The Misunderstood Elephant Volunteer

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?


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.





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


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

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.




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

Turner barr

Hi, my name is Turner. I travel the world, hustle to find interesting jobs, and write about what happens when you read too many self-help books.

  • Melissa - The Mellyboo Project
    Posted at 18:08h, 23 April

    What an amazing experience. I volunteered with lions in Zimbabwe (and the park’s 4 orphaned elephants), so I know all about shovelling animal shit! But as shitty as that may be, it ended up being the most rewarding experience of all my travels. Just knowing that you’re giving back and connecting with nature at the same time is a feeling I’ll never forget.

    Good job, gringo!

    • Turner
      Posted at 19:40h, 25 April

      Zimbabwe. Sounds interesting. I will have to check that one out. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Adam
    Posted at 00:29h, 24 April

    Hey Turner,
    I was going to email you and ask about your time with the elephants. Looks like you had a blast. Glad to hear these elephants don’t get hit with the hook. I seen that in Bali and didn’t think it was cool. Poor guys, imagine getting controlled by a big metal hook hitting you in the top of the head!

    One question you didn’t answer is if this actually a FREE Volunteer program? Most Volunteer websites I come across seem to charge crazy prices for the privilege of helping out. Do these guys charge? There website doesn’t seem to answer this either?

    Hope life is good, the GoPro was a great buy – good photos..


    • Turner
      Posted at 19:43h, 25 April

      Depends how long you stay. I will write another post about it.

  • Franca
    Posted at 05:25h, 24 April

    Well said! We spent a month there volunteering with the dogs and had the chance to observe the elephants too.
    There should be more places like Elephant Nature Park and even better were the elephants should be completely free without mahouts and people only be able to watch them from far away without interfering with their lives, unless necessary for healthy issues.

    • Turner
      Posted at 19:41h, 25 April

      yeah I am thinking about going back to work with the dogs. I am afraid of liking one too much though and I cant quite fit one into my life just yet.

      • Franca
        Posted at 19:49h, 25 April

        Totally do it and don’t be afraid, those dogs need so much help. Our list of furry friends to take with us started to be very long but sadly, as you said, we cannot have any at the moment. 🙁

  • kagejiyo
    Posted at 09:47h, 26 April

    so luvly blog, but most of all i luv to drag the syrub to waffle :p

  • kagejiyo
    Posted at 10:03h, 26 April

    Dear Turner, so sorry i forgot to login, kindly delete my previous comment pls.
    i so luv the way u tell us how impress u have, and how wonderful exp. u have ,
    thnx you so much to b volunteer there and share us ur wonderful time.
    well, now i like dragging milk to coffee :p (but i like black coffee….)

  • GiselleandCody
    Posted at 07:43h, 28 April

    hey Turner,
    Great blog and we think you should head back to the park and work with the dogs. It was great to meet you and get the chance to chat. Hopefully your next “job” will be as awesome as this one!! 🙂

    • Turner
      Posted at 07:04h, 30 April

      Thanks guys. Yeah I might come back up and do just that. Although I worried about falling in love with a dog, then my love life would go to shit as I pay more attention to the dog than my future lady. What’s a guy to do?

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  • Bianca
    Posted at 20:37h, 01 May

    It must have been amazing to get up so close with these beautiful animals. Well except for the poop bit but I guess someone has to clean it up.

  • Jana Fadness
    Posted at 22:48h, 02 May

    I’ve volunteered there as well, and it was amazing! The most memorable part to me was everything I learned about the elephants and their predicament in Thailand. The park really educated its volunteers well, which I think is really important to spread the word and get less tourists paying to ride elephants! Thanks for putting this great post together. I’ll definitely be sharing it!

  • ryoawesome
    Posted at 23:10h, 03 May

    I just recently started reading your blog, referred by a friend and I was not disappointed. That face captured as still in the video post! Did you really do some work here? Hahaha, looks like you had a grand time bumming around. I’ve never been close to a big animal. I’ve seen them from afar, the working elephants in Angkor Wat and I always felt like pushing the people riding them to get them off the animal’s back. I didn’t realize that they are trained using hooks. I want to do this, too! I want to work with that baby elephant!

    • Turner
      Posted at 21:33h, 04 May

      Thanks checking it out. Yes. I did work here for a week. Yes, the way they are trained is horrible, spread the word.

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