Back in 05/06 when Ed and I were overseas we had the opportunity to work with animals both in Bolivia and in Thailand. These experiences were amazing and more than often quite painful, in the literal sense, especially for Ed who still bears the scars of some savage puma bites on his thigh. Our time in Bolivia was wild, in every sense. Both of us were responsible for the welfare of a cat for a month with little training. It was terrifying, exhilarating and very bloody fun, and funny. And you can read all about it if you like here
My personal charge was a beautiful, cranky, funny little package who went by the name of Rico. Rico was an Ocelot, a medium sized jungle cat who are most famous for their soft, velvety, gorgeously patterned fur and big eyes. After his mother was hunted in the wild for her fur Rico was found living with a family while he was a kitten who were persuaded to let him go live at the park. Without the life skills he would have earned from his mother Rico was kept in a large enclosure in the jungle and was taught to walk on a long rope. This is where I came in, for 30 days Rico and I would head off into the jungle where he would walk, hunt, sniff, catch snakes and lizards and do all those Ocelot things. It wasn't the perfect companion, he was a cranky little bugger who was prone to jumping me when I wasn't looking which would scare the living daylights out of me, he would often refuse to walk and lie on the ground sulking for hours in the rain or the hot sun, and sometimes he would throw massive tantrums growling and screeching and throwing himself on the ground. (Probably good training for me life with Ivy when I think about it.) but we got to know each other and towards the end he usually looked excited (for a cat) when I turned up every morning with some juicy grass and his lead. The work was hard and exhausting but most days I couldn't get over the fact I was able to get up close and personal with such a beautiful endangered species.
Yesterday I heard some sad news from the park. A few months ago Ricos volunteer headed up to his enclosure only to find that overnight Rico had caught his collar on the cage and hanged himself. A sad end to a beautiful cat who had a sad beginning in life. But at least it some consolation to know that his life was enriched by his time at the park even if he couldn't be a true wild cat living in the jungle.
In Thailand I was keen to do some more stuff with animals and after a long search came across the wonderful Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand. This sanctuary rescues elephants who have been abused or abandoned.....the scary thing is that they are being mostly rescued from the tourist industry. Some elephants were dragged around the streets forced to do tricks and 'beg' for food from tourists, others were kept in trekking camps lugging tourists around on their backs in uncomfortable harnesses, others had been beaten, blinded or starved by their owners. Lek, the Thai woman who runs the park, brings as many of these elephants as she can find to her park where she rehabilitates them and then allows them to live in family groups, free to do as they please. While this park is about rehabilitating the animals it is also about rehabilitating tourist's mindsets. In short, that tourists understand that elephants just left to do their thing are just as interesting and fulfilling to watch as riding on them or watching them perform tricks such as dancing, playing musical instuments or football. The latest trend to hit is painting....elephants are being trained to do self portraits, abstracts and naff line paintings of flowers and the like. Most people think this is adorable, that the elephants are so clever and that by buying a painting they are helping to save some poor elephant from a life in a trekking camp or as an illegal logger. Companies such as www.exoticworldgifts.com are selling these paintings for over $700 us dollars and even have put up a youtube video of one elephant supposedly painting a self portrait. It has subsequently become one the most viewed videos of youtube and the couple that run this business actually seem to believe that they are helping these elephants by promoting elephants paintings.
When Ed and are volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park we were particularly taken by the littlest member of the park - a four week old baby boy. He was already 100 kilos, soft, squishy, covered in hair and very cheeky. Rescued with his mother, who had been abused while she was pregnant the little baby and mother came to the park in a very bad condition. Many people didn't think the little baby would survive but with the help of the park and some very willing female elephants who appointed themselves as 'aunties' he survived. For the last two years he has grown up in the safety of the park and had a very happy life.
Recently, his owner contacted the park to say that now mother and baby were better he would like them back from the park. The mother will be put back to work trekking and taking tourists for rides yet again, while the little baby will be taken from his mother and will be taught to paint. Learning to paint will mean being trained which in thailand means being beaten with metal hooks and being locked in a small pen until the baby is so terrified that they are willing to do anything after a couple of weeks.
It's such a shame so many people take things on face value, and will probably proudly display their elephant art believing that they have done something right. In the meantime more and more elephants are destined to a life performing tricks for people's amusement. And when you consider that an elephant can live until it's 80 that's a life sentence. As awful as it is, I can't help feeling out of the baby elephant and Rico - Rico may have got the better deal.