I’ll admit it – it is difficult to focus on writing here at the elephant sanctuary. Perhaps it’s because this is, sadly, my final volunteer gig of this amazing journey and my head is spinning a bit. More likely it’s because every time I open this document to jot down a few notes, my attention is captured by one being or another that is far more enchanting than this keyboard.
For instance, “Won” the chicken just wandered under my hammock to inspect and then peck at my water bottle. Then puppy brothers Punk and Frank decided to play keep away with a tamarind pod. All the while my favorite little dog Kip nestles on my chest, trying to get some shut eye.
I think of bit of backstory is in order. I’m in the mountains of northern Thailand at Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES). Burm is Thai and Emily is Australian and they met several years ago and started this place out of their sheer love for elephants. Emily is only 22 years old and has more determination and passion than anyone I’ve ever crossed paths with.
To date they have rescued four elephants – three* of whom roam the valley here in the village of Maechaem where Burm grew up (*sadly one of the elephants passed away last year…I was in tears hearing Emily tell the story). Similar to the elephants I hung out with in Cambodia – before retiring here these elephants lived long, difficult lives. They spent years living in pain and under duress, laboring in the logging and tourist trades (you can learn more HERE). As Emily says, “their souls were broken.” So I am beyond grateful that they can now wander this beautiful sanctuary in peace.
As volunteers, we spend our days walking with the massive creatures – following them down a narrow river lined by steep hills and beautiful dangling, flower-strewn vines. And there’s also the “hard work” – hacking down banana trees with machetes, organizing thousands of bananas and watermelons and pumpkins, keeping the elephants’ living areas clean.
At the end of the day we get to help feed and bathe the elephants. Tonight, for instance, we’ll prepare an enormous “salad” for 70-year old Thong Dee – whose digestive tract is compromised from a long, hard life. Along with her mahout we’ll shred banana leaves, chop up melons and pumpkins and toss it all together with freshly peeled bananas and tamarind pods. The ingredients are currently waiting for her – taking up the entire bed of an old pickup truck.
When the feeding and bathing is done we’ll say good night to Thong Dee and her friends Mae Jumpee (72) and Mae Kam (a spry young thing at only 57). We then get to spend our evenings in camp surrounded by the ~30 cats, 19 dogs, one chicken and one owl who Burm and Emily have rescued over the past several years.
My dearest Kip was found in the local village after someone stole his mother (a show dog) in the middle of the night. Without anyone to show her how to fend for herself, Kip took to eating plastic and cardboard and ended up needing emergency surgery just to survive.
Mollie is another favorite. Her owner beat her severely and threw her down a flooding stream before she was saved. Her two back legs don’t work so she valiantly drags them behind her – refusing all the wheels (which she chewed to oblivion) and slings and special contraptions Burm and Emily have tried to fit her with. The other day she dragged herself all the way down the long path to where we were feeding the elephants. She simply will not be left out. (You can check her out by clicking HERE – adorable!)
Then there’s Millie – the skinny little cat who, like Mollie, only has the use of her two front legs … her back two shattered when she was run over by a motor scooter. She was left for dead until a man brought her (in a rice bag) here to the sanctuary where she was nursed back to life. Now she pulls herself around – her two back legs resembling drum sticks (not the fat, meaty chicken ones but the thin, fragile wooden sticks actually used to beat on drums).
In reading back over these last several paragraphs I’m struck at how depressing they may sound. I certainly don’t want to come across as morose. Because really – I don’t mean to be. This is simply a representation of how things are in this particular corner of the world. All the beauty of the animals and people I’m experience along the way is commingling with the occasional brutality of life here. I’ve come to think of it as “brutiful” (a term my dear friend Honey told me of that was coined by Momastery author Glennon Doyle Melton).
So I sit here, watching Mollie shuffle by and Millie drag herself to a spot in the sun. And I am both heartbroken by what I am witnessing and floored by the enormous hearts of everyone – people and elephants and animals alike – who call this place home. They are warriors. Spirited. Resilient. Inspiring. And though I am presently covered in a layer of dirt and ash from the morning fires (made to warm the cats and dogs), with sticky brown tamarind under every fingernail, and a few errant fleas likely walking around my skin, I have a huge smile on my face. To know that this kind of place exists … and that I found my way here… to a place where every being embodies the word “ONWARD” … I am eternally grateful.
Final note: I simply cannot write about elephants without making a plea to anyone who reads this to think twice about riding one of these majestic beasts. Elephant camps targeting tourists have dramatically increased in Chaing Mai alone over the past years. And obviously I understand their allure. But if you have your heart set on being with elephants – please investigate which park you visit. There are several where you can interact with them without riding their weary backs or, God forbid, watch them paint pictures. It is my great hope that – if peoples’ interest in these inappropriate (and pain-induced and -inducing) behaviors dwindles – perhaps some elephants’ quality of life will be improved.