Chain-Free in Thailand

Lotus stood perfectly still while her mahout removed the chain from her ankle. Next came Pang Dow and, last, Wassana, a land mine victim who lost part of her foot several years ago in an explosion.

They were unaware that their next few steps would be monumental.

Lovely Lotus led the small herd, the family she chose after arriving at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES). She walked in the direction of the corral. For a split second she hesitated at the gate opening. A calculating glance from gate post to gate post and the open span between and she was satisfied that it was safe to lead her family inside. Almost in slow motion, Lotus entered the chain-free corral.

I held my breath, knowing from experience the joy the elephants, their caregivers and the crew that only hours before had completed this first solar powered chain-free corral in Thailand, would feel.

Pang Dow and Wassana followed close behind Lotus, less than inches apart, as they silently flowed into the expansive corral filled with vegetation and clusters of trees. The air was buzzing with anticipation. The elephants knew something was up. How could they not? Half a dozen people gave off quite a collective energy as we watched in hopeful anticipation of the elephants’ reaction to their new found freedom.

Lotus, Pang Dow and Wassana cleared the gate opening, walked single file for less than 50 feet and then erupted into excited squeaks and trumpets. They broke line and huddled together, a tangle of trunks and tails, chattering excitedly, gently touching each other in reassurance.

The mahouts stayed silent to ensure the elephants knew they were free to do as they pleased–a novel experience for a captive-held elephant, especially in countries like Thailand, where elephants are a commodity used for tourist entertainment, always under the control of a mahout.

Before finding sanctuary at BLES, Wassana, Lotus and Pang Dow did not know freedom of any kind. Now they were about to experience the next level of freedom–autonomy. The ability to make their own choices about where they walk, when and with whom. What they eat, where they sleep and, most important, who they share their life with.

It took mere seconds for all three to realize they were free to wander at will. They moved like a school of fish, close together, in step with each other, exploring as one. Happy squeaks, trumpets, chattering and ground thumps echoed across the hilly terrain.

They soon forgot the humans who observed from outside the corral. They were in their own world, with their family, free from chains, to interact and share the natural habitat together.

After sampling the tender vegetation underfoot, they made their way into a thicket of trees. With low rumbles and tender chirps they disappeared into their personal mini-sanctuary.

Each time I witness the release of an elephant from chains, I am flooded with such deep emotion and with such gratitude, it’s as if it’s the first time I’ve experienced such a joyful event.

I see their immediate shift, their letting go of the past. They accept the gift provided and without looking back immerse themselves in their new found freedom.

I know that we have given a gift so great it transforms them. Being witness to an elephant’s release is life changing, the most powerful experience I’ve ever had.

Elephants living in captivity are stripped of everything meaningful in their lives; autonomy, freedom of choice, family. Sanctuary life begins to restore some of these things. Although most captive-held elephants will never experience a real family of their own, they form bonds as deep and meaningful with unrelated others as if they were biologically related.

The pure joy an elephant exhibits when given a resemblance of freedom is what drives me to do more. Chain free does mean pain free to these elephants. It is an honor to give back some of what has been taken away.

View their release https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bl99gNkhSWo and their introduction to their new chain-free corral https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnoHWWkAc24 on YouTube

Elephant Aid International August eNewsletter

 

August 13, 2013

Elephants are in the headlines like never before. Every day we are bombarded with news of the brutal slaughter of elephants in their home countries.

Governments and conservation organizations are taking action but the killing continues at an alarming rate. We feel the victims’ pain as if we ourselves were there on the savannas of Africa and in the dense jungles of Asia, hearing the screams of the innocent ones, while we stand by, helpless.

It is that sense of helplessness that is most distressing. To stand witness to such brutality and have no recourse for solution is excruciating.

This is exactly why Elephant Aid International (EAI) serves one world, one elephant at a time. We make our goals reachable, our dreams attainable, so that with each success we are driven to do more.

When our labor bears fruit we are empowered to continue. The work is not easy and the result of each effort not equal but, with your support, we are making a difference for needy elephants.

 

Chain‐Free Corral Project – Asia Model

We are excited to expand our chain­free corral project to yet another country.

