Elephant Nature Park (ENP) Dogs is one of the largest on a short list of dog shelters in Thailand. As I quickly discovered when Zeke got lost in August (see What If...?), there are no equivalents to the SPCA or the Humane Society. Dogs are not neutered, so it is not uncommon to see litters of strays. Many dogs take shelter at temples, where they may be fed, but get minimal medical care. Some non-profit groups, like Hand 2 Paws at my girls’ school, help feed and care for temple dogs. The need is everywhere. Medical care and neutering is often too expensive for dog owners. Abortion pills are used for pregnant females, bringing on a whole new list of potential health risks for both the mother and any surviving pups. Female dogs don’t live very long. It is difficult to watch.
ENP Dogs’ week long volunteer program is a direct shot at alleviating this problem, supported entirely by volunteers from all over the world. Volunteers stay for a minimum of one week, pay 5000 baht (US$140) for room and board, and experience some great and rewarding activities. I’ve been spending Monday’s at the shelter, learning the schedule and getting to know the dogs; in this post, I’ll take you through what it’s like to volunteer at ENP Dogs.
New volunteers are picked up in Chiang Mai by an ENP van for the 90 minute drive north to the beautiful and secluded Mae Taeng Valley. The ride to the facility descends into the valley with views of elephants roaming in meadows of tall grass and bathing in the river. It’s quickly understood this is a very special place. After a tour of the facility, they jump into the dinner rotation. Meanwhile, volunteers ending their stay, are given time to visit their favorite dogs and take photos before they are driven back to Chiang Mai. Some new volunteers are given a job, one is in charge of the Cat Clinic.
Sanne has taken on the job of Cat Lady (minus the crazy) for two weeks. Katie and Kerry, who will be the next long term volunteers after Lauren leaves, started with the job of walking the therapy dogs. They’ll stay on until the end of January.
The day starts at the clinic at 8 am sharp. Expectant faces at each cage door, everyone grabs a leash. Starting in the back of the clinic, which can hold 20 to 30 of the 400 plus dogs at the center, the dogs in the “gallery”
go out first, starting a seemingly choreographed rotation of dogs going out for morning walks, while two volunteers stay behind and quickly mop and swap out dirty for clean bedding.
This rotation moves all the way through the clinic until all dogs have been walked, have a clean enclosure, fresh water and breakfast. Even dogs with injuries or illnesses, who can’t or won’t get out on their own, are carried out to a grassy area for a short time outside.
After every dog has been walked and fed, the clinic is swept, and the entire concrete surface is bleached, scrubbed and hosed down.
This is the first hour of every volunteer’s day at ENP Dogs.
No day is like the any other. On Monday this week, when these photos were taken, Ben, the old free roamer who used to sleep in the volunteers’ housing, was brought into the clinic.
No one knows how old Ben was, but we did know that he was diagnosed with a blood parasite; the same parasite that took another dog, #76, a few weeks before. Ben slept that night on a heating pad, but was unable to stand up in the morning. A volunteer carried him outside to sit in a pile of warm straw in the morning sun. He was later put in IV fluids. Much to great sadness among the volunteers, he passed away the next day. With over 400 rescue dogs in the facility at any given time, it’s expected to lose one or two during a weeklong stay, but volunteers get to know each one and Ben was…a favorite. Sadly, and ironically, Sabrina was unable to be with her own cat who passed that same day in Austria, but she was with Ben when he passed that night.
After every dog in the clinic and a few dogs in smaller runs, like Long (see Making A Difference), are walked, the attention is then drawn to the day’s To Do List.
Often the first item of the day is to introduce a dog to a run. This is either a new dog who was brought in to the shelter, or a dog who didn’t work out in another run. Most of the dogs at the ENP are kept in large open runs. Those that interact especially well are free-roamers or platform dogs, interacting with tourists and staff with complete freedom across the facility.
Sabrina Pelz manages the shelter. She actually knows the personalities of every dog. Yes, that’s 400 plus dogs, she can make a pretty accurate guess of which dogs will get along and which dogs won’t. I say “pretty accurate” because sometimes you just never know. This is key for managing the 45 runs, some of which have close to 20 dogs in them. Dogs who get along mean peace, harmony and fewer injuries.
Introducing dogs to a new run can be the most nerve wracking, or rewarding job of the day. A few volunteers, armed with bowls of water, and maybe a few toys for distraction to help break up fights, go into the run to distract the other dogs. Sabrina brings in the new dog, as quietly as possible, on a leash. Slowly, they all get to know one another. Careful attention is paid to the dominant dog of the run and its interaction with the new dog. If all goes well, a few volunteers stay behind, sitting with the dogs for 30 minutes or so, making sure they get along. If it doesn’t go well, it’s back to square one.
After Bao Bao’s transformation from aggressive (also hungry and hurt) to absolute sweetheart, he was in an outdoor enclosure in the clinic. He had plenty of room, but he was alone. When a dog was in a lower gallery enclosure, with an adjoining gate, he would sit next to the gate, next to the dog, looking for companionship; still heartbreaking, especially for a dog who had come so far in such a short amount of time. Bao Bao was introduced to Steel’s run, reserved for therapy dogs with mobility issues. The introduction went well. He is now with four other dogs with similar disabilities (mostly with limited to no use of the rear legs), a favorite place for many to hang out in the shelter (now, I’m talking humans). On rare occasions when there is nothing to do, many volunteers head to sit with the therapy dogs.
