Many people strive to make their home a sanctuary and Katherine Connor, founder of Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, has achieved this concept both literally and figuratively. BLES is a truly beautiful and serene haven where Katherine lives on-site with her husband, one of the mahouts at BLES, and her three (soon to be four) children. But the spirit of family only begins there. All of the staff, from the mahouts to the housekeepers, along with a dozen dogs and about thirty cats, compose one large tribe whose lives revolve around eleven rescued elephants that have been given a new chapter in life free of abuse and surrounded by love and respect.
Elephants, they see you. They see everything that you don’t want anyone else to see. The things that you’re trying to hide from the rest of the world? They see that. And I think that, whether it’s subconsciously or consciously, I think we are aware that they see it. They make us feel vulnerable and that attracts us to them.
The experience at BLES is intimate, with strict limits on the number of visitors and open access to Katherine, who will share her passion with you throughout your stay. The scenery is stunning as you gaze out over the surrounding hills of the jungle while cherished, personal touches – photos of elephants living and no longer with us, local crafts, a shrine to Ganesha – are discovered up close over time. Dogs sit by your feet, cats purr in your lap, and elephants splash in the water while the sounds of trumpeting and squeaking are carried through the air. It feels idyllic and if you didn’t know better you could almost forget the truth behind why this sanctuary exists in the first place. But that won’t happen, because Katherine will make sure in her gentle-yet-firm manner that you understand exactly why BLES exists, what needs to change for elephants, and why you have responsibility for that change.
Katherine could best be described as a peaceful protester utilizing non-violent resistance, diplomacy, love, and kindness as her weapons of choice. She sees the good in people even as she describes the horrors of the abuses she has witnessed by humans towards elephants throughout the country. She understands there are cultural traditions at play as well as a basic need to provide for one’s family. She doesn’t agree with how things are done, but is hoping to change this long-held way of thinking one elephant and one mahout at a time. While Katherine may be the guiding light of BLES, she consciously takes a step back and empowers her mahouts by having them be the prime negotiators when rescuing an elephant. It allows the negotiations to take place on more equal footing and gives the mahouts ownership of not only an individual rescue but of the philosophy of BLES.
It was a pleasure to be a part of Katherine’s extended family during our stay and we want to thank her for her generosity and willingness to sit down to an interview. Katherine is an eloquent and passionate communicator, and we’re so delighted to share a little bit about her personal story as well as her hopes and dreams for BLES and for Thailand’s elephants.
Tell us about yourself and how you came to be, literally, surrounded by elephants.
Katherine Connor: When I was twenty-one I had an early mid-life crisis and I decided to throw in my job, sell my house, break up with my fiancé, and get rid of all those things that were tying me down and holding me back, and just go traveling. I was a bit bored with the materialistic life I’d come to live. It wasn’t fulfilling. I didn’t feel like I was giving anything back, and I knew that there was more to the world and that there was more to who I was than that. So I decided to go traveling around Asia, looking for something but with no idea was I was looking for. And then it found me.
Describe meeting Boon Lott.
Did you plan on working with animals, or was it just random coincidence?
Katherine: It was very random. I was traveling around, and the reason I came to Thailand was to see elephants. They’d always been my favorite animal but I didn’t know anything about them. So when I went to the Thai Elephant Conservaton Center, which was the one recommended in the guidebook at the time, I was quite heartbroken because the center was meant to be the flagship elephant project, and there was a show, there was riding, that was it. I’m looking around the center and I’m thinking, “These elephants are not that happy. These elephants are not well cared for, they’re not free, they’re not… elephants. That’s not good enough.” And it was through meeting Boon Lott that I realized I had to do something about it. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know where, I didn’t know why or what, but I just knew I had to do something.
How many elephants do you have at BLES and what are their personalities like?
Katherine: We have eleven elephants at the moment and they’re all full of personality! We’ve got our newest rescue, Boon Thong. She’s in her late sixties. She’s quite a sassy old lady, not intimidated by anybody and very sweet. She just keeps to herself, and she’s enjoying every single minute of her freedom.