This October, two internationally recognized elephant facilities in Thailand—the Friends of the Asian Elephant, Thailand’s first elephant hospital, and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, known worldwide for its outstanding elephant care—will host EAI.

At that time we will determine the size and locations of chain­-free elephant corrals on the premises of both facilities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The plan is to design the corrals this fall and build them next spring. We will keep you informed of our progress in the coming months. Your support of Thailand’s Chain-­Free Corrals is sincerely appreciated.

 

Sanctuary Search

It has been reported that due to space restrictions or elephant health status, neither of the two elephant sanctuaries in the U.S. is able to welcome additional elephants at this time. This obviously creates a problem for needy elephants from zoos and circuses who need to be retired or rescued.

Since no sanctuary space is currently available, EAI has decided to search for land to create a new elephant sanctuary. We have identified several possibilities in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

We are now raising funds to cover the cost to visit and inspect each property on our list. Many of the properties look good on paper but we have to see them in person, walk the land and ask pertinent questions, to determine if one of these properties is suitable for elephants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’d like to be part of this exciting new project literally from the ground up, please donate to our Sanctuary Search Fund. We will keep you posted on our progress.

 

Mentoring a Dude

Menlo Park Middle School in Northern California, celebrates an annual “Dude, That’s Wrong” program.

Assisted by a mentor, students spend an entire semester researching a topic of their choice. It must be an issue they believe needs action. Not only is the student expected to explore the problem, they must propose possible solutions and present their completed project in front of the entire school.

Sixth grader Silas Stewart chose elephant mistreatment in captivity as his topic and EAI’s Carol Buckley as his mentor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As result of positive feedback from fellow students, teachers and his parents, Silas wanted to do more. He created an online petition asking the San Diego Zoo to do two things: separate their African and Asian elephants and shut down the exhibit. His hope is that the elephants will be moved to a sanctuary.

To date, Silas’ petition has received 521 signatures and a dozen supportive online comments.

 

Sophie and Babe

An online group of concerned individuals called Freedom for Sophie and Babe has been working for months raising awareness about two aged elephants living at the Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, IL.

EAI’s CEO Carol Buckley spoke before members of the Forest Preserve Commission at a public meeting, encouraging them to release and rehome Sophie and Babe together at a sanctuary.

Days after the meeting, a spokesperson for the city stated that both elephants would be moved before winter, but the new home had not yet been determined.

 

Back to Work

EAI heads back to Asia in September. More elephant pedicures to provide, mahouts to train and chain-­free corrals to build. The word of our work is spreading and your support makes it all possible.

Thank you,

Carol Buckley

Founder and CEO

 

Our mailing address is:

Elephant Aid International

PO Box 106

4128 Buffalo Road

Hohenwald, TN 38462

www.ElephantAidInternational.org

PHONE: 931.­796.­1466
Copyright (C) 2012 Elephant Aid International All rights reserved.

the adventure continues

Wow what a day, I mean what a week! It was harder than expected to leave Mee Chok, Lom and all the magnificent elephants at BLES. I hopped on a plane from Sukhothai to Bangkok after sharing some final moments before takeoff with Kat, Hope and two very special BLES supporters.

Upon landing, I found myself on an hour-long drive across town to the Southern bus station, followed by a three-hour bus ride to Kanchanaburi. Whirlwind is a good description.

I keep forgetting to factor in things like: it can take two hours to drive 20 miles in the city traffic. Always interesting, there is never  a dull moment with tourist buses blasting music from the front of the cab…outside not inside, motorbikes snaking their way through the tangled vehicles and cars, cabs and trucks filling in every available gap. And bus stations can be a well-lit street corner or a three-story complex the size of a football stadium. Oh, what a thrill…and I made all of my connections with time to spare.

Kanchanaburi was buzzing when I arrived, locals eating in the brightly illuminated food stands lining the sidewalks. I was taken a bit off guard when the bus stopped, everyone exited and I saw my duffle bag sitting in the street next to the bus. Upon exiting the bus, a kindly sokow driver approached and asked where I needed to go.

Here’s the other thing that really amazes me: these taxi, tuk-tuk and sokow drivers all seem to know every guesthouse, hotel and restaurant in their city. My poor pronunciation does not prevent them from finally figuring out what I am saying, no matter how much I butcher the word. Patient and kind is how I would describe the Thai people. 

My latest adventure was not over upon exiting the bus. I got to my guesthouse, the easy to pronounce Bamboo House, to find out that my reservation had not been entered it into their reservation book. It seemed that this is not a rare occurrence. The owner gently drilled me on the exact time and day I had called to make my reservation and I soon realized she was trying to find out which staff member keeps forgetting to write down reservations. It was nearly midnight and I did not have a room but, really, there was no reason to get upset. If there is one thing that Thailand has, it is an abundance of guesthouses. I resorted to what has served me well in Asia: I asked for help.

The proprietor, who had been awakened by the night watchman, was standing in her nightgown and rope behind the counter, obviously mortified by the mistake. She kept apologizing as she hurriedly made a call to another guesthouse, which I found equally as charming. Within minutes, a motorbike with sidecar and recently-awakened-from-sleep driver arrived. I was ushered, bulging duffle bag and all, onto the narrow side-car platform that serves as a seat for passengers. With much copchuncaws “thank you very much” and respectful bowing I was off to the Morning House, my home for the night.

In the morning, I have an appointment with the founder of Elephants World, a new facility about 30 minutes outside of Kanchanaburi. I have heard little about the place and am anxious to see it firsthand.

The young Thai founder of Elephants World is a veterinarian. His project  is in partnership with a local man who supports animal welfare and wants his land to be put to good use for elephants. Animal welfare is not an attitude that you might think of when referring to the Thai’s, but I believe attitudes are beginning to shift. The land owner is known to rescue young water buffalo whose mothers are being sent to slaughter. I asked what he makes the buffalo do and was told by Dr. Prasitphol that he makes them “walk and eat”; translated it means that he allows them to just be buffalo. Apparently he and Dr. prasitphol also have a soft heart for stray dogs, because together they have rescued and care for nearly 100 street dogs at their perspective homes.

a special day for BLES visitors

The guests at BLES had a very educational experience today, their second day observing  Mee Chok’s target training session and Pang Suai’s pedicure. In both cases they observed in silence, and later expressed sheer amazement at how relaxed and confident Pang Suai was today.  Yesterday was her first experience with the new foot trimming ramp and pedicure. It took her close to thirty minutes to walk up the ramp and settle in for her first-ever pedicure. But today, she casually sauntered up the ramp without hesitation, presenting her toes off the end like a pro. 

The guests commented on the difference in her comfort level from yesterday, recognizing that her positive experience yesterday contributed to her confidence today. Pang Suai cooperated fully, without reservation or resistance. She actually appeared to enjoy the foot trim and extra attention.

As soon as Pang Suai’s pedicure was complete, Mee Chok and family emerged from the pond and headed toward the training corral. He was full of energy and wasted no time showing off what he had learned the day before.  Within minutes we were all in stitches watching his antics. Mee Chok was fully engaged and nearly over-the-top with enthusiasm.  Seriously over the top!

As soon as he heard me say “telle,” he effortlessly scaled the corral and with complete control flung his front feet over the railing—the top railing! His legs were dangling quite comfortably over the railing which is higher than he is tall.

It was the funniest sight and a most amazing display of agility. The entire group of onlookers and I were roaring with laughter, which of course fed Mee Chok’s sensational mood. He was having such fun and loving the reaction of the onlookers. But what he did next sent us all into fits of hysterical laughter. 

When asked for “kalang”(back leg), Mee Chok flung one back leg over the railing, followed instantly by the other leg, which he placed on the railing above, resulting in both his back legs sticking through the space between the horizontal railing.  Then, in one graceful continual motion, Mee Chok effortlessly walked his back legs up the rungs of railing, nimble as a spider monkey.  I could hardly believe what I was seeing: his front feet on the ground, back legs poking through the upper railings with his bum sticking high up in the air.

It was hilarious! I couldn’t help it; I totally lost my composure and joined everyone in laughter-of-appreciation for Mee Chok’s agility and humor. Athletic only begins to describe this little man’s physical coordination; he is seriously agile. He was exhibiting unbridled enthusiasm for the game, his joy was contagious. It was impossible to take this session too seriously — Mee Chok had taken the training game to a whole new silly level!

