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.
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.