About the Program and the Park:
Anyone who knows me knows that my absolute favorite and most highly recommended tourist activity in the entire world is the Elephant Nature Park, located north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I first visited the park in 2011, when its herd was slightly smaller and fewer tourists were coming through. Since that initial visit, which I wrote about HERE, a lot has changed! There’s more tourists in the park, which is great for animal welfare and has definitely helped this sanctuary to thrive by providing the money and volunteer hours needed to keep all of the animals happy, healthy and safe. There’s also a lot of new volunteer housing, new options for daily and over-night stays (including the Pamper-a-Pachyderm option, which wasn’t available before), and a whole lot more staff running around. One of the biggest (and my personal favorite!) changes, though, was the addition of the Dog Rescue Project, which houses over 420 rescued dogs.
The Dog Rescue Project was started in 2011, just after my first visit to the park. The autumn of that year saw major flooding throughout Bangkok, which left many people and animals out of home and shelter. Many dogs were either separated from their owners, drowning, or otherwise in trouble, and The Elephant Nature Park took them in and created a new home for them at one of the far ends of the park. Today, the Dog Rescue Project has grown from the initial hundred-and-some dogs who were saved from the floods into the cohesive, 420+ dog program that it is today. The dogs come from many different circumstances; some come from abusive owners, some from the streets, some are saved from the dog meat trade, and some have been poisoned. Regardless of their background, each dog is considered carefully before being placed into his or her new run, is provided with good medical care, and is given an opportunity to live a long, happy life, free from abuse and hunger.
So, what’s it like to be a dog rescue volunteer?
I arrived at the park not really knowing what to expect this time around, but was integrated pretty quickly into the routine. The first few hours that I had at the park were spent with a combination of dog and elephant volunteers. My group and I were given a tour around the park, introduced to a few elephants, and learned a little bit more about how and why the animals had come to the park. After lunch, all of the new visitors to the park watched a video about the phajaan, or the centuries-old system for “crushing” an elephant’s spirit and molding it for human service. The phajaan is the backbone of the current elephant tourist trade, without which elephants cannot be ridden. Even though this blog post isn’t about the treatment of elephants or even about the elephant-y part of the park, I have to put it out there once again: if you’re ever traveling in Asia, please, please, please, please, please! don’t ride an elephant. Its cruel from start to finish, and only serves to hurt the gentle giants that most tourists love. On a lighter note, the elephants that have been lucky enough to find a home at the Elephant Nature Park get to live out the rest of their (hopefully long) lives eating fruit and freely roaming around, and will never be forced to perform for tourists ever again.
But anyway, back to the dogs! After the video I was introduced to my fellow dog volunteers for the week, Izzy, Rebecca and A.J. We also met several longer-term volunteers, all of whom welcomed us and were thankfully very patient with us while we learned the ropes. Big thanks especially go out to Carolina, Ryan, Sabrina and Pedro for making us all feel welcome! We were thrown into the swing of things straight off the bat, which was a little bit overwhelming at first but became normal surprisingly quickly.
Our days went just about the same way for the entire week; we were up and at the main building for breakfast by 7:00 am, then met up at the dog clinic at 8am sharp to start the morning duties. The dog clinic is where dogs are taken if they get injured or get sick while living in their runs, with stay lengths varying between a few hours to longer than a month, depending on the problem. The clinic is divided up into a few different holding pens; in the back there’s the “Gallery,” which has both individual cages for dogs and a tiled, fenced-in area out back for the dogs to play and relieve themselves in when they aren’t being fed or given medicine in their cages. In the front there’s a row of cages with access to dirt-and-grass runs out the back. There’s also a number of cages that don’t have access to the outside, and these dogs were always our first priorities in the morning, as they needed to be walked.
When there were enough volunteers available we had people working together to make sure that the dogs were fed, watered and walked as efficiently as possible. Another volunteer would stay back to clean the cages and areas where dogs made messes so that the dogs could return back to comfy, clean cages. This could take anywhere from an hour to several hours, depending on how many volunteers we had on hand and how many elephant volunteers were able to come by to help us with the walking. After we finished walking, feeding and caring for the clinic dogs, we went out to the runs, which can hold anywhere from two dogs to thirty dogs, depending on the size of the run. Here we checked the dogs for ticks, bite wounds, gunky eyes and ears, for white gums and for unusual skinniness. Blood parasites from ticks are common in the tropics, they symptoms of which include weight loss and light-colored gums. Most of the dogs in the Gallery were being treated for the parasites, and treatment lasts for about a month.
