Growing up, I always wanted to be a vet. Since about the age of five I’ve been obsessed with animals; my mum used to buy me Rolf Harris’ Animal Hospital magazines and books and I had a huge collection of Sylvanian families and Puppy dog tails. These days I could never be a vet, just because I’d be way too emotional and the sight of blood and needles makes me feel like I’m going to pass out. But I still have such a strong compassion towards animals- I don’t eat meat and if an animal dies or gets hurt in a movie I cry my eyes out (if a human does it’s like meh). I know that one of the things I’m meant to do in life is to help them, whether that’s by opening a shelter, doing charity work for the Amazon rainforest, contributing towards abolishing the palm oil trade or rescuing strays over the globe.
Spending a day at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand was the perfect taster for this. Up until now I feel like I haven’t done as much as I would have liked charity-wise; I donated money to Greenpeace for about a year but realised when I and minus two grand in my account that I probably should stop the direct debit. But having this day experience has given me the motivation to either go back there and volunteer for a few months on my way home from Australia, or look into similar sanctuaries across the globe, where I can wake up every day without any make-up on and just walk around in mud and be surrounded by different animals.
The day started off with breakfast time for one of the elephants. We walked down and fed bananas to a 75-year-old elephant, who slowly but surely made her way over to us. She was confident and wagging her ears and tail, which is a sign of a very happy elephant! She had been used and abused in the logging and trekking industry for over 60 years! Her wrinkly, heavy trunk twisted and curved until it gently sucked up the bananas and put them in her mouth. Once she had, had her snacks and strokes she plodded away back to break up the bits of banana tree she had also been given.
The day continued with a tour of the grounds, to go and meet some off the 500+ rescued animals at the sanctuary. It was so refreshing seeing all the large areas of living space in which the animals had to roam. They had plenty of trees to climb, grass to roll in, places to sleep and tyres play with. Each area we walked through brought different noises, from the calling of the different species of bird to the loud siren-like scream of the gibbons.
Gibbons were the main rescued animal there; there were so many. The staff at WFFT were making such an effort to ensure they were given the same lifestyle that they would have in the wild. Gibbons find a mate and stay with them for the rest of their lives. They have babies and when they are old enough the dad gibbon scares them away so that they can be independent and find their own mate to do the same. The staff at WFFT had paired up male and female gibbons to make sure that they had that experience. We got to see some baby ones, they were so fluffy and cute!
Being fluffy and cute is one of the main things that brings these animals into places like WFFT in the first place; people buy them as pets because they look cute and then get bored of them as they grow up. The majority of animals at the sanctuary will never be released back into the wild after their rehabilitation at WFFT. Not just because they are too damaged or wouldn’t know how to survive in the wild, but most of these animals were imported into Thailand from other countries to be kept as pets, meaning that they would be in a completely unfamiliar environment if they were realised in Thailand.
There were a lot of amputee monkeys also- who had their injuries from car accidents. Probably one of the best things I saw all day was the tortoise that was best friends with a cow. I couldn’t get a good photo from where we were standing, but they were laying side by side and apparently they follow each other around- how amazing is that! Melted my heart! We also saw a rescued crocodile, deer, boars, monkeys and lots and lots of bears.
After a healthy lunch of watermelon, rice and vegetables cooked in sauce, we moved on to one of the best bits of the day- we got to take an elephant for her daily walk! Jumping in the back of a truck and driving to another part of the land, it felt like we were going on a safari.
This is the beautiful, happy girl we were lucky enough to take on walk. She was so calm and trusting and her ears and tail flapped about as we fed her pineapple and watermelon every few steps. She was so lovely to stroke and there was nothing more amazing than walking a few meters ahead so I could watch her slowly walk in my direction. A big friendly, cuddly giant.
We even got to give her a shower afterwards, spraying her with a hose and scrubbing her gently with brushes to get her nice and clean before she covers herself in dust again. After having that special one to one moment with an elephant, I was certain I would need to come back here or elsewhere to do some volunteering for a few weeks/ months at a time. I’ve realised that doing something like that for a few years wouldn’t earn me a single penny, but the lifestyle would make me so, so happy.
We got back on the trucks again and got to drive around to the final parts of the sanctuary, seeing more otters and monkeys and bears. We got to meet the rest of the elephants as well and watch a few of them go for a swim.
