Asian travel is tough on animal lovers. The ubiquitous need smacks you in the face like the heat and humidity when you step off the plane. The cruelty sneaks its way into every animal-related tourist activity. Anyone with a conscious will immediately start thinking of ways to help, leaving a feeling of hopelessness when the enormity of the situation is realized.
“Stop trying to boil the ocean”, Frank’s mantra when Alex or I get that look of helplessness when tasked with something huge. Zoom in, look a little closer, and know that helping just one, whatever it is, a child, a dog, an elephant, a mother, a family, DOES in fact help the situation. It may be a small contribution to improving the entire problem, but it makes a huge difference to that individual.
By now, my regular readers know about Elephant Nature Park. Some of you have been there, some are planning to visit, whoever visits us here in Chiang Mai, will go there. ENP is the pioneer in the elephant sanctuary-for-tourism model. As you approach the park, in addition to the occasional elephant traffic jam, you’ll start seeing and hearing dogs. Before you enter the park, look right to the graffiti-covered walls. Then look left as you enter the park. Behind the walls, gates and bamboo huts, some 400 plus dogs (current number is 430) are housed and cared for by a team of women from neighboring villages, and many loving volunteers who have thrown themselves into making that difference.
ENP Dogs are everywhere. The “free roamers” are on the street as you enter, hanging around the entrance, sleeping in a pile of hay, joining the water buffalos on their daily migration through the park. They get along with people, other dogs, cats, horses, water buffalos; they know how to dodge a scooter and an elephant; they know where to go at mealtime. They are unsupervised, loving and healthy. Once you are out of the ENP van and on the platform where all activity begins, you’ll see the pinnacle of dog status at ENP, the “platform dogs”. These are older dogs who sleep in the sun all day, interrupted only by attention from the visitors. The free roamers and the platform dogs make up a small fraction of the total number of dogs at ENP.
Back at the park entrance, as you go through the gate to enter ENP Dogs, you will find yourself in the heart of the shelter, the clinic. Large cages and individual enclosures can hold around 35 dogs. If you include the puppies (currently there are 12 puppies under 3 months old) that number inches towards 50. The clinic also houses sick and injured cats, and 3 rooms for surgeries or other medical procedures. The clinic provides medical care for all of ENP’s dogs, including those owned by the mahout’s, plus free care for pets in surrounding villages in the Mae Taeng Valley.
In reality, there are not usually close to 50 dogs in the clinic. Yesterday, for example, there were 20 dogs, plus two litters, one of four pups with a mom, one of eight pups without a mom. That was a pretty big day. Now, consider feeding and cleaning up after those 30 dogs. Then, consider feeding 400 plus dogs housed in 45 outdoor runs. Then, consider Frontlining (monthly flea and tic prevention) and doing tic checks on those 400 plus dogs, breaking up fights, checking for injuries, giving badly needed human interaction to those dogs, administering daily eye and other medications.
This is actually the easy part. We’ve all watched the YouTube videos of dog rescue transformations. ENP Dogs could write the book on dog transformations. I always tell my girls, every person has a story; here, every dog has a story. Many of the dogs came from the Bangkok floods in 2011, or were rescued from the occasional mass poisonings that take place in Chiang Mai and Bangkok military bases. Some are rescued from illegal dog meat markets. Puppies are simply dumped at the gate. Some just have incredible stories of cruelty and neglect. Take Long, who was put in a bag as a pup, beaten and left for dead. His physical wounds have healed, but he is terrified of most men and is dog aggressive. He has his own private run near the clinic and is walked a few times a day. He goes out, alone, with his own volunteer, after all the other clinic dogs have been walked. Quiet and peaceful, just how Long needs everything to be.
Take the oh-so-photogenic Steel. After being hit by a car, her owner, unable to afford medical treatment, put her in a box. For two years. Her back legs healed into a useless mass. She came to ENP where they did what they could for her medically. She now lives in a run that bears her name, with the “therapy dogs”, all dogs who have limited to no use of their back legs, either from injuries or from the dreaded dog abortion pill. The floors are smooth with polished tile to minimize skin irritation from dragging their legs, and to facilitate the morning mop up. Now she goes for walks with volunteers in her own “wheelchair”, custom made and donated by www.handicappedpets.com, and lives with her own little pack of the most inspirational dogs.
The latest transformation is a dog who has secured my heart. Bao Bao was brought to ENP from Bangkok, where he lived as a stray, on a sidewalk after being hit by a scooter. He came to ENP 3 weeks ago, severely underweight, aggressive, and literally broken; both back legs had broken and healed backwards. Anytime anyone came close, he growled and bared his teeth. The vets could clean his wounds only by wearing protective gear. I sat with him, back turned, the morning after he arrived. I felt safe only because he hadn’t learned how to get around on his broken legs. He gobbled up the spoonfuls of food I threw at him, still growling everytime I moved. No one at ENP Dogs gave up on him. The following week during my visit, he had made a complete transformation. He is now the most gentle, loving dog, and is a permanent member of Steel’s family. He is adapting to his handicap and can get around pretty quickly, gaining upper body strength, and taking a few small steps in a wheel chair.
I could go on and on about these stories, but the majority of the dogs at ENP are beautiful dogs waiting for a forever home. Every volunteer walks out with a mental list of dogs they would adopt. Some DO end up adopting a dog. ENP has shipped dogs all over the world. The dogs fly as the checked baggage of a flight volunteer, someone who is going to the same airport the dog needs to go to. ENP handles all the health checks, microchipping and paperwork. They prepare the dog and the crates for travel, water and food bowls attached, food and leashes taped to the crate (a procedure I am all too familiar with), and drives them to Chiang Mai Airport. Last week I had the pleasure, along with a few other volunteers, of bathing and Frontlining Nellie, Namaste, Zahara and Rhi Rhi, all flying the following day from Bangkok to Chicago, O’Hare, off to their adoptive families. It is surprisingly easy and inexpensive to get a dog from Thailand to the U.S.
A lot of the ENP volunteers split their time between the elephants and the dogs. Many do a week in both areas. Their common theme when asked about their experience is, “You come for the elephants, you stay for the dogs”. What the elephants need right now is exposure and money. Spread the word about the cruelty of elephant training. Support camps that have switched to the sanctuary model. If an elephant is in its natural environment, support that activity. If there is a bull hook anywhere in sight or chain marks on the elephants' ankles, run away, but do it loudly. Encourage the sanctuary model with your tourist dollars and your voice whenever possible. They need money for rescues and for land. ENP is currently raising funds for additional land to provide for their growing herd. The last time I wrote about ENP was in September when Lek Chailert, their founder, was in Cambodia rescuing Kabu (see my post Welcome Home, Kabu). Rumor is there will be another very exciting rescue . . . coming soon.
The dogs need homes. First and foremost, loving, forever homes. They need volunteers, and homes. They need supplies, blankets, food, bowls, towels, and homes. Vet supplies and volunteer vets would be great (hmmmmm . . . Doc Swalander, are you reading??) and they need homes. They need people who care, and HOMES.
I won’t sugarcoat it. Volunteering at ENP Dogs is hard work. You will sweat. Your muscles will ache. You will cry. You will smell badly at the end of the day. But, you will also save a life. You will also sooth a troubled heart. You may give comfort on the last day of a life. Your heart will swell with love, pride and goodness. I go every Monday. It was an easy way to make Monday’s my favorite day of the week.