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Monday morning, Week 3, I woke up at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand Centre feeling instantly different. I felt… itchy!  My legs were bite-ridden, my arms, my neck – even my ears! Somehow I had escaped such suffering over my first two weeks, but now things were catching up to me. I know it was because I had relaxed with certain things; less bug spray, not caring hugely about my mozzie net, and as soon as I ate brekkie that morning I knew my tummy wasn’t at all appreciative of the lack of care I’d been taking with what I ate, too. Sensitive digestion is more than a tad annoying when you’re traveling!
These were common volunteer ailments. On any given day you could find an assortment of people passed out in their rooms trying to get over something in between work rounds. I felt comfortable in that if I needed meds for almost anything I’d be alright; my doctor had stuffed my arms full of various drugs before I left New Zealand. Still, I began watching what I ate. Peanut butter with Nutella on toast, bananas, instant noodles and watermelon became my staples. Don’t get me wrong; the food at the Centre was edible, but it was a strange oily fusion of Thai and Western styles that just didn’t agree with me. It might take a day or two for me to feel up to eating the supplied meals again, then one little mouthful would leave me wondering why I even tried.
A set weekly tradition was “Tesco Tuesdays”; heading off to Tesco Lotus (a department store I was utterly unfamiliar with until now) to shop for items you couldn’t find back at the local village. It also meant we could find dinner outside of the Centre – ooh!! The only place I recognised around the Tesco facility was KFC, which I don’t eat, so instead I would end up taking over a BBQ buffet with a horde of other volunteers and eating as much as we could possibly fit into ourselves at one time. It was good to have some easy food that I controlled myself – and miso soup to settle my tummy works like a charm.
I’m not sure if it was a combination of feeling quite physically uncomfortable and saying goodbye to most of my friends only a few days before, but it was during this third week that I realised I felt okay about going home in another month. As soon as I had arrived at WFFT on my first day and began working with the elephants I just couldn’t fathom going home again. I remember feeling that pang of desperation when I was working at the arctic wolf sanctuary in the States a few years ago – I had sat down with the Sanctuary director to talk about my options. She would hire me in a heartbeat, but finances just wouldn’t allow it. And getting a Visa for the USA is so tough! I just didn’t want to go home – you just know it when you step into the kind of place you were born to be. I’m a nurturer at heart, and I’ve always felt that animals are far more deserving of my attention than anything else. I want to be putting my energy into something that I am passionate about, rather than wasting time and just working for money’s sake. But, during my third week at WFFT I started thinking about home and how content I could be there. I wouldn’t be living that fierce, burning passion I thrive on, but I would be safe and content.

Of course, now, where I face a mere few days before heading back to New Zealand, I don’t quite feel the same!

One day, some monks arrived at the Centre with an injured long-tailed macaque. The monkey had been kept as a pet at a temple. The monks had kept him chained up, and he had been attacked by dogs – of course, as he was chained up he had been unable to escape, and his wounds were extensive. We called him Joker, and the amazing vet team (including my two fantastic roommates – vet students from the USA) worked to stitch him up. You can find photos here (they are quite graphic). He is still in isolation in the veterinary hospital, but is now stable and recovering well.

As I’m sure we are all aware by now, wild animals as pets is a hugely common theme across Asia and other parts of the world. Money can definitely buy you anything here and it funds countless cruel cycles. If you are touring around Southeast Asia, please look out for any venture involving animals. Think before you give money to a person or establishment claiming to provide amazing experiences; animal trekking, petting zoos, etc. Ask yourself: where did those animals come from? Do your research. “Photo props” are a big tourist attraction on the streets of Thailand; a person will have an exotic animal such as a monkey or reptile with them and let tourists pay a few Baht for a cool photo. Of course, these animals have been taken from the wild. Their families have more than likely been slaughtered. ‘Photo prop’ animals do not last long on the streets; they have very poor diets, and a life of intense stress takes its toll. Animals may also be kept drugged in order to have them sedate enough for tourist photos. Once an animal is no longer suitable for tourist photos, it is disposed of and another will be poached to replace it – usually a baby.
Several animals at WFFT have been rescued from these sorts of situations. Occasionally, a tourist will actually buy the animal from its captors and bring it in. The animals are often unable to be rehabilitated back into the wild; they might grow dependent of humans, may be mentally traumatised so could never survive alone or in an appropriate social group, or might have been physically changed (e.g. had teeth or claws removed) to the point that they would not be able to find or eat natural food sources. Thus, a rescue centre is really their best option. While rescuing an animal such as this is a really wonderful gesture, paying animal captors money to take their ‘props’ just gives them more funding to organise yet another to be poached from the wild – it is a really awful cycle, and won’t be stopped unless people refuse to support it.
Here is a photo from Bangkok – in an earlier post I had mentioned seeing this little guy on the streets. I didn’t pay for photos, and feigned an interest in where he was from. I was handed a brochure for the “Safari Park Open Zoo & Camp Conservation Centre”. This Zoo is, if you go on the website, promoted as a ‘breeding centre’. It boasts that its wildlife has been rescued by visitors to the Zoo – I frankly find this absurd. I find it hard to believe that the leopard in the picture is a ‘rescue’, and that he will be going on to live a good life. More than likely his mother has been slaughtered and he was poached directly from the wild. The Zoo talks about its amazing shows (which ‘highlight the intelligence’ of its animals) where you can watch Crocodile Wrestling for more than three hours a day, or elephants dance four times a day. It offers ‘up close and personal’ encounters; photos such as the one on the left with baby cats, elephants, birds, monkeys, etc. I had a look at some reviews from the Zoo – many people had gone as part of a pre-booked tour, and talk about being disgusted at the treatment of the animals and actually walking out. Others gloat about having their photo taken with a ‘big scary tiger’ and recommend it to their friends. While there are some intelligent and compassionate people out there, it is obvious that the wildlife industry is a huge money-maker – and as travel agents will tell you, is a huge seller for countries such as Thailand.
Frankly it disgusts me. I so badly want to trust in the word of the European staff at the Kanchanaburi Tiger Temple that it is so much better than it was, that the tigers are happy and treated well, that they aren’t drugged… but what is the point of a place like that, if not for money? And this Safari Park Open Zoo & Camp is promoted as a breeding site – what is the point of that if you aren’t to release animals into the wild? And obviously these animals could never be released into the wild; they get their daily meals by being fed through bus windows by gleeful, ignorant tourists who want to hug something placid but impressive.
If I have learnt anything from my trip to Thailand, it is how money and corruption can utterly rule a place, and how we have such a major part in this. I have seen animal abuse on the streets of Bangkok, and have cared for animals that have been utterly destroyed by their lives of captivity. Every animal I see on the side of the road I want to sweep up into my arms and carry straight back to WFFT – but then you have to think about what will happen with that money you paid the animal’s captor with. Will it be used to go and poach yet another baby from the wild?

Khan Kluey

Khan Kluey

Khan Kluey was taken when he was less than a year old. His family group was killed. Now he is at the Centre, a feisty 8-year-old that his owners realised they just couldn’t handle any more. He will never be able to live anywhere but a rescue facility because he has no fear of humans and is far too aggressive to be released into a national park. He has got decades and decades of this life ahead of him. Why? Because we will pay money for it. People disgust me.

During my third week I met a really neat girl from Canada who is going to be studying in New Zealand for a few months. She is a complete bird-lover like me, and it’s going to be so nice to be able to have someone like that to go home to. Like-minded people really do help keep our world of madness somewhat bearable. I haven’t found too many in New Zealand, so I definitely see it as a blessing.
Back home there is a zoo – Franklin Zoo. It was home for many rescued animals, and a terrible accident happened last year; the beautiful African elephant, Mila, rescued from a circus killed the director of the sanctuary. People who work with animals risk their lives every day, and they know it. I find it an absolute tragedy that the fates of all those animals are uncertain. It is a tragedy that the director, Helen Schofield, is now lost to a world that truly needed her. Helen trained me at Franklin when I was volunteering there, and the accident still breaks my heart. The world needs people like Helen. The Franklin Zoo Charitable Trust is working to get all the animals rehomed, including Mila – but it is a huge mission. For more information you can visit their website.

I think my third week at WFFT brought a definite higher awareness of the plights animals face all over the world. It is easy to research things and then feel utterly overwhelmed – how can you do anything to make a difference? I feel like I made a difference to the elephants at WFFT, even for the month-and-a-half that I worked there. And from your experiences you carry on to educate and inspire others; that is my mission. I know that poaching is the livelihood of many people that have run out of options. But for those of us with the ability to make decisions, we should choose compassion. Any tourist has the capability to decide what they support – make a step in the right direction and go against cruelty.