Even before the truck came to a stop we were completely surrounded. Backing up towards the start of the pathway I was worried for the worst should we unwittingly hit one of them, and I wasn’t sure what to expect once the doors opened and we stepped out. They were an anxious lot, and there was nowhere to go but straight into their ranks. Would we be greeted as friend or foe? Welcomed warmly or despised? Hoping for the best, I took a deep breath, opened the truck door and stepped out. That’s when the mob surged forward.
The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That’s the essence of inhumanity.
-George Bernard Shaw
When I came to my clothes were soiled with their dusty prints and my face wet from their insistent interrogation. But we had survived. Satisfied with our answers we were allowed on our way while they dispersed in various directions. Rossanne back up to plant herself in the middle of the roadway, Hugh to the main house, Honey and several of her young siblings accompanying us up to our cabin. We had passed the litmus test and could finally meet the elephants. The dogs of Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary considered us part of the pack.
Both BLES and Elephant Nature Park have programs to look after the non-elephant animals that come into their care. Whether abandoned to the streets, abused or disowned by their owners, or rescued from the meat trade there are a lot of dogs and cats in Thailand that need medical help or simply a warm and comforting place to call home. Dogs were literally everywhere during our travels: asleep in driveways, asleep in gutters, asleep in the middle of roads – when they weren’t busy chasing after cars, trucks, and mopeds, that is. I was always fearful when we were in vehicles that one sudden turn would spell injury for the packs that would follow us. Oftentimes cars would have to come to a complete stop in the middle of roads and honk at the dogs to get them up and out of the way. It was a bit surreal, and a predicament that presented a lot of unfortunate opportunities to be injured. Add to that the 2011 floods in Bangkok that displaced thousands of animals and it’s no wonder that those who come to Thailand and other Asian countries to volunteer with elephants, like we did, walk away with an entirely new and different appreciation for the work these sanctuaries do that is, on the surface, unrelated to their elephant causes.
Elephant Nature Park alone has around 400 dogs and 200 cats – many rescued from those Bangkok floods and all available for adoption. They’d skip around on the viewing platforms winding their way between guests’ legs, and there would always be several around our sleeping quarters, oftentimes plunked down in front of our door waiting for some company and a scratch behind the ears. Any number of dogs could be found on top of the thatched roofs above their kennels. At night their barking, while not as majestic as the sounds of lions roaring, was still a reminder that you were a long ways from home.
Probably the most famous non-elephant at ENP is a dog named Steel. Several years ago Steel was hit by a passing vehicle, leaving both her rear legs broken and lame. She could only pull herself around by her front legs, and that sliding and scraping across the ground further injured her. As a result, those looking after Steel put her in a metal cage that was less than a meter square and left her there for two long years. Yes, two years inside a cage, alone and forlorn. The story is that they felt they couldn’t euthanize the poor girl because of religious beliefs, but apparently caging her indefinitely was okay. Steel was eventually rescued by a man named Bruce Boshoff, who was in the country teaching at the time and who had randomly stumbled across Steel inside her cage on his way home one day. Bruce sourced a custom-built doggie scooter for Steel, allowing her hindquarters to ride above two wheels while she pulled herself around by her front legs. For the first time since her accident, and two years after being relegated to a tiny cage, Steel was finally was able to go for a walk again. If Bruce’s story of rescuing this beautiful girl doesn’t leave you in tears, you haven’t a heart.
When Bruce left the country Steel found herself a new home at ENP. There, they constructed her a custom enclosure with a smooth marble tile floor so she could easily pull herself around without getting injured. Even better, ENP upgraded Steel’s ride to a more rugged chariot. A Steelmobile – painted pink, of course, because she is a girl after all. As the below video hopefully showcases, all Steel wants more than anything is some love and affection, to be scratched behind the ears because she can’t do it herself, and most of all to run, run, run!
BLES has a similar dog named iMac. And while iMac is as sweet and loving as Steel, the animal under Katherine Connor’s care who stole my heart was a petite feline by the name of Pumpkin. Pumpkin’s story from rescue-to-redemption is similar to that of most all the animals we met at both BLES and ENP. She was found in a gutter during a heavy storm, soaked to the bone and seemingly paralyzed. Not able to stand or even defecate without assistance it appeared there wasn’t much hope for her. But Pumpkin showed everyone up by slowly, slowly, ever-so-slowly learning to walk again in the months that followed her rescue. What made her move? What gave her the strength and inspiration? Hard to say. But it’s amazing what a little love and kindness can do.
When the hubbub of the evening dinner at BLES had died down and all the usual canine and feline suspects abandoned laps in search of adventure elsewhere, Pumpkin would quietly come out of the shadows. “Walk” is a bit of an overstatement in her case, as Pumpkin’s locomotion was more Frankenstein in execution with a little bit of a sideways lurch here and an unintended half-hop there. You could see the neurons firing, and as often misfiring, as she tried to make her way across the room. Pumpkin had a long ways to go to get her sea legs back but there was determination in her eyes. It was the same resolve I saw in Steel, and the same conviction we saw in all the elephant and non-elephant animals we met at BLES and ENP. They may have had hard lives and circumstances but they were alive, they were survivors, and now they were unabashedly cared for. Grit, determination, and unequaled heart and courage; all things we could stand to learn from.
Whenever I saw Pumpkin I made a point of spending time with her, bringing her close to the food and keeping the other animals at bay so she could enjoy a meal undisturbed and unchallenged. I think the first night I saw her I sat with her for over an hour straight; quietly, unobtrusively keeping her company until she was content and ready to move on – lurching a little bit this way, unintentionally half-hopping a little bit that way. There was much to love in all the cats and dogs at BLES. The grand dame Rossanne who, suffering from the ills of old age (and who would pass shortly after our visit), would still go out on every elephant walk. Hugh (“Hey, when you gettin’ Lewis and the News back together, man?”) and his companions chasing after the banana truck every morning. The puppies: Honey, Marmite, Peanut Butter, and Maple, who were a blur of fur, paw prints, and frenetic energy no matter when or where. And the various other four-legged animals that graced our days and nights. But it was Pumpkin, with her quiet and unassuming presence and personality, who got herself stuck inside me the most.
While BLES and ENP are best known for their elephant care and advocacy work, both sanctuaries invest a great amount of time and energy in looking after and out for other animals. ENP has a dog-specific volunteer program that lets you spend ample time with the elephants as you look after and care for the dogs there. They could really use your help, and Steel and all the rest could use some affection and a nice walk. Think about supporting them. ENP also has a cat shelter where you’re always welcome to spend some quality time with its feline occupants.
BLES has a cat and dog shelter as well, and they too could very much use your love and support. Pumpkin is but one story about a number of animals they’ve selflessly given a home to and provided care for. Recently BLES rescued a dog named BIG, and his story is the perfect example of the difficult but necessary work BLES and ENP carry out without question and without fanfare. (We’re sad to report that BIG recently passed away. Travel well, brave one.) Both Katherine and Lek can’t say no to an animal in need, which is why each is so deserving of you saying “yes” by supporting them.
While I dearly miss the elephants we had the honor of meeting on our trip, without the dog and cat ensemble that constantly surrounded us at both BLES and ENP and accompanied us on our elephant walks, without Steel and her vibrant smile and never-say-die attitude, without Pumpkin and her fearless determination, our time in Thailand wouldn’t have been the same. All will forever be fondly remembered.