Two years ago, Stephan and I visited Elephant Nature Park. It was an experience that forever changed my life… an experience that touched me so deep in my core, I can’t begin to put it into words. It was a place that enveloped me with an overwhelming sense of happiness and peace. It was a place that was a world away, but somehow felt like home. And it was a place, unexpectedly, where I found my best friend. I think, somewhere along our journeys, we all find those few special places that take root so deeply in our souls that we just can’t say goodbye. For me, this secluded sanctuary is one of those places.
Elephant Nature Park was founded in the 1990s by Lek Chailert, one tenacious woman with one hell of a mission. Lek grew up in one of northern Thailand’s remote hilltribe villages. After years of witnessing the horrific cruelty the tourism and illegal logging industries were inflicting on the country’s ‘sacred’ elephants, she became an unwavering advocate for the threatened species, rescuing elephants who’d endured years of mistreatment at the hands of their human captors. After removing the chains that had bound them to a lifetime of suffering, their only ties at ENP are the tightknit unions they’ve formed with their new family groups. Lek is not only a champion for Asian elephants, but a voice for all animals. One quick walk around the sprawling sanctuary will evidence this, with water buffalo, farm animals, cats and dogs all reveling in their newfound freedom.
Elephant Nature Park’s Dog Project was born in 2011, when catastrophic floodwaters from a devastating monsoon season inundated Bangkok. Roads turned to rivers and, as residents rushed to evacuate en masse, pets and street dogs alike were abandoned – trapped and left to fend for themselves. Heroic volunteers from Elephant Nature Park rushed to the crisis in the capital and, navigating the rising waters by boat, worked tirelessly to pull some 2,000 dogs to safety. Of those rescued, nearly 200 embarked on the half-day journey to northern Thailand, where they were offered a loving home and a second chance at life within the protected bounds of Elephant Nature Park.
When you discover somewhere you love that’s [literally] a world away, you’re never really sure that you’ll have the opportunity to return. Your fanciful dreams of revisiting clash with the harsh reminder of real-world commitments and unforeseen challenges. I remember pulling out of that dirt driveway in northern Thailand two years ago with tears in my eyes, wondering if it would be goodbye forever. Now, driving back through that entrance gate on a humid Sunday morning felt almost surreal – somehow, I’d made it back; my heart instantly swelled with gratitude.
After coming together at the park, our small group of volunteers spent the first couple hours enjoying a hearty vegan lunch and settling into our humble-yet-cozy housing, nestled behind the main corridor of dog runs and complete with our own small pack of lovable house dogs. As I sat down for lunch, my mouth began watering; I’d been dreaming about the delicious Thai vegan fare I’d enjoyed here since the moment I’d left. This time, as my visit coincided with longan season, I was spoiled with a seemingly-endless supply of the sweet fruit, piled high in enormous baskets along the buffet. As we savored our spring rolls, noodles, and fresh fruits, we got acquainted with our fellow volunteers – 11 of us, from New Zealand to Europe to Canada and the U.S., all eager to spend the week caring for ENP’s nearly 400 dogs.
Caring for the dogs for the week was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. When we visited the park as elephant volunteers in 2016, Stephan and I spent every free moment we had walking and socializing the dogs. It was during my time in Open Run 5 when I met Sanchez – the most loving little girl who clung affectionately to my side every time I entered her run. As we prepared to leave at the end of the week, I just knew that I couldn’t say goodbye. Although we were traveling for the rest of that year, we submitted adoption paperwork before leaving, and Sanchez flew to the U.S. when we returned home in 2017. Since that day, I’d dreamed of returning to ENP to spend more time with the sanctuary’s many pups.
My week at ENP was spent in the quarantine area alongside Hannah, an affable, long-term volunteer from New Zealand. The week of my visit, the quarantine area was home to some twenty dogs divided into six main runs. Some were quarantined for health reasons while others were simply social misfits – sweet pups who couldn’t be socialized into larger packs, but who had found companionship with one or two fellow, furry introverts. An unexpected surprise, one of those adorable little pariahs was Haley, Sanchez’ extraordinarily shy sister. Hayley had recently found a friend in Zac, a loveble yet aggressive boy who similarly struggled to get along with most other dogs, and two had formed a sweet partnership in run number 6.
I bonded quickly with our quarantine dogs, and immediately took to all their endearing little personality quirks. In run 1 were Bonnie and Clyde. Presumably brother and sister, the two could not have had more contrasting personalities. Clyde was exceedingly laid back, content to catch a snooze on his blanket or on the sun-drenched concrete beside the ‘fun run’ pool. Bonnie, conversely, was a rambunctious little instigator, forever yanking Clyde’s blanket out from under him or mischievously latching onto his scruff, in a desperate attempt to persuade him to play.
In run 2 were Sam, Khoon, Bob, Dipsy and Mayom. The five had been rescued from the illegal dog meat trade. The brutal practice continues to plague Thailand, as some 200,000 dogs are smuggled out of the country each year and inhumanely smuggled up the Mekong to Vietnam. ENP was able to save the five from this horrific fate. And while the group had been thriving at the park, they’d contracted heartworm a few months prior, and were consequently quarantined for treatment. About halfway through their four- to six-month recovery, the five were eager to have visitors to snuggle, as they were on post-therapeutic exercise restriction, since any activity could lead to deadly blood clots. Of course, the playful pack found ways to entertain themselves even in quarantine. Sam and Dipsy were especially amused by the small house geckos crawling and chirping along the concrete walls, and would gaze up incessantly, tracking their every motion. One morning I arrived in the run only to find an army of little lizard corpses scattered about the floor, all of whom had lamentably fallen victim to one of Sam and Dipsy’s savage overnight massacres.
In a neighboring enclosure, an adorable young female named Yuna was tending to her three young pups. About two months earlier, the family had been rescued from a temple in Chiang Mai, shortly after Yuna had given birth to Mario, Luigi, and Yoshi. When they arrived at the park, Yuna was plagued with severe skin problems, and the pups were so underweight and malnourished that caretakers were unsure if they’d even survive their first night. Luckily, with the devoted care of ENP staff and volunteers, their outlook improved and the family began to thrive. Yuna was still shy, but had started to take to human companionship, and the boys had blossomed into a trio of adorably-rambunctious pups, jumping, yelping, and nipping each time one of their human playmates entered the run.
I was excited to capture these playful personalities on camera, but quickly learned the mischievous threesome preferred to be on the other side of the lens. Consequently, I ended up largely surrendering my D7200 to the pups for the week while capturing their adorable antics with my significantly inferior phone camera. Shout out to Nikon for making an awesomely durable camera body that’s well-suited to being gnawed on and dragged repeatedly across a concrete slab.
Finishing out the quarantine area’s other runs were Stan and Mikala, Springsteen, and Bruno and Tyson. Stan and Mikala were a sweet duo – shy but friendly and always eager to take a leisurely stroll. Bruno and Tyson were a pair of strong-willed boys with loving hearts. Also a bit mischievous, Bruno managed to single-handedly destroy his foam bed one evening, leaving in his wake a shredded sea of yellow stuffing. Springsteen was a shy boy who was confined to a smaller run area with a leg injury. One day, a gardener had become fearful of the dog and, in his purported attempt to defend himself, had taken a weedwhacker to poor Springsteen’s hind leg. Consequently, the poor pup was stuck in a leg splint until vets could thoroughly assess the potential nerve damage to his hind limb. All of the dogs here have their own unique story and exceptional set of circumstances they’ve had to endure. But regardless of their difficult pasts, they all seem exceedingly grateful to have been given a second chance within the loving confines of ENP’s dog sanctuary.
My week with the dogs was everything I’d imagined. It was demanding work and, at times, both physically and mentally challenging. Most importantly, though, it was massively fun and immensely fulfilling. The majority of my time in the quarantine area was spent cleaning runs, doing twice-daily feedings, and either walking resident dogs or playing with them in the beloved ‘fun run’ – a spacious swath of grass complete with swimming pool. It was such a treat to watch the dogs in the fun run – bounding blissfully off-leash, wrestling with their run-mates, splashing in the shallow water, and discovering an uncharted world of new smells. Here, they were finally able to simply be dogs – a right many had been callously denied in their previous lives – and their happiness and gratitude for these moments was truly palpable.
After morning chores in our assigned areas, the volunteers would all reconvene for an hour before lunch to walk the dogs in the disabled run. The majority of ENP’s disabled dogs have suffered from traumatic, and often paralytic, injuries after being hit by cars or motorbikes. While these dogs would likely have been euthanized under most circumstances, they have found new life at ENP. The playful pack has their own dedicated enclosure with sleek, tiled floors that they can scoot around on, chasing and wrestling their buddies until they tiredly collapse onto the nearest bed. Morning walks seem to be a favorite time of day, and each of the dogs has a rugged, specially-fitted wheelchair for cruising around the park’s grounds. Many of the dogs rush over as they see their chairs being hoisted off the wall, eager to get out for a good sniff. Naturally, your heart initially breaks for the animals as they have no control over their hind legs and can’t get about like most of their able-bodied peers. Seeing the joy in their faces, though, as they take a stroll around the park, you quickly realize just how full of life they are, and that no injury is going to stop them from living every day to the fullest. The inspiring pups are shockingly fast in their chairs, dashing excitedly from smell to smell, and they know all the best spots to hunt for roving kitties. They’re ridiculously stubborn, keenly persistent, and wildly loving.
Similar to the morning routine, our afternoon shift was bisected by an hour-long gathering of the entire volunteer team, where we’d work to get as many dog runs walked and socialized as possible. Over the course of a week, this was no small feat, with fifty-one runs and hundreds of dogs all equally deserving of some extra affection. The dogs were always so excited for this time, and I loved seeing their enthusiasm as they reveled in their post-walk romp in the fun run.