There was also baby elephant, which was the perfect end to the perfect day!! The best thing about the baby elephant was the story behind him. His mum lived in the same sanctuary and they were rescued by an Australian woman who spent her own personal money on saving them. The woman had previously witnessed the same elephant mum have two babies taken away from her, shortly after being born. She had been forced to have three babies in such a short period of time, and the woman couldn’t bear for it to happen again so she made sure they both got sent to WFFT together!
I envisioned what I expected this day to be like before it happened, and it ended up being so, so much more amazing. Something I noticed about the staff at WFFT, which I really admired, was how they treated each animal there as an individual. They all had names and the staff knew each of their personalities inside out, therefore they had different ways of caring for each one. For example, any of the elephants that were a bit more uncomfortable around humans, they made sure they had their space and weren’t touched. There was a male elephant who loved to destroy everything in his enclosure and sink it to the bottom of his mini lake. They don’t want him to miss out on having a nice living space because of this, so they are working on saving money to build him another enclosure, so that once he has destroyed one he can go in the other and destroy it and then vice versa.
In another instance, there were two elephants that knew each other previously at a trekking camp, so they made sure they had an enclosure together. There was another elephant who was new to an enclosure and less dominant, so they made sure he was fed separately so that he got the same amount of food as the others. It was so nice to see the attention to detail of care they took.
The overall message here is- please do not ever, ever, ever ride an elephant. Even if the company tells you that they are well fed and looked after, it’s all lies. A lot of people continue to encourage this because they are unaware of what goes on behind the scenes. This also goes for tigers and lions too; they are mistreated and sedated so that humans can interact with them.
Before an elephant is ready to be used for riding/ begging/ logging, there is a long and horrible process that takes place. The babies are first of all taken away from their mothers. Elephants are intelligent, emotional and compassionate animals, meaning that they react to things like this in the same way a human would.
The baby then has to go through a ‘cracking process’ which is probably the most heart-breaking and inhumane thing I’ve ever heard of. They are forced into tiny cages where they are starved and repeatedly beaten until they turn soulless and emotionless. Once they have cracked, they are a lot more submissive and it makes it a lot easier for them to be controlled.
We saw elephants with huge scars, deformed backs and hairs missing from their backs where they had been rode, severe limps where they had been hit by cars and trucks whilst being used for begging, abnormal stances as a result of having their legs chained.
You may have noticed before that some Asian elephants have more pale coloured skin in some parts- this is actually where they have been badly sunburnt in the past; elephants use their trunks to throw dust on themselves as a natural sun cream, and when they’re chained up or put in cages it makes it difficult to do so. One of the saddest things we saw was a young elephant that started dancing when we came over; he thought we had food and he was used to being bribed and having to dance to get fed.
The issue is that in Thailand, elephants are livestock and treated exactly like cows. Anybody can own an elephant and it’s completely legal to continually breed them. This means that most of the time an elephant can only be rescued when they are too old to work anymore; they are usually tied to trees and left to starve to death because in Buddhism it is frowned upon to kill anything.
Luckily someone is working on changing this law in order to protect the elephants, but until that is confirmed and in place, we all need to do our bit to ensure that we firstly avoid trekking and/or anything that uses elephants for entertainment purposes (for example elephant massages) and secondly that we all spread awareness about the cruelty that takes place behind the scenes.
After constantly seeing animal cruelty related videos on Facebook and hearing horror stories about what goes on in slaughterhouses etc. it was so refreshing to be in an environment giving the complete opposite messages. It’s so reassuring to know that there are like-minded people out there, devoting their time, money and effort into taking care of helpless animals that are unable to care for themselves. What was even more warming, was witnessing how these big friendly giants had managed to build up their love and trust towards human beings, despite the decades of torture they went through.
For anyone looking to have this experience in Thailand, you can get a cheap minivan from Bangkok to Cha Am for 160BAHT, from either the Southern or Northern bus terminal. Our accommodation was in the middle of both so we went to the Southern one (it’s a bit closer to Cha Am). If you e-mail WFFT beforehand when you book your day there, they can arrange for somebody to pick you up from the Shell garage down the road from where the minivans drop you off.
Don’t read reviews of the minivans online. Most people have made out that they drive like maniacs and that they’re lucky to be alive, but we were fine and they didn’t drive any differently to any other driver in the city. If you do choose this option, you will have to get to the bus station for about 5:30-6 AM, as the drive can take up to three hours. You buy your ticket once you’re there. Otherwise, if you’re not staying in the surrounding area, there are other sanctuaries in Chiang Mai and Phuket. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions!