a powerful team for elephants

We just reached our CHIPIN goal for my invitation to provide services at Elephants World. Thank you so much for making this change-of-plans possible. You are quite the elephant welfare team–there is power in numbers!

It is because of your generosity and sensitivity to the suffering and needs of elephants that little Jon at Elephants World will be introduced to positive reinforcement training and management.  You are part of a movement that is small but over the past few weeks has spread like wildfire. You are the fuel that is driving the movement forward. I am eternally grateful.

Jon’s corral is scheduled to be completed today. After I have my last training session with Khan Kluay this afternoon here at WFFT, I will make the short trip to Jon’s home. I have ten days to change his life forever…and you have made the effort possible.

Namaste dear friends,

Khan Kluay shows a softer side

I thought about renting a car on my next trip to Thailand but realized that would be silly because even though I would have convenient transportation at my finger tips, I would get lost everywhere I drove. 

Navigating today’s trip from Phetchaburi to Wildlife Friends of Asia would have been quite stressful without a local person at the wheel. Street signs are not in English and asking for directions results in a blank star followed by a toothy grin. So for now I will be satisfied with public transportation and the gracious offering of transport from facilities like Wildlife Friends of Asia http://www.wfft.org. It is much appreciated.

This afternoon I arrived at WFFT and was pleasantly surprised to see that all five elephants live chain-free. Their pipe and cable corrals are a time-tested fencing design. The electric fence attached on the inside of the corral as a secondary security measure is also time-tested, and a requirement with young Khan Kluay.

One of the most beautiful elephants I have seen, Khan Kluay — Bam, as his mahouts call him — is nearly six years old and recently started acting out aggressively. After a mahout was injured the wise decision was made by the foreign management to go protected contact. Since the elephants live chain-free, the change does not affect Bam in a negative way. It may make the mahout’s job a bit more challenging because he must gain Bam’s cooperation, but for Bam, it’s all good.

My observation is that Bam is insecure and hides behind a mask of spurts of aggression. He lives with 40-year-old Som Boon; they appear to enjoy each other’s company. She is gorgeous with flowing poka-dotted ears and a well-rounded figure. An old injury to her back left leg has left her with a limp but she is agile and active; a very lovely lady.

After a brief tour of the facilities and elephants, we returned to Bam’s yard to watch his behavior around the mahouts, who were preparing his evening feed. He shadowed the mahouts as they walked the fence line, threw dirt in their direction and mock charged them. The mahouts did not react so the display of aggression was short lived. Without difficulty, a mahout shifted both Bam and Som Boon into an adjacent holding area so that volunteers could clean the yard and put fresh food and treats out for the elephants. 

Lucy and Tom, two of WFFT’s permanent staff helped me quickly manufacture a target pole out of a scrap piece of plastic pipe, a portion of a burlap bag (for the soft end), a length of elastic and a bit of surgical tape. This ingenious effort resulted in a functional target that would serve Bam well.

When I started working with Bam it was immediatly apparent to me that he a bit of a bully toward the mahouts but deep inside he is a frightened boy. He shied away from the target as I ever so slowly slid it over the cable into the corral. He inched forward, wanting desperately to get near the bright blue pole, wiggled his head back and forth, wanting to touch it and fearing it at the same time. He danced around the target like a prizefighter, but at no time did he show any aggression.

It took a few minutes but Bam finally mustered up the courage to touch the target with his forehead. He was so cute, dancing around the pole, walking a few steps away only to return with more courage. Finally the soft end of the target made gentle contact with his forehead.

That was all it took. He soon was touching the target with his forehead fearlessly. Yes, he had a grin on his face and a sparkle in his eyes. He offered and I captured parts of his body – “sapoke” (hip) and “kalang” (back leg), and when the fifteen-minute session ended he was playing with the idea of presenting his “who” (ear). I am ecstatic over his participation. He relaxed right into the game, something that I was not sure would happen, having been forewarned about his behavior.

