Volunteering with Elephants in Thailand: The Misunderstood Elephant Volunteer

Turner Featured, Thailand

Group D…you are on Ele poo duty today. Grab a shovel and a wheel barrel and meet by the end of the shed

Huh? What’s Ele poo duty?

Ah shoveling the elephants’ poop into a pile so that they can use it as fertilizer for the banana trees.

And just like that, I was knee deep in shit yet again. Except this time there was no tipping potential. Not unless you count dirty glares from coworkers toward my mild enthusiasm at scooping up elephant excrement all day as thankful tip.

At least he is thankful

At least he is thankful

This elephant poo though, wasn’t any ordinary elephant dung. No, this magnificent feces comes from the refuged elephants at Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai Thailand. While many tourists come to Thailand hopping to grab a ride on one of these majestic animals, few realize what it took for that wild animal to get to a place to allow such a ride. Beatings, mutilation, torture – are all employed to break the animals’ spirit so that the mahout (elephant caretaker) can give unknowing tourists rides, shows and entertainment in exchange for their tourist dollars. Elephant Nature Park however, takes a wildly different approach: Love.

This elephant has flowers in here ear from the holes that the use of the hook did to her.

This elephant has flowers in here ear from the holes that the use of the hook did to her.

No sharp hook (elephant goad) to beat the elephant into submission here. Here visitors witness elephants roaming and acting under the least harmful conditions as possible. El naturale if you will.  Great for the visitors, probably scary as shit for the mahouts.

a wild elephant attempts to take me out. Little did he know I possess bear like strength (see: 7 year old girl)

a wild elephant attempts to take me out. Little did he know I possess bear like strength (see: 7 year old girl)

It is for these reasons I decided to get my volunteer feet wet and donate my time, and a small (very reasonable fee) to help out for a week. Little did Elephant Nature Park know that they were not just getting a volunteer, but quite possibly the biggest manual labor slacker in its history.

What does Volunteering with Elephants entail?

Elephant Poo Duty

before we set off

before we set off

Scooping, shoveling, and barreling. That’s the name of this game.  And you can’t really say you have known an elephant until you have handle one’s extraordinary large leftovers.

jazzed

jazzed

Elephant Food Prep

fruit truck

These elephants, 35 of them at the park, go through almost 2 tons of food a day. Trucks of corn, pumpkins, watermelon, pineapple all need to be prepped – washed, cut, de vined and skinned for the older elephant gang to satisfy their insatiable appetite. You unload a truck – daily. With all these accruements it takes a work force – some on the unloading duty, some on the scrubbing duty, some on the machete hacking up the goods duty, and for people like the likes of me – the smoking and supervising duty. It is not as easy as you think being in charge of quality control, but it is a burden one must bear.

doing good boys

doing good boys

Fencing

Probably the most manly – manual labor intensive job of the daily tasks available – needless to say, I excelled.

Excelled at killing the banana trees we were corralling.

wtf am I cutting?

wtf am I cutting?

Some re-dug fence pole positions, others cleared up dead vines from the trees. How do you decipher what tree is in need of cleaning up you might ask? Well – we just follow the Buddhist minimalist instructions of the Thai supervisors.

See the dead branch, and clear

Life is much more exciting when things are open for interpretation.

Unless you are banana tree. Then you are shit out of luck.

The Mud Pit

behold: the pit

behold: the pit

How does an elephant apply mother nature’s sunscreen? The classic mud pit. Keeping these ele’s lathered up in the finest mud bath takes work though. So teams of volunteers head to the river for water, while others grab a hoe, working like a roadside chain gang to hack up the harden mud so that it can be flung by the elephants.

Guess what job I did?

 

"...And I was like 'whatever dude'. People just don't get art anymore"

“…And I was like ‘whatever dude’. People just don’t get art anymore”

Corn Cutting

questionable legal workforce

questionable legal workforce

Nothing brings me back to my American upbringing like working in a field cutting corn, except that I grew up in streets of whiter than white suburbia and the closest thing I had ever seen to working in a field was watching Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Nonetheless, there is nothing more natural feeling for man than to be in a field wielding a marchete and hacking away at defenseless plants. Grueling sun and bugs aside, this volunteer activity was probably my favorite, as who doesnt like to play dress up and look like an undocumented worker?

guess which gringo I am?

guess which gringo I am?

 

so natural

so natural

Elephant Bath Time

Elephant job bath

How does the elephant get off that coat of dirt before the sun goes down? Last time I checked there was not such thing as an elephant loofah. Enter the volunteers. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, while perhaps in Thailand the mantra might read:

It takes village to clean an elephant.

Yeah. I use cute picture to make up for substance. Win.

Yeah. I use cute baby pictures to make up for my poor writing skills. It must be working because you are still here. Sucker.

 

Donning buckets, cameras, and a child like enthusiasm, these elephants that were once dealt the hard blow of the hook, now face something almost as terrifying: excited tourists with buckets of water.

But the volunteer “work” at Elephant Nature Park is only half the story.  From a day tripper’s perspective – meaning a tourist who comes out just for the day to bathe, feed and take photos – the life of a volunteer may seem trivial.

Can’t you just hire some local guys to do that for a fraction of the cost, in half the time with ten times the proficiency?

Sure – but where’s the love in that. Elephant Nature Park is about building love. Not just treating the elephants who have suffered with love, but about building a foundation of understanding. To build a relationship between these majestic animals for those who wish to know more about them. It is a relationship that shouldn’t be relegated to book reading or watching behind the bars of a zoo. To look at the elephants as more than just a mere sideshow or a novel animal ride in an exotic land that we can now check off our bucket lists and show pictures to not so subtly brag to our friends about. To understand them is to go to a place where we realize that this is not just animal who happens to habitat this planet with us, but one that is a living being that is what makes being another living being on this planet worthwhile.

getting to know each other

getting to know each other

And that is why volunteering at Elephant Nature Park is more than a just a interesting volunteer job, it is a way to support an organization who fights the fight that we should all be undertaking.

Even if after working a week there you will forever be branded by your peers with the epithet:

Turner “Does Nothing” Barr & the equally descript Lazy Barr.

this says it all

The defamed volunteer list. This says it all

And to the anonymous gentleman who wrote such heresies. To you good sir all I can say is:

Astute observation.

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You can find out more about volunteering elephants with both Save Elephant Foundation and at Elephant Nature Park.