The guests were in awe of Mee Chok’s agility, ability to learn so quickly and his willingness, even eagerness, to engage in the training game. Each expressed their sincere appreciation for the opportunity to witness the foot trimming and training sessions. It was marvelous to hear them comment on their surprise at “how smart elephants really are,” how “after only one session Pang Suai was completely comfortable with climbing onto the ramp today” and how “Mee Chok learned so much in only fifteen minutes.”  Listening to their observations filled me with gratitude for a lifetime spent with elephants.

Mee Chok and Pang Suai

Jan 24

It’s my first day back at BLES and I am over-the-moon excited about what has taken place. As promised, Katherine had a sturdy exercise/training pen constructed and a raised concrete platform for foot trimming. With everything well in place and the mahouts briefed on the plans, Pang Suai made her way to the foot trimming platform. At first she was apprehensive about walking to the edge of the platform. Snaking her trunk over the side examining the distance between herself and the ground, she hesitated to get too close to the edge. The mahouts were fabulous, one on her neck in a position she finds familiar and another at her side reassuring her that she was okay. No elephant hooks, knives, nails or weapon were used, only patience and the talent developed over years of being with this elephant. It is an honor to work with these mahouts.

Uncharacteristic of other elephants whom I have provided pedicures for, Pang Suai preferred that I trim her back feet instead of her front. This is unusual but I accepted her preference. After she relaxed into the back foot trims, we were able to trim her front nails and pads. 

Her pads and nails are healthy and only slightly overgrown, no cracks or serious decayed areas. Her cuticles were little overgrown but the pedicure took care of that. Like proud parents the mahouts could not stop bragging about how beautiful Pang Suai’s feet were. One mahout commented that her feet were so beautiful he would ask her to marry him!

Still aglow from the success of the foot trimming session, I was told that Mee Chok would soon be available for his training session. With a bucket of cut bananas and a flexible target pole in hand, we made our way over to the training area. Mee Chok had just emerged from a refreshing swim in the pond with Lom and Pang Tong. All three made the gradual climb up to the empty elephant stalls. The elephants don’t stay in the stalls so it’s a bit of a ghost town with empty stalls dotting the area.

With a little encouragement Mee Chok and his adopted family entered the stall, curious about the new enclosure. Stoic Pang Tong stayed at the far end while Lom and Mee Chok engaged in the new training activity Mee Chok was full of energy, moving around a lot but always returning to the area of activity, which was the target, whistle and banana treats. He and Lom did well, and he started to get the idea after only 15 minutes. I did have to laugh at all the distractions, which in other training environments would be squelched — electric saws at a construction site, , staff discussing their morning duties and a large delivery truck dropping off supplies. The elephants were aware and responded to the different distractions but continued to show interest in the training.

That was the morning session, Mee Chok’s first session. 

When Kat asked how I felt Mee Chok did, I said he did well, by  the end of the session grasping the concept of the training. My guess was that he would spend the next few hours pondering the activity.

Wow, did he ever ponder. When the family arrived for the second session, Mee Chok immediately responded to the “target” request. He had it! I pointed the spongy end of the target toward the stall and said “target.” Without hesitation, moving at a fast clip, singularly focused, Mee Chok walked right up and placed his forehead square on the target. BINGO, he got it!

What came next was so exciting, a firestorm of activity driven by his comprehension of the game. What a joy to see Mee Chok engage in this game, so foreign but so stimulating. In no time he was striking the target with his feet at the word  “talle.” And then he decided that if one foot on the horizontal bar was good enough to get a piece of banana, two feet must be even better. Was he ever proud of himself, and I was filled with joy knowing that yet another baby elephant in Thailand will benefit from positive reinforcement training.

The mahouts were smiling from ear to ear and giving us the thumbs ups. They could not have been more pleased. The session continued for about fifteen minutes with Mee Chok fully engaged and anxious to learn more. To say this was a good day would be an understatement!

Returning to BLES

My time at BLES was supposed to be devoted to foot trimming for all the elephants and target training with Mee Chok. If I have learned anything during my travels in Asia, it is patience.

