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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.