Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Romance of Helping Animals

There are many kinds of romance other than the romance with another person. There is the romance of travel. There is the romance of helping people. There is the romance of animals...taking care of animals...and one animal in particular....elephants.

Sangduen Chailert known as Lek was born into a remote mountain community in Northern Thailand in the 1960s. Her maternal grandfather was a tribal man of the forest and Lek's jungle forays with him led to an early and organic understanding of the wonders of nature. It also led to a deep and abiding love for elephants. Despite her early years and the struggle to stay in school, she was able to obtain a university education, she married, and she managed to found Elephant Nature Park with her husband Adam in 1996.

News of this Park eventually has made it around the world and especially to the United States. Elephant lover Sandra heard about it and prepared to volunteer. She enlisted her mother-on-law Susie to go with her. This then is their story.

Susie didn't want Sandra to go alone so she decided to go with her. She didn't believe that she could travel with so little. She took only a small carryon containing basic makeup, a change of shoes, and some light clothing, figuring they could buy anything they needed. They had to change planes four times in order to get to the elephant center.

The Elephant Nature Park, is an elephant sanctuary which Saengduen, better known as Lek, founded 15 years ago. Located in Chiang Mai's Mai Taeng Valley, this 350-rai (56-hectare) plot of land is now home to almost 40 elephants that were once abused, overworked,or abandoned. When Susie and Sandra arrived, they were met by a van and driven about 1-1/2 hours to the nature park. There was tropical foliage, lush greenery, bamboo huts, and elephants...lots of elephants to roam around the park.

They were to stay in the bamboo huts which had thatched roofs, walls and floors of

wood and modern facilities, remembers Susie. "Our hut was built around this one huge tree. We ate two times a day."

Lek's mission was to undo the culture of braking. Elephants can be trained by positive reinforcement. And it's catching on. "Incidentally, all elephants do not look alike," said Susie.

"Sandra and I signed up for one week to feed these huge animals, bathe them, and enjoy them. Or you can go on a day trip guided tour."

Volunteers pay $300 a week. Day visitors pay per day plus lunch. People come from all over the world. Only 40 people a day are allowed in the park and there are no elephant shows. There were a couple from London, another couple from Paris and Thailand, a teacher from Australia, a student from Japan, two guys from Southern France, two girls from Jakarta. There were more females than males. All spoke English. As a matter of fact, all Thai speak English.

"Each day we'd bring the herd of elephants to the river, then get a bucket to fill with water and to splash them. They'd roll around and blow water out of their trunk. Then they roll in the mud.

"It was so far out of the ordinary - a different world. All the things you think you need, you don't," Susie said. "But you can bathe any time. It was hot, never cold. We gave up on hair and makeup. Also Lek told us to dress appropriately; no short shorts, no low necklines.

"There were wonderful buffets out of the little, ill equipped kitchen. The food was like you'd get in the best hotels. I worked in the kitchen a couple of times."

The elephants came from many places. The mahouts used them to beg with on the city streets. Sometimes the mahouts and their charges would sleep under the bridges. They were pokes and prodded to control them although Lek has shown that that was not necessary. She would find the elephants and then buy them.

Would Susie go back, I asked her. "Yes," she replied. "I'd go back for one week and then spend another week touring Thailand which is quite beautiful. I will never have Sandra's passion for elephants. But as far as romance, if you can call falling in love with elephants and their great capacity to teach us how to forgive, live in harmony, show compassion for those brutally handicapped by man, and enjoy life in the simplest form, I guess you can call that my love story. I had no idea what a learning experience this would be. I admire Lek. What an amazing person she is."

The first thing Susie did after entering the United States was to buy herself a hamberger.

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