The taxing days of cleaning and walking gave way to tranquil evenings at ENP. After enjoying a well-deserved and delicious vegan meal with the other volunteers, I would retreat to the second floor of the stilted, timber pavilion with a couple of the others, sinking into an oversized rattan chair with a cup of hot tea. I’d sit in total peace, staring out at the faint form of the forested hillsides, cloaked in darkness, and listening to the hum of the cicadas and frogs – and, of course, the occasional trumpeting elephant. After recouping and reflecting for about an hour, I’d retreat back to the disabled run, where we’d all finish the day by doing one final cleaning and ‘tucking in’ all the paralyzed pups for the night.
While the week was filled with so much joy and love, it certainly was not without its struggles. One of my biggest challenges came on just the second evening at the park. It was nearing eight o’clock. Darkness had fallen hours prior, and the dogs were all tucked soundly in for the evening. Our group of volunteers had gathered near the entrance gate to head up the street for a beer at a tiny ‘bar’ that one of the locals had set up in his garden with an outdoor fridge. As we stood waiting for the last few to arrive, we were jolted by a sudden commotion at the road. Three dogs had just been abandoned near the gate – dumped like trash into total darkness as the heartless owner sped off in his vehicle. I stood there shaken as the three were quickly placed into ‘temporary housing’ – small, individual shelters, each with a blanket and bowl of water. In all of the chaos, the place had erupted with chorus of barking dogs, as every pup in the park had taken interest in the unexpected commotion. As I watched the three dogs tremble with confusion over what had just happened, I desperately fought back tears. I think for the first time, I actually felt my heart shatter into tiny pieces.
Abandoning dogs near ENP is not uncommon. In fact, Sanchez was dumped at the park with her mother and four siblings when she was just a puppy. While I know it’s a challenge volunteers at the park continually face, it was quite devastating to actually watch it unfold. I understood that the dogs had to be kept solitary until daytime hours, as no one knew anything about their temperament or health status. I recognized that in the morning, the dogs would be met with food, space, and endless love from the volunteers. But while I was able to make sense of these circumstances, the dogs obviously could not. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fear that must have overcome those poor pups as they were cast off into the night – being scooped up by perfect strangers in the blackness; getting placed into a strange and unknown environment; being enveloped by the howls of hundreds of unfamiliar dogs; and wondering what fate would meet them next.
With the rising sun came a new beginning for the abandoned pups. We moved the three anxious arrivals to the quarantine area, where they would stay for a week or two until they could be vaccinated, neutered, and given a full veterinary examination. Given the ordeal the pups endured just hours prior, it was shocking to see how quickly they adapted. They were all so sweet and beautiful – one black female and two males, one black and one with a beautiful golden coat. I immediately went into their runs to check on them, to offer some food and fresh water, and to see how they were with human interaction. The light-colored male was quite timid when I first entered, yet seemingly keen to have a visitor. He flinched when I put my hand near his head, and as I reached to pet his midsection, he similarly drew back for a moment. I had to wonder what this poor boy had been through. His two mates were much more outgoing, wagging and jumping excitedly, although still visibly disoriented.
While my heart ached at the heartless manner in which the new dogs arrived at the park, I felt beyond fortunate that I would get to care for the ENP pack’s newest members for the week. For the rest of my time there, I made sure I was giving them as much extra love as possible – heading to their runs before morning chores, and finishing up lunch early to greet them before the afternoon shift started. By Wednesday the three had settled in nicely and even had their new names: Haggis, Tattie, and Neep – a nod to Craig’s (the volunteer coordinator’s) Scottish heritage. By Sunday, the four of us had bonded quite tightly. Tattie, the golden male, would now lay contently as I rubbed his belly and even his head, licking my hand lovingly with each stroke. Haggis would whine and jump each time I passed the run, eagerly requesting my undivided attention. And Neep… well, I can’t put my love for that special girl into words. Every spare moment I could find I spent snuggling with her. And every time I exited her enclosure, she would wrap her long arms around my waist and look up with beseeching eyes, pleading for me to stay.
Over the course of my week at ENP, I forged so many new relationships with humans and dogs alike. For these animals to put their trust in me and to share their unbreakable spirits… it’s one of the greatest gifts I could imagine. I am so thankful to have been able to bond with all the dogs during my week-long visit, and they each gave me so much more than I could ever have given them. Zac, while normally aggressive around most people, allowed me to feed him, walk with him, and even freely enter his run. Haggis, Tattie and Neep – at the peak of their vulnerability – offered me their trust, and allowed me to prove that humans can treat them with kindness and compassion. Even shy little Hayley came out of her shell a bit, her tail wagging furiously every time I approached her run.
By the end of the week, I’d been covered with more pee, poop, mud and muck than one could ever envision; but at the same time, I’d been showered with more unconditional affection than I ever thought possible. Whether abandoned or abused, disabled or distant… each of these dogs is overflowing with endless love, compassion, and resilience, despite their heartrending pasts. I am forever thankful for the incredible animal-lovers I spent the week with, and even more grateful for the beautiful, four-legged souls that overwhelmed me with love. Until next time, my friends!