At the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai volunteering with rescued dogs for a week…
The cacophony of sounds at night… It starts with the cicadas, not just cute cricket chirps from a distant tree, more like a chainsaw in the same room.
After rain, the night-time frogs sound like 1,000 chickens reacting to a fox in the coop.
At night the dogs howl as well as bark. It only takes one to start and the wail continues like a Mexican wave all along the run.
And there’s another sound, that of the pretty young girls who start making any point with ‘so’ and pepper their every sentence with ‘like’. They all emit the same Americanised twang, regardless of whether they come from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, London or Paris. Truth be told, they are all lovely, educated girls. Individually you’ll get a better conversation. In a pack, the youngsters get louder and more dramatic and treat the man or woman who’s over 50 as if they were invisible.
But back to the dogs. Each day we have a routine, poop-scooping, cleaning enclosures, walking and socialising dogs, including disabled dogs. They are the most loving souls, all of them physically damaged, but some emotionally too. There’s one who stares into my eyes and I melt. I’ll never forget the soft, gentle Khao who bounded up full of enthusiasm on the first day. He’s a scruffy little thing. Most of them drag their legs behind them, one has no back legs at all, which actually seems to be a blessing as they are all doubly incontinent and often drag through each other’s poo without knowing it.
I have raised the issue of whether some of these disabled dogs would be better off put down. One, in particular, struggles to move around, growls at anyone who’s too close, and just looks forlorn in his bony, deformed, broken body. I’m told the Buddhist culture doesn’t allow taking a life. But at what cost to the dog, especially with such limited resources? We are only the second couple to be designated to the disabled dogs room so it’s usually just one member of staff to about 16 disabled dogs.
It is humbling to look after these beautiful animals. At the same time it can be highly frustrating when you are walking a stubborn dog who just won’t budge, disabled or not. You don’t want to pull them too hard, you wonder how much is a battle of wills. No wonder they drag their paws – they only walk in a limited lap of the park and they can’t be too keen to go back to their enclosure.
They don’t half teach you a lot about yourself. Above all, for me, it’s the need for patience. That and the need to feel that I am doing something right and something useful.
The disabled dogs are vulnerable especially when they turn over in their wheelchairs. Sometimes they sniff out a pile of dung from an elephant or a water buffalo and do just what any dog would – roll in it, and over they go.
And surely this is the epitome of frustration for them… wanting to chase one of the 200 cats on site, or wanting to cock a leg on a tree – and no functioning back legs to do it with. Luckily they don’t poop when walking but they might if you pick them up to put them in the harness. David did get a chicken korma-like splat down his leg when picking one up for a bath.
The daily dog walks (of which there are many) take us past many of the 70 rescued elephants at the park. Our focus for the week was the rescue dogs – but the backdrop to our daily walks was green hills, water buffalo, and elephants at every turn. If you would like to read more about the work of the owner Lek, who we heard at a talk this week, please go to their website.
We admit that we are horrified that as recently as four years ago we rode an elephant in Nepal. Of course, the people had said it was ok, they said stuff we wanted to hear and yet I had never even heard of pajan. Well, it isn’t too late and if we can help spread the word that this is unacceptable, then we will feel a little better.