Then we have “The Gossip Girls,” called that because they’re just squeaking and roaring and trumpeting non-stop. Wassana is full of joy. Her nickname is “Joy.” She is like a four year old trapped in a forty year old’s body. She loves to play, she loves to squeak, she loves to just mess around and be cheeky. Today she came up here to the Ganesha hut and stole all the food. She’s just fabulous! Then we have Pang Dow, who’s very easily spooked. She’s been through a lot of abuse and I don’t think that she will ever forget that. She runs away from cars, trucks, new people, loud noises. Some of the elephants terrify her and she’ll go charging off. Wassana is her best friend and Wassana will go off after her. She’s quite a delicate girl; she’s fiercely strong but she’s very delicate. Then we have Lotus, and she’s a bit of a diva. She loves being around humans. She really does enjoy human interaction and she’s the only elephant that we have that actually gravitates to people. We have a few elephants that will approach people every now and then, but most of our elephants don’t like people and so they’re off in the forest doing their own thing and being elephants. Like Pang Tong.
Pang Tong is our overall matriarch and she is fierce. She’s stroppy and she’s very protective of her young ones. She does not like people so we don’t interfere with her, we don’t bother her, we just leave her alone and watch her from a distance.
My most important message when people come to visit us is that they have respect for the elephants, and they respect that [the elephants] are individuals, and they respect that Lotus likes human contact, and they respect that the others don’t.
I know a mother’s not supposed to have favorites but do you have a favorite elephant at BLES?
Elephants are a very important cultural symbol in Thailand. Why then do you think they’re oftentimes treated so poorly?
Katherine: I think it’s because we treat the people poorly. I’m a huge believer that one kind gesture encourages another, and another, and another. I really believe that if we start treating the mahouts better… who are very poor men and most of whom are uneducated. They have acquired an elephant, and they want to keep the elephant and they want to provide an income for their families. They don’t know that there is an alternative, so they overwork and abuse the elephants. I do really, passionately believe that if we invest more time, more money, and more positive energy appreciating the mahouts instead of pointing the finger and blaming them, then I really do feel that there will be a turnaround and that the abuse will eventually stop.
Do you feel that there’s much resistance to the work that you do from others in the country, or do you think that people are pretty open once they hear about your approach?
Katherine: Once people have been here and they’ve seen [BLES], they’re passionate about it and they become ambassadors. The challenge is getting them here to see it. I’ve had many a conversation camp owners who have said to me, “Kat, I want to do what you’ve done. I want to be kinder to my elephants.” And I say, “Okay. Come see what we’ve done. Come and meet my mahouts. Talk to my mahouts, see how they feel.” And very rarely will they come. It’s like they’re scared.
It’s a difficult one. The mahouts, I think, are the ones who are more willing to change. The camp owners, I feel, are a bit stuck in their ways and are focused on the profit. They don’t yet believe that if they have elephants being elephants they’ll make a profit. They think that the tourists want to see elephants performing. They think that tourists want to ride on a chair on an elephant’s back for half an hour. So, my message to people coming to Thailand is, “You have the power to make this change happen. As a tourist in Thailand if you refuse to ride the elephants, if you refuse to watch those shows, those camp owners will have to stand up and take note.”
So then how do you get tourists to understand that those things aren’t good for the elephants and that there are alternatives?
Katherine: When you know better, you do better. I think that with the internet there is no excuse for not knowing what goes on in the elephant world here in Thailand. We have to educate each other, we have to educate ourselves. I think that’s the only answer. So people who are on the other side of the world, if they meet someone who’s coming to Thailand they can educate that person before they get on the airplane. They can tell them about what they know. Word of mouth is the biggest tool we have.
With Thailand being a conservative culture do you feel because you’re a woman, and in particular a western woman, that there’s been more resistance to your work?
Katherine: I think I’ve been very lucky. The way that I have approached this whole endeavor is… gently. I’ve treated the people how I’ve wanted to them to treat my elephants: with respect, calmly, kindly. I think if I had come in here and said “Right, this is not the way we’re doing it anymore,” then sure, they would never have responded positively to me. The guys that I have working here, they’re like my family, and they know that. They know that there is nothing I wouldn’t do for them. I spend a lot of time looking after them. They’re paid very well. I just feel that the secret is just being kind all the time, being respectful all the time. Nobody wants to be spoken down to, everybody wants to feel appreciated – including the animals.
