Today was a venture out to the Elephant Nature Park. It’s a facility run by a tiny woman, Lek, with a huge vision. It’s her desire to stop the domestication and use of elephants as loggers, street beggars and performers. She has 35 elephants on her 200+ acre reserve. There are no fences, chains, ropes. They are free to roam where they like. Over the last twenty years she has acquired these elephants by purchasing them from their abusive owners, rescuing orphans, and giving aid to the injured and distressed.
I am heading out to be part of the volunteer program in the Surin Province in a couple days and I wanted something that would give me a little preparation, insight to what I might see and do while I’m there. When we arrived at the nature park, we had an orientation of the facility, given knowledge about the Asian Elephant and it’s struggle, and we were introduced to the herd. Like humans, each elephant has its own personality, quirks, traits and as a result there is a mahout (person who works with elephants) assigned to every individual elephant. Someone who becomes expert in what that elephant likes, dislikes, their characteristics, moods…someone who understands the subtleties of that elephant. Someone that knows that elephant better than anyone else. They become best friends.
Its an amazing place. The herd is gentle. They have finally found a peaceful life. And although they come from all over Thailand and have different backgrounds and stories, they have a bond with one another. They are a family. Some of the elephants have created incredibly strong bonds. Jokia is blind. She was blinded by her logging owners because she refused to work after she lost her baby. She gave birth while working and the calf fell down the steep hill where she was being forced to move logs. The calf died and Jokia fell into a depression refusing to work. Her owners thought that beating and mutilating her would get her to work again. Mae Perm is her companion and her eyes here at the reserve. The two are inseparable. I don’t know that I’ve seen anything so moving.
I could go on about each elephant here, but I recommend visiting them for yourself. We fed them, visited the babies and their families, bathed them in the river, and generally had the opportunity to observe their lives. Some know tricks from their performing past. They touch their head with their trunk, they give a kiss. It’s something they know how to do and they still do these things, but they will never be forced to do them, or beaten for not doing them ever again.
It’s my first day here. No more airports (for the time being). No more travel purgatory, that in between place after you’ve started the journey, but before the destination is reached. I know the ‘getting there is half the fun’ thing, but 24 hours of economy seating and fluorescent hallways is not going to be the highlight of THIS journey. Although I will say that meeting Bobby and Stuart (my new Scots friends) made that part of it far more tolerable.
It took a while to get me out of the hotel room. I decided I was going to start the day at the Chiang Mai Zoo. I thought this would be an easy day given the inevitable jet lag. I have no jet lag. I don’t know why. I am a biological wonder, I guess. Whatever, I’ll take it. I wish I could say I’m fearless. I am not. So, fear kept me in. Not for long, though. I procrastinated for less than an hour. Glad to get that behind me. Now, on with the day!
I figured out how to get to the zoo. I had read that this a pretty good zoo, as far as zoos go. My opinion of zoos has changed over the years. When I was younger I was skeptical of zoos (not as a child… What child doesn’t love the zoo.). I thought they were cruel. That animals should be in their natural habitat and who are we to cage these animals for our own enjoyment. Later, I went on to receive a bachelor degree in biology concentrating on wildlife conservation. I know now that zoos can be a place to help save those animals in danger of low population numbers, threatened by loss of habitat or physical danger of poaching, etc. Zoos, if well maintained and funded, can be a place of education for the public and aid in the genetic research for mating programs to keep a species sustainable. With this in mind I wanted to check this zoo out. I had heard about their feature exhibit – the Giant Pandas. They currently (and only for a couple more months) have the result of a successful mating program involving Chuang Chuang, the male, and Lin-Hui, the female. Lin-Ping was born almost three years ago and lives in the habitat next to her mother. I could have spent hours at this exhibit. There was only a small group of us (maybe because it was 10am on a Wednesday) and the animals were active! It was amazing to watch them eat, play… Do whatever Pandas do. This is absolutely the exhibit that is the draw here and it pleases me that they are using it to better the species. Overall, the zoo is great; well laid out, fairly well marked, clean, improvements going on. I know this sounds like an odd review of a zoo, but part of me is still skeptical and a zoo needs to prove their intentions to me. I only made it through half if it..it’s pretty big, but I hit the highlights and attractions I tend towards. The big cats, mainly.
A little lunch and on to the National Museum.