Working with Elephants

Friday, 25 October 2013 | Tags: , , ,

One of the things on my bucket list is to take a volunteer vacation and go work with animals. After recently doing some fundraising with the BCSPCA, I met a woman who did just that. Rosemary Conder is the Chief Development Officer at the BCSPCA and she’s done volunteer work with elephants five times, four of those in Thailand and once in the U.S. I spoke with her about her amazing experience.

KM: How did you first become involved with elephant rescue? 

RC: My husband and I were on a plane heading over to Japan on our honeymoon and next to us was a teenager on his way to Thailand. His parents were sending him to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary as a graduation present. I thought it was a great idea and decided to do the same thing!

KM: Why elephants? 

RC: Elephants are so incredibly intelligent, emotionally complex and are empathetic towards other creatures. Science has proven it but through my volunteer work, I experienced it first hand. It is amazing to watch such enormous, powerful creatures exhibit tenderness, affection, and play.  Spending time with them as I did, I felt the intensity of their presence.  They are so engaging and soulful.

KM: What were your responsibilities there?

RC: It depends on the sanctuary.  At Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand, for example, I had quite a hefty daily schedule that involved food preparation, food foraging, taking them for daily walks in the jungle, assisting with veterinary care, cleaning their enclosures, bathing them and making food based games for them. It was quite a workout but spending time with them so intimately is worth every ounce of sweat!

KM: What was a hardest part in all of this?

RC: Hands down, knowing the suffering these remarkable creatures experience that takes place every single day in Thailand – not to mention in zoos and in circuses around the world.

KM: Riding elephants is a popular tourist activity in Asia and Africa. I’ve done it myself. Why should we think twice about doing this?

RC: While riding an elephant may seem innocent, in Thailand, the process right from the start is cruel.  Baby elephants are captured in the wild, taken from their mother (and in many cases the mother or other members of the herd are killed).  The afraid and confused elephants are beaten for days and often weeks based on certain cultural traditions.  The elephant experiences a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) type of fear that motivates them their entire lives.  They ride tourists calmly because they fear punishment.  In addition, once they are sold and put to work, they are often treated as slaves.  They may not be able to exhibit their natural behaviours or have opportunities to socialize.  They are often forced to eat a compromised diet and work sun up to sun down without rest.  I have been reading about tour companies no longer making elephant rides an option in their travel packages – that is great news!  Check out the website www.right-tourism.com for more great info.

I prefer to watch them or help care for them.  It is far more rewarding!

KM: How did this experience affect or change you?

RC: This experience definitely changed my life – for the better. I have had the privilege of meeting some amazing creatures.  They touched my heart in ways that are difficult to describe.  I am humbled by them.

I have dedicated my life to helping animals and this experience has accelerated my passion.

As well, traveling by myself into remote parts of a country I didn’t know and doing physically demanding work in a culture that is so different from my own pushed me out of my comfort zone – a lot!  It made me tougher, smarter and more experienced in life.

KM: You must have learned a lot! What surprised you?

RC: Gosh – so many things and after almost three years, I am still surprised/amazed!

1) Elephants smell incredibly sweet- like danishes on a hot sandy beach.  They are herbivores and can eat a lot of fruit – so much they smell like it!

2) They experience emotions that are incredibly similar to our own.  They can cry with real tears of frustration, they grieve, they have deep emotional bonds with friends and family and even flirt!

3) The elephant genocide in Africa for ivory is a very different situation than in Thailand.  Both however, are horrific.

4) I read that tourism in Thailand has increased by more than 5640% since 1967.  20 million people visited last year alone.  This means a growing demand for elephant entertainment, which has meant a proliferation of elephant exploitation.

5) No matter how dire the situation, we can’t give up.  There are many great people doing great things to help creatures with whom we share this planet.  Those folks need our help. I remind myself it took over 100 years to abolish child slavery in Great Britain. Patience is a struggle some days!

KM: What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in a similar volunteering program? And any particular organizations you can recommend?

RC: I would definitely suggest two that I know well:

Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand

Elephant Nature Park

They have different approaches but really do care about the elephants’ wellbeing.  There are many other places that claim to be sanctuaries.  Be careful!  They can be fronts for unethical businesses. Make sure the operation doesn’t make the elephants perform or carry visitors. Ask the operators questions about the elephants’ care.  You aren’t guaranteed an honest answer but you can follow your gut.

KM: And finally, what do you want us to know about the plight of elephants in Asia? 

RC: Tourists wanting to see elephant shows, take rides or treks can be fueling the rise in elephant exploitation in Asia.  Tourists, by making ethical choices, can be the voice of change and hope for a better future for Asian elephants.


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  • lulu

    Hi There. I just wanted add a few things to this. Rosemary is an acquaintance of mine; we met through our mutual love of elephants and where she has worked with elephants in Asia, I have done so for 3 1/2 years in South Africa. I just wanted to stress that I do not promote the practice of elephant rides and like Rosemary, I prefer to observe them, however, it must be pointed out that not all elephants are trained through beating and abuse; good facilities will train the elephants through the use of positive reinforcement using food and verbal rewards. which can be extremely effective. With this said, it is not always difficult for one from the outside to know which facilities are good and which ones aren’t, and if one simply takes the time to really observe them, both you and the elephant will get more out of it. If people are looking to volunteer in South Africa, AERU, the African Elephant Research Unit accepts volunteers from 2 weeks to 3 months. If one really wants to get the chance to truly start to learn about the elephants, a month or more is recommended. Volunteers get involved in cleaning up after the elephants, preparing food, preparing enrichments, tending the elephant’s garden and most importantly, assisting the research unit in ongoing behavioral research.

    • http://www.annaandkristina.com/ Kristina

      Thanks Lulu. Some great advice here.