What is it about elephants that makes people feel so deeply for them?
What’s the one thing you want everyone who comes here to take away with them when they leave?
Katherine: A lot of people that come to Thailand, they only come to BLES and they don’t travel elsewhere. I want people to realize that we are here for a reason. Yes, our elephants are happy. Yes, our elephants are fairly healthy. Yes, they’re free to do whatever they want to do. And yes, everything here is positive, the energy here is positive. But it is not like that in the rest of the country. BLES is a very rare situation, and that’s what I want people to understand. This is not a country-wide, Asia-wide, worldwide thing; this is BLES.
If we want to create this for the other elephants in Thailand, in Asia, in the world, then we have to come together as a global community, we have to be shouting the same message, we have to work together, we have to put our differences aside and put the elephants’ priorities and their needs first and foremost. If we don’t do that, we are going to lose the elephant in our lifetime.
It keeps me awake at night that people come here and that they have a great experience, and then they go home. And they talk about how wonderful Thailand is. Thailand is wonderful, but the elephants are not treated wonderfully. If people who come here can go home and help spread our message and help spread the education, then we’ve achieved something.
What about those who aren’t able or can’t afford to travel here? What’s one thing that everybody can do to help, no matter where they are in the world?
Katherine: Everybody can talk. Everybody can share the awareness. If you have a passion, you talk about it. Our voice is our greatest tool and we should learn to use it properly.
What does the sound of elephants trumpeting evoke in you?
What’s your vision for BLES and do you think your work will ever be completed?
Katherine: Completed? Oh, no! There is always something to do. My to-do list is long! We want to create a medical clinic for the elephants in our local area. There are thirteen privately owned elephants in this village. At the moment we provide them all with free medication, and if they need vet care then we connect with the government doctor and get them here. But most of the time the elephants have to be transported up to the hospital in Lampang, and sick elephants often die from the journey alone. If we could have a clinic here, in this area, we could save many lives.
Another vision that we have is our release program. Many people who have elephants in Thailand seem to think that it’s okay to have them off the chain during the day and then have them on a chain at nighttime. Well, I don’t think that is okay. I don’t think it’s good enough. They weren’t born wearing chain, they shouldn’t live wearing a chain, and they should not die wearing a chain. So our end goal for all our rescued elephants is to recuperate them, teach them how to be elephants again, and then release them. They won’t be wild elephants, but they will be the next best thing.
In order to achieve that we need to buy up thousands of acres of land, we need to raise thousands and thousands of pounds, and we need to erect fencing. There is no one else in Thailand doing this work. It’s quite daunting. We have no idea if it’s going to work. It’s going to be a trial and error thing, and it’ll be very exciting. But that is our end goal for every single elephant that we rescue.
We also want to create a cat and dog home. Again, there is nothing for our local community. They have no support and they have no education. I feel with the cats and dogs in this area that it’s not cruelty, it’s neglect and lack of awareness. I feel that if there were people here showing them a more humane way that they would follow suit. I don’t think anyone wants to be cruel. I don’t believe it.
After that I want to create a community center for the young adults in this village. At the moment, they leave school at about fourteen years old and they start drinking, they start helping their parents on their land, they become farmers and then they get kind of sucked into this alcoholic, dark world. What I’m hoping to do is create a community center which focuses on physical education and languages. That will open up new doors for them, and maybe give them a bit more hope for the future.
It seems that working with the community is a key component in your work with animals.
Katherine: Absolutely! While I’m the figurehead for this project I wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t have the support of our local community. They are imperative to what we do. The other thing we’d like to achieve is to have more BLESes around the country. One in the north, one in the south, one in the east, one in the west, and just be spreading our message and stopping the cruelty.
Years from now when Mee Chok is a wizened old bull, how do you want to be remembered by him and the other elephants who have come through your life?