Looking a Little Harder to Find That Silver Lining


Just a little over a year ago I started another journey to Thailand to spend 2 weeks volunteering at a wildlife rescue and rehab facility south of Bangkok.  After traveling  twice to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai and being so impressed by not only the facility and the volunteer program, but by the founder Lek and her husband as well, I was extra excited to learn even more at another well-established facility. I did as much homework as possible before booking, and was extremely impressed at not only the quality of the informational packet this new facility provided, but also the response time to any questions that I had.

Unlike most of my other trips, this time I coordinated with four friends from the US and Canada and we all met up in Bangkok to start our journey south. We were of varying levels when it came to animal rehab, volunteering, sanctuary life, etc. but were equally excited and couldn’t wait to get there and see the elephants and the myriad of other primates, bears and birds that we would be caring for.

Without giving a breakdown of every horrible thing that we went through upon arrival at this facility, I will give a very basic summary:

  • Although the informational packet we received prior to arrival was excellent, unfortunately it was neither accurate nor applied at this facility volunteer program.
  • The information offered to volunteers about the animals in their care was minimal at best and often non-existent.
  • We worked 11 hours per day with no zero feeling of appreciation from sanctuary owners.
  • The center was basically run 90% by volunteers.  Paid staff was few and far between.
  • Volunteers were lead by other volunteers, not trained staff members so I found that a lot of facts presented as true about the elephants in particular were simply inaccurate (especially when it came to behavioral assessments).  This is understandable considering that people were placed in charge of entire groups for a day after only being on-site a week.
  • The elephants were being housed in small arenas sometimes smaller than a horse corral surrounded by electric fencing.
  • Mahouts carried bull hooks for controlling the elephants and intimidating them both inside their corrals and beyond.
  • It was made clear almost immediately upon arrival that the Elephant Nature Park was viewed as “the competition” and were not to be talked about while volunteering at this facility.
  •  The food volunteers were given to eat was covered in flies within moments of being put on the table and sometimes not even fully cooked (I got very sick with parasites as well as several others).
  • There was no emergency medical care available on-site or emergency contact among the staff.  For example, one volunteer got stung several times in the middle of the night by a scorpion and I had to administer aid and medication several hours later after she fainted in the volunteer center and no one knew what to do with her.
  • I was told by a volunteer coordinator that because I was only staying for 2 weeks, I couldn’t expect to learn anything about the animals during that time.

Sound terrible?   It really was.  And that doesn’t even get into the horrible rash that every single volunteer was covered with on their arms, necks, stomachs, etc. (which didn’t fully subside until 3 weeks after returning home).  The facility didn’t care about the rash, didn’t offer medical treatment or antihistamine, just passed it off as “something that must be floating around in the air.” No gloves were offered or long sleeves, volunteers just had to work through it completely miserable and covered in blisters.

It was so confusing to me how a place that could be so misrepresented that 9 of us left before our paid volunteer stay was up, but still boast glowing TripAdvisor reviews.  After some diligence I was able to get to the bottom of that after several detailed reviews I posted on TripAdvisor were removed because it “didn’t meet their requirements.”

I was informed by TripAdvisor that they only accept reviews from “visitors” (ie: day visitors) to a facility. If you are there for any length of time or in a volunteer capacity, you are considered an employee under their policy and your feedback will be immediately removed if they find it.

Of course TripAdvisor only finds it if the facility you’re writing a review about flags the post for removal.  Because no business will flag a positive review for removal, you see how then negative reviews are never seen because they are the only ones flagged, and subsequently removed.

Definitely a very valuable lesson learned.

This photo was taken of two elephants who were housed together in one of the small pens. For nearly two weeks, I never saw any of their elephants playing or joyful.  Not once.  That’s not to say it doesn’t ever happen, I just personally never saw it.  Which is a stark contrast to my previous experience at the Elephant Nature Park where the animals are allowed to live in a herd, or in sub groups as they wish, and roam freely through the river and grasslands during the day.

No bullhooks.  No hotwire.

This photo along with many other taken at this facility speak for themselves.  The animals emotions and sadness was evident.  While we worked tirelessly to feed and water them and clean their enclosures, emotional needs were definitely not being met.  And with 500+ animals at once facility there’s really no way they could be.  Some of the animals clearly craved human attention and cried and begged for it, yet it was strictly forbidden.  Not even staff was allowed to interact.

This was such a strange concept for me to try to wrap my mind around.  Once these wild animals were rescued or surrendered from their human caretakers, they’re then brought to a sanctuary where they are no longer allowed any human interaction anymore.  It’s hard to make sense of how this is remotely productive.

While I agree wild animals shouldn’t be kept as pets, once that change has taken place and they are brought into a domestic situation, it seems cruel and pointless to then remove them from that bond all together and permanently.  These are not animals who are being prepared for release into the wild, these are animals that will spend the rest of their lives in captivity through no fault of their own.  Naturally some of them have the possibility of being dangerous and should be treated accordingly, but definitely not all of them and the policy was applied consistently across the board.

It has taken me a long time to give any kind of public recount of my time at this facility because it was such a huge disappointment and none of us came out of the situation feeling like we made a positive impact at all.  But that said, I did learn how differently sanctuaries can be run, the validity or lack thereof to TripAdvisor reviews, and brought to question human interaction with domesticated wildlife.

And I captured images that I believe are some of my most powerful to date.

Sometimes the silver lining is barely visible, but if you look hard enough you’re bound to find it hidden in there somewhere.

About A Place In Time Photography

I am Professional Photographer based out of Maui, HI. The passion behind my photography business is (1) to travel and volunteer both within the US and abroad with various animal sanctuaries to (2) capture valuable visual and written documentation to be able to (3) put to use in educating others. This all done with the hopes of being able to give back as much as possible both within the local community as well as internationally - especially when it comes to environmental protection and animal rights. People can't begin to fix a problem if they don't know it exists.
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