The schedule sometimes revolves around the vet’s schedule. If check ups are scheduled, the dog needs to be brought in from their run and wait in line, with a volunteer, in the clinic. This may sound easy, but trying to get in and out of a run with ten dogs can be a real challenge. One volunteer goes to get the dog, and passes it off to another volunteer in the clinic, then takes another dog back to their run, another rotation. The dogs come in to have their ears cleaned, stitches checked, minor wounds are cleaned, lumps are checked.
This week, with the rice harvest over and the temperatures dropping, the big job was getting hay out to all the runs. Two to three carts of hay, loaded and distributed, to 45 runs. If that sounds like a lot, well, it was. It took a few days with the whole group working together. I had never seen a dog in fresh hay, but it reminded me of cats on catnip. They absolutely love it. Plus, it provides extra warmth in the many doghouses and sleeping cubby holes in the runs. It makes the hard work so worth it.
Once a month Frontline has to be applied to every dog. Most are cooperative, but some dogs think its a game, making it impossible to catch them and keep them still for the 30 seconds it takes to apply it. Regular tic checks, really, anytime anyone has a free moment, are essential. The dogs love it because they get extra human attention. The blood parasite that took #76 and Ben is spread by tics. Even with Frontline, checks turn up at least a dozen.
After lunch on the platform, volunteers head back to the clinic. The dogs are walked again, then back to the day’s list. Another essential part to running the shelter is the group of women, who live in the village next to the shelter, and are managed by a Thai woman named Pat. Pat lives in the apartment above the office in the clinic. She is the person on the premises all night. She manages a group of about 12 women who hand wash all the bedding for the dogs; cook the barrels of dinner for the dogs; monitor the runs all day, ready to break up a fight; they clean the floors of Steel’s run, mopping with soapy water every morning. I’m sure there are numerous other physically demanding jobs that they do that I don’t know about. On school holidays their children are also there, playing near the runs, the older daughters helping with the dogs.
They also know the dogs intimately. If a dog doesn’t eat dinner, they will bring it into the clinic for observation. The dog will stay overnight in the clinic and will be checked by a vet the following day.
In the morning when the volunteers arrive, the air is filled with the smell of food being cooked over an open fire. Here, dinner prep begins in the morning. Vats of rice and pumpkin are cooked over wood fires. In the afternoon, the local women mix canned dog food with the rice and pumpkin “soup” in large buckets. The dogs love it. Some won’t eat their morning kibble. They prefer their dinner of pumpkin rice soup.
At around 3:30 all volunteers return to the clinic for the dinner rotation. Like breakfast, it is a rotation of feeding, walking, cleaning, and scrubbing. Bowls are lined up with the dinner “soup”. Since very few of the dogs are overweight, second helpings are encouraged. When a dog is finished eating, it is taken for a long walk. Meanwhile, their enclosure is cleaned, and finished with a fresh water bowl.
Many volunteers stay for a few weeks, or longer. The long-term volunteers are essential to keeping the shelter running smoothly. Lauren-Amy Mond is the current long-term volunteer in charge.
This is also her second time around here at ENP Dogs, so she knows the routine and the dogs. She’ll be heading back to the U.K. next week. I know that when there is a void anywhere, it gets filled like a vacuum. Lauren leaving will definitely leave a void. Like many non-profits who rely heavily on volunteers, something does always work out, usually meaning someone bears more of the responsibility, or things just don’t run as smoothly for a while. I know that the carefully choreographed morning and evening routine may not run as smoothly as it had, but eventually, every dog will get fed and walked, and the group will adapt, relieving Sabrina to go back other priorities, such as finding homes for more dogs.
It’s hard to imagine the place without Lauren, directing new volunteers, “Puppies! Anti-bac before, Anti-bac after”. She also knows the dogs’ stories. When she sweetly asks “Would you be happy to walk Long?”, or McCartney or Snow White, you know, there is a story there. Like Long who will lose it when he sees a group of men, or Snow White or McCartney who are both dog aggressive, these are not dogs for the more timid volunteers, but someone usually connects with them and IS happy to walk them. Like Ashley, who was with us for two weeks, just had a way with these more challenging dogs. He was great with McCartney, when no one else was happy to walk him. Even with Long, who usually doesn’t do well with men, was fine with Ashley.
And so the routine repeats itself. Volunteers come and go… puppies lick faces, and tears come with good-byes. The clinic fills and empties, new dogs get acquainted and older dogs play, wounds are bandaged and ever so gently, trust in humankind is regained. The luckiest dogs graduate to the status of platform dog, and can look forward to endless days laying in the sun with constant attention by day tourists. And some, like Ben, pass peacefully, loved and well cared for, after all too often, a distant memory of pain, suffering and neglect. The only constant is the dogs themselves. Content, healing, playing, forgiving, loving, and equally loved back. All supported by a selfless stream of volunteers, many of whom often say, came for the elephants, but stayed for the dogs. It’s a place that brings out the best in all of us.
To keep up with ENP Dogs, follow them on Facebook. Sabrina regularly posts the activities of volunteers, and priority dogs up for adoption. If you are at all interested in adopting a dog, message Sabrina on Elephant Nature Park Dogs Facebook page. To find out more about volunteering, go to www.elephantnaturepark.org.