Once again, positive reinforcement target training proves to be a positive way to engage with elephants, even ones who display aggressive behavior. It warms my heart to see Bam playfully engaged in the game, a tool that the mahouts can use to build and strengthen their relationship with him.

Much appreciation goes to WFFT’s  founder Erwin Wiek and his dedicated staff for hosting my visit. The center is a model for others striving to create a safe and healthy environment for captive-held elephants in Thailand.

a chance to help another calf in need

The drive from Kanchatanaburi to Elephants World took about 30 minutes, the scenery quickly changing from bustling city to serene country side. I noticed acres upon acres of cultivated elephant grass, the first sign that a plan was underway to ensure that the elephants held in captivity are guaranteed a healthy food supply.

It’s the dry season and the landscape shows it. The countryside is dry and sparsely treed in comparison to Northern Thailand. I made a mental note to ask if the seemingly barren hills that jutt up from the fertile valley floor are naturally treeless or the result of logging. I later learned that the hills are actually covered in bamboo. Since they are presently dormant the bamboo looks like dried brush, but learning that it is dormant bamboo made me see the distant rocky peaks in a much different light — they are mountains of elephant food.

Elephants World is a new project with several rescued elephants ranging from 3.5-year-old Jon to the two ancient wise females affectingly referred to as the old ladies. A most magnificent river runs through the property, the jewel of the place and probably the best reason to create an elephant sanctuary in this location. They do allow visitors and most are Thai’s, who are different from the demanding foreigners who think every elephant was born to be ridden. The Thai’s are rather quiet and reserved in such a public setting. They were happy to sit on a wooden tree house platform on the river’s edge and watch in silence as the elephants enjoyed a lively swim.

While observing, we discuss the center’s plans, dreams and current challenges. The discussion quickly focused on Jon, who is a wild calf who arrived in December after losing his mom. He is quite aggressive. There is concern among the staff about how to manage him humanely. His young mahout has done well with him, but the vet hopes to teach the mahout gentler ways.

It only took about twenty minutes before I heard myself agreeing to come back to train Jon and his mahout and to trim the elephant’s feet as well. My mind was racing a hundred miles an hour because there were so many travel arrangements to change; well, not so many — nothing is ever permanent — and I simply cannot turn down an opportunity to help hands-on, making life better for elephants.

The staff was excited when I said I would be happy to change my plans and return; it truly is my pleasure. We discussed the corral that needed to be constructed. The mahouts were so engaged, conferring with the vet and volunteer coordinator determining exactly where it would be, the size and construction and where the materials would come from. After a bit a discussion the vet turned to me and said that the mahouts will start collecting the supplies tonight and begin to build the corral tomorrow. I was pleasantly surprised because this is not an example of Thai time. It is an example of people seriously interested in improving their elephants’ lives and knowing that things need to be done now. What could I say but, of course, I will change my plans!

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!

Finishing up my work in Thailand

Tim Gorski of Rattle the Cage Productions spent all day yesterday at the Park, from sun up to sun down, documenting the relationship between Chang Yim and Karl, his mahout. I was thrilled when Tim decided to wave his fee…he is an authentic animal welfare advocate. Check out his site at www.rattlethecage.org.

The footage Tim took will provide the visuals necessary for a video comparison of free-contact dominance and free-contact non-dominance elephant training. This footage will be the first of many hours collected in support of positive reinforcement training for elephants.

Oh boy, was it ever hard leaving ENP today. It was impossible to not get attached to the elephants during my stay because they absorbed me right into their family. I love and respect each one for their good humor, resilience and individuality. They are permanently embedded in my heart.  

I am on my way back to Boon Lott’s Sanctuary for one more week of foot care and positive reinforcement target training with Mee Chok. I can’t wait to see how he responds!

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.


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.

Seeing more of Asia

Visiting Vietnam was quite an adventure. Forget about the leisurely bike ride suggested in the guide books — you take your life in your hands just crossing the street! Even though they drive on the right side of the road, civilized driving etiquette ends there. The streets are crammed with cars, buses and zillions of motor bikes.

