I am writing this from New Zealand, where we have been living in a campervan for almost two weeks (with another two weeks to go), touring the South Island. Things are going great, and I often think back to the week we spent in at the Elephant Nature Park in March. This refuge for elephants (and dogs and cats and buffalo!) is located in the hills of northern Thailand, about one and a half hours from the city of Chiang Mai.
Alison and I arrived in Chiang Mai with the intention to stay one night at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) and then another three or four nights in town. We heard of ENP through our friend Tanya, who had volunteered there for a full week. There are a LOT of elephant-based tourist activities in Thailand and your need to be really careful to make sure you are supporting one that is treating the animals properly and had the right intention. From what I learned in Thailand, most of them ARE NOT TREATING THE ANIMALS WELL.
ENP is different. They only use positive reinforcement with the animals, they do not use cruel metal hooks to control the elephants, they feed them well (some might say too well, there are some heavy elephants there!) and they give them adequate rest and space away from tourists.
I remember seeing Tanya’s photos on Facebook about her trip over a year ago and thought that if I ever make it to Thailand I would need to go. Well, here I am!
We wanted to volunteer for a full week, but there wasn’t any space available. They only had room for overnight guests. Overnight guests pay a bit more, but don’t do much work and instead just enjoy being with the elephants. We were bummed we only had one night to spend at the park, but were excited nonetheless.
To get to ENP we caught a park-run shuttle with other guests from Chiang Mai. On the shuttle we met a fellow – Ron – who has visited the park many times and filled us in on all the background behind the park and also the fact that they shelter almost 500 dogs that have been injured or abandoned. He said that they have a volunteer program (week-long) for the dog shelter, and that they almost always have room for extras. Alison and I immediately looked at each other with hope that we would get to stay longer than a day.
We arrived at the park, and after a quick orientation, met Darick, partner to Lek Chailert who created the ENP. He gave us the option of staying and helping with the dogs and we immediately accepted the offer! What a great decision. We both missed our pups, Duke and Spike, who are being cared for while we are travelling, and since we didn’t have any onward flights booked from Chiang Mai, could make the spur of the moment choice to stay another week.
The ENP Dog Volunteering program is awesome. You work hard in the hot Thai sun – walking dogs, cleaning kennels, removing ticks, caring for sick or injured animals – but you also get to SPEND ALL DAY WITH AMAZING DOGS WHILE ELEPHANTS AND BUFFALO ROAM ALL AROUND YOU!!!
It is no stretch of the imagination that the week I spent at ENP is the highlight of my entire world travels so far. I fell in love with so many dogs, and learned A LOT about how to care for and be with dogs that really need our help.
This experience also reminded me that we need to take better care of animals, particularly ones that depend on us for their lives.
It’s no surprise to say that Alison and I both left the ENP vegans. We were both already vegetarian (no meat or fish, but we did eat eggs and dairy) but decided to take this additional step. For me, having been vegan for over 10 years until 2011, this experience was a wake up call that animals need our help. Nobody else is going to do the work for us, we have to.
If you are going to Thailand, please do pay the Elephant Nature Park a visit. Stop by the Dog Rescue shelter (about five minutes walk from the Elephant viewing platform) and give the pups some your love and attention. Better yet, spend a whole week there as a volunteer. It is not expensive at all (in fact, the price is so low it will blow you mind). The food is amazing (and all vegetarian). The accommodations are comfortably (though not luxurious) and the setting is picture-perfect with rolling green hills. Oh yes, and there are ELEPHANTS EVERYWHERE!
Also, if you are thinking about getting a dog, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE ADOPT A DOG IN NEED. Luckily, at ENP they do not practice euthanasia (killing of dogs) unless the dog is very very sick or badly injured (and even then, they go to extreme lengths to avoid euthanasia). They go out of their way to give their dogs healthy lives. But in many countries, dogs that are not adoted are killed. If you want to get a dog, do you really need that pure-bred Lab/Boxer/Poodle/Labrdoodle/etc???? Can you get the vision of the “perfect dog” out of your head and just go to a shelter and adopt (or find someone who has a dog they can’t keep)? Please do. Do not support dog breeders. In my view buying a pure-bred is just like killing a shelter dog. It’s no joke.
Scroll down for pictures of adorable pups!