Elephants in Asia were never trained to receive foot care, which means they don’t bend their front foot backwards at the ankle to rest it on a trimming stool. Since my goal is to avoid causing the elephants stress, I have found other ways to accomplish trimming. One way that works very well is using a ramped raised area. The elephants walk up the ramp and hang their toes off the end for trimming. It works great. The elephants do not stress and I can trim the pad and the nails.

When I first arrived at BLES we looked around for an appropriate raised area but found nothing suitable. Kat got right on the project but it will be days before a sturdy elephant ramp can be constructed…so I will return to BLES for foot trimming.

My other purpose for going to BLES was to introduce Mee Chok to target training. Everyone was quite excited about the prospect. Mee Chok is a wonderfully docile calf with a loving family in Lom and Pang Tong, the ever protective matriarch. He has never been confined or chained since he’s been at BLES but we needed to create a fenced area to contain him during training.

Well, this was quite comical. The mahouts got right on the project and converted an open air stable into what resembled a boxing ring with ropes and chains strung horizontally to create a barrier.

Unfortunately it did not work. Lom wanted in with Mee Chok, who had no idea that the goal was for him to stay inside. Mee Chok was not nervous but he thought it was by accident that he had become separated from his family. He effortlessly climbed over the barrier, causing the mahouts to burst into laughter. The mahouts’ reaction is so refreshing. They do not begrudge the elephants for acting like elephants and using their superior intelligence to problem solve.

So, before we can start working with Mee Chok a corral needs to be erected. Once that is in place I will return to BLES, not only to provide foot care but also to instruct the eager mahouts on how to use target training with Mee Chok and the other elephants.

My time at BLES was not wasted. I was able to spend time with Kat and Anon hiking the new land they want to buy and learning about their plans for land expansion, fencing and the release of many of their elephants into a semi-wild, chain-free environment. I am in awe of the direction BLES is moving, a direction that definitely puts the elephants first.

I look forward to my return to BLES and want to thank all of you for making it possible for me to provide these services to elephants in Asia.

BLES

It was a pleasure to be back at BLES. The simple elegance of the sanctuary results in a brilliant function: a peaceful haven for elephant and human alike. Oh yes — the many dogs and cats find the place heavenly as well.

A feeling of maturity has permeated the sanctuary since my last visit only seven months ago. There is a calm that the mahouts, house-keeping staff, nanny and maintenance staff exude. Needless to say, the comfortable calmness is most obvious with the elephants.

Tong Yui and Bong Bing have experienced a growth spurt in my absence, both several inches taller, lankier, less calf-like. They are both growing into impressive elephants, healthy and full of promise.

Tong Yui is a bundle of energy each morning. Her enthusiasm for the new day threatens to explode, making it nearly impossible for her to get through her morning bath without a playful crash through the trees by the wash area.

I have such fond memories of Tarra at this magical age of seven, not yet fully confident but blossoming into the glorious individual she would grow to be. Full of adventurous energy, eager to explore life and her surroundings, quickly shedding the restraints of childhood. Even her face indicated that little Tong Yui is entering puberty and promises to be a magnificent elephant in her own right.

I am sure you remember baby Mee Chok, the calf who made such a powerful impact on me the last time I was in Thailand. My last day at BLES during my last visit, we searched for a calf reported to be in distress. Katherine was desperate to find and rescue him. His conditions were devastating. Even though he was corralled with an adult female, it was obvious she was not his mother and they meant nothing to each other. With identical blank stares, their eyes void of life, and identical leg shackles, they did their best to block the unbearable pain they were experiencing.

Helpless to make a difference in the life of this suffering elephant, I took a single haunting photo of Mee Chok with his head pressed against the wooden posts of his corral. The desperate look in his eyes tells it all. I posted the iconic photo on my site as a reminder of the continued suffering of elephants used for tourism in Thailand.

You would not recognize Mee Chok today. His recovery is no less than miraculous and testament to the nurturing bestowed upon him at BLES. My sincerest thanks go to Katherine, Anon, the mahouts and all the staff for making BLES such a special place. The environment of love that is BLES revives the life force energy, for elephants and people alike, that in so many cases is near extinguished.