a man called Edwin Weik. The centre is dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating abused, neglected, wounded and unwanted animals, and releasing them where possible.
At the Petchaburi site there is a beautiful veterinary clinic, an Elephant Rescue and Education Center, and a Wildlife Rescue Center. There is also a Cape Trang Marine Research & Rescue Project set up as well as a Forest Restoration & Conservation Project. As you may well know by now I am working with the Elephant Rescue and Education Center in Petchaburi which currently holds seven rescued elephants. The overall center is huge and includes a ‘primate jungle’, lakes, mud wallows, bush, free-range grazing areas, cabins and communal buildings for volunteers and Thai staff, and a relatively new section named “Newlands” which will potentially be housing a chimpanzee (if its current owners, which have kept it as a family pet in a small cage, agree to give it up). I have been here two weeks now and still get lost.
Volunteers are split into two groups – those working with Wildlife, and those with Elephants. Some people come and do a week or two on each section, others dedicate themselves to one area for their entire visit. WFFT has many permanent staff, on-site members being mostly Thai but there are also westerners. It is open to the public by appointment only, which usually includes a private tour of the entire sanctuary, the chance to walk and wash an elephant, and lunch around the site. As the center is a non-profit organisation it is not funded by the government and relies solely on donations. Volunteers not only give up their time to care for the animals, but are also asked to make a donation depending on how long they plan to stay.
My days exist of cleaning enclosures, preparing food for the elephants, providing enrichment throughout the day, ensuring any supplements or medicines are administered accordingly, washing and scrubbing elephants at least twice daily (or making sure they take a bath in their lakes), accompanying mahouts and elephants on walks with the purpose of allowing animals to forage for a portion of the day, and every second day going on harvests to collect banana palms, corn, pineapple tops and anything else that might be required. The work is tough, but I love it. We are currently in the early stages of the rainy season, so it rains heavily at least once a day for around an hour. Rains are always welcome; the heat is so intense and the sun can drain you very quickly if you aren’t careful. I love the weather though; I adore being able to walk around in shorts and tank tops – if I was in New Zealand right now I’d be struggling to find things to keep me warm enough even indoors. Walking down to the village, feeling totally comfortable and completely safe is such a great feeling. I feel free here.
One thing I’m still not used to is the free-roaming wildlife. This is in good and bad ways. I do not enjoy the insects, that’s for sure. In New Zealand we are most certainly lacking in venomous or poisonous bugs – here you can’t be surprised by anything! As soon as volunteers arrive they are warned about the spiders, scorpions, snakes and venomous centipedes that will hospitalise you with a single bite (if you’re lucky!). So far I have seen a few of these infamous centipedes (they are quick and terrifying to behold to a squeamish New Zealand girl such as me!), a couple of black scorpions, and a multitude of smaller bitey things such as bees and ants. One day, in fact, I opened my laptop to find a stream of tiny little brown ants pouring out from behind an apparently loose screw! And then, of course, you have to look out for geckos in the dishes, frogs in your boots, and the countless stray dogs around that follow you home if you give them the chance (it is so hard not to feed them, but I understand we cannot bring them back to the sanctuary – we have so many already).
There are impressive routines in place for every aspect of animal care. The Wildlife Rescue Centre is divided into sections with a group of people concentrating solely on one section per day. Similarly, the Elephant Rescue and Education Centre divides volunteers into groups so that each elephant generally has three or four people looking after it per day (depending on volunteer numbers). However, with such a high volume of different people constantly joining and leaving the sanctuary, I can imagine how things would easily get missed. I am currently a ‘Leader’, which means I train new volunteers. If I train new volunteers incorrectly, they will go on to train further volunteers incorrectly, and so on.
‘Training’ in regards to animals seems to be a taboo word here, even though I don’t see it as a negative action as long as it is done properly and positively. Unfortunately, consistency is key with any kind of training, and it would be utterly impossible to hold consistency in a place like this with so many people with such different backgrounds involved on a daily basis.
Speaking of this, I feel like there is quite a large opportunity lost at WFFT. When I arrived with about a dozen other volunteers from all over the world, we were given a tour of the sanctuary and the elephant carers were asked to watch a DVD about animal abuse that first night. Apart from this, though, any information we learn is passed on from our Leaders, who are only volunteers as well. There is a huge lack of information. I understand that there is a great volume of different people coming and going, and therefore permanent staff might find it pointless to constantly be repeating themselves, but I really do believe that volunteer education should be a main point of the center. So much awareness could be raised if this was done properly; people come from all over the world, and will return home to share their experiences. If people are inspired and knowledgeable, they are more likely to pass on their awareness. It seems that those who wish to learn more are encouraged to do so by approaching staff, but those that might not think to do so will most definitely miss out.
However, in general I of course love this place. After seeing the Tiger Temple I was so pleased to come to a place where the animals are no longer exploited, they are cared for as much as possible and they very obviously have better lives than the ones they came from. More and more, though, I am getting the vibe that suggestions or constructive criticisms are not welcome. I feel that most volunteers are purely treated as human resources – in some cases I understand this mentality, because there are some who come along just to fulfill a school or resume requirement. However, most of the volunteers here are studying, have backgrounds in conservation or animal welfare, and are very passionate individuals with a lot to offer. This goes back to my point of WFFT having a lot of missed opportunity. I take heart in the fact that it is a center hugely dedicated to improving the lives of animals in need though. And, as a Leader, I will do my utmost to inspire the ‘newbies’ that come along so they may further teach others, here or back home.