It took no time at all for me to abandon my original plan to rent a bicycle and spend many days leisurely peddling, safely, along the coast of Vietnam. After researching options, I decided that the sleeping bus would be a good, if not necessarily safe, mode of transportation. Little did I suspect that Vietnam’s roads hardly resemble a road at all in some locations — potholed mule trail would be a better description! But that was not a problem because I would be sleeping during my night travels and leave concerns about road conditions to the bus driver. This actually turned out to be a good plan; travel during the night, catch up on sleep and arrive early the next morning at my destination.

You meet the most interesting and tall people on the sleeping bus. I swear I have never seen so many towering European and Australian backpack-laden travelers; none were less than 6’2’’ tall. It was during these colorful bus trips that I felt grateful for my height. Clearly the sleepers were custom designed for persons of a short stature, perfect for me.

Not having traveled on a sleeping bus before, I had no idea what I had signed up for. It was not so bad — I was able to sleep, which made the time pass quickly. The two highlights were the seat/bed, which was, well, just a bit uncomfortable, and the restroom stops. It reminded me of childhood road trips when you wait as long as possible and then tell dad he really needs to stop NOW. In this case, dad was the bus driver and he really hated to waste time by stopping. Only when several cranky passengers huddled impatiently by the bus door would he stop. The sleepy-eyed passengers dashed out the door, disappearing into the dark, happy to find a secluded tree for a bit of privacy. Imagine my surprise when my final sleeping bus trip turned out to be a luxury liner, complete with comfortable bed, adjustable lighting and air vents, curtains to block the blaring lights of oncoming traffic and, yes, you guessed it, an on-board toilet. It was definitely the Sleeping Bus Hilton!

Vietnam is gorgeous all the way from the Mekong Delta north to the islands of stunning Halone Bay. In between are cities and villages brimming with possible adventures …if you can just get across the street!

I will admit that Halone Bay was the highlight of my trip. The islands are draped in a thin layer of mist, creating a ghostly image of the panoramic multilayer islands beyond. The muted colors and blurred mountain ridges give off a surreal effect. l felt I must have entered the ancient matriarchal world of Avalon — it was seriously stunning.

The bay was the perfect setting for an overnight stay on a quaint wooden vessel, designed to accommodate a dozen people. Although the bay was teaming with boats I felt as though we were a solo seafaring vessel on a journey of undiscovered lands. It was fabulous. Cold, indeed: we were told the weather had turned only days before and it stayed cold the entire time we were exploring the sights of the bay. But cold or not, I had the most amazing time.

We visited an enormous cave big enough to house an entire village and climbed to the top of a mountain simply to prove we could. It was quite comical because the guide gave no advice about climbing, no warning about possible problems, and simply said, “One way up, one way down,” as he motioned for us to head up a narrow, rocky, steep mountain trail without him.

This was no easy climb and not one that should be made in the girly flowered shoes worn by one of the women in the group behind us. When I mentioned my concern about her shoes she was offended, responding that her shoes — which were flats designed for ballet dancing not rock climbing — were fine for hiking since they had rubber soles. I stood corrected, remembering that the Asians I had met so far could run, jump, keep up with running elephants and, obviously climb mountains, in as little as flip flops.

The trail got steeper and narrower, the boulders grew bolder and the hazards more threatening with each step. When a handrail was provided you could not use it for fear of cutting your hand on the rusted corroded metal. The group I was with had a great sense of humor so we joked about the apparent lack of concern for safety and lawsuits. Tourists would be deprived access to such a treacherous location in the States, so I was thankful I was in Vietnam.

On top of the mountain stood a second challenge, a four-story metal tower swaying in the wind, just daring me to work though any fear of heights. No problem, I tested the handrail to see if the welds were still good and proceeded to climb to the top. What a rush. The view was spectacular and so was the wind! The panoramic view was layer after layer after layer of islands stretching for miles toward the horizon. It was thrilling.