At 11:30 or so we’d break for lunch, and when we came back at 1:00 the process starts all over again. We take all the dogs out for their walks, and when we’re finished with walks we could be doing any number of odd jobs; some days we’d go back to the runs to do more tick checks, some days we’d be put in charge of moving dogs from one run to another, and some days we’d just be bathing or playing with the dogs. There was never a lack of things to do, and by 4:30 pm, our clock-out time so to speak, we were always exhausted.
Even though I was only there for a week, I found myself getting super attached to some of the pups and it was definitely hard not to take one home with me! The ENP offers a super-easy dog adoption program for people living in the US, Canada, the UK and Europe, and they’ll make all the arrangements for you to pick up your new best friend at your nearest airport. As fantastic of a home as the park is, some of these furry friends would definitely benefit from having a forever home with humans instead of a big pack of dogs.
And now the fun part! Let me introduce you to some of my absolute favorite furbabies that I got to know. Most of these dogs were in the clinic when I visited, but some were living at the dog volunteer house, and others were just dogs that made a significant impression on me when I met them in their runs.
Bear is a super-sweetie staying in the clinic while I was at the park. He’s affectionate, walks well on a leash, and loves! giving hugs, even though he’s probably a little bit too big and heavy to be giving so many hugs. Some people might find his size and weight a little intimidating, especially when he jumps up to give his hugs, but I couldn’t love him or his hugs more! Bear also walks well on a leash and loves other dogs.
Ayo, the legless wonder dog, is another super-sweet dog. Ayo lives at the volunteer house, and was always amazingly affectionate and agile in spite of having three legs. For the most part she gets along well with other dogs, but apparently has been known to get jealous about her people. All-around very loving and energetic, and definitely very handsome!
Mocha is another dog who lived at the dog rescue house, and is probably the sweetest of them all. Affectionately nicknamed “princess” during our stay, she has an adorable habit of sitting with paws crossed and looking very regal. She also gets along well with other dogs, and is not skittish or afraid of people in the least. Total sweetheart!
Castor was one of the dogs in the runs who absolutely stole my heart. He lived in the run closest to the dog volunteer house, and I always made a point of saying hello before I went home. Castor was just all-around super friendly, loving, and always excited to see people. Another gentle giant, he’s an absolute doll!
Nom lived with Castor in Open Run 9, and was another treat. She loves attention and giving kisses, and would sometimes poke her head all the way through a hole in the chain-link just for a little petting. An absolutely gorgeous sweetheart and gets along well with other dogs!
Unfortunately, I can’t post about all 420+ dogs here, but I can say that most all of them are worth getting to know. Working with the dogs is an extremely emotional experience, and one that’s hard to forget (I even have ENP dog rescue dreams weekly!). Its hard when you fall in love with a dog or two or ten and then have to leave them, and its hard not knowing what their lives are going to be like once you leave. But its also extremely rewarding work, and even when you’re stressed or understaffed or emotionally drained, the dogs’ positive reactions always make it worth it in the end.
How You Can Help
There’s a lot of different ways you can help! Obviously the most rewarding way would be to go and volunteer yourself. The dog rescue project does not get nearly as much attention as the elephant program, but the work is, in my opinion, more meaningful and allows you to directly connect with the animals in a way that you don’t get with the elephant program. But if you are planning a trip to the park and don’t know if the dog project is for you, or if you’re really, really set on doing the elephant program, you can still take an afternoon and come help out with the dogs, or even come just after lunch to help with walking. The dogs (and volunteers) need all the help they can get, and working with them is really underrated.
You can also opt to adopt one of the park dogs, and there’s no shortage of dogs for you to choose from! The park’s website has a small “meet the dogs” section, which you can find HERE. Obviously these are not all the dogs at the park, nor all the dogs available for adoption. Its a good place to start, though, so its worth a look!
If you want to help out but aren’t ready to book your ticket to Thailand just yet and don’t have the time, money or capability to take on a new fluffnugget in your life, you can also SPONSOR A DOG for 1,000-2,000 baht, or about $30USD. You could fund-raise with a charity or group to purchase an expensive item (listed below), or donate money to buy less expensive items. You can also donate any of the following (taken from THIS PAGE on the ENP website):
Expensive $$$ items:
- Xray machine
- Xray processor
- Blood machine
- Surgery lights
- Power generator
Mid range $$ items:
- Cat scales (table top)
- Various medical supplies
- Durable dog kennels
- Small fridge
Small $ items:
- Medium size dog collars
- Durable and long leashes
- Durable toys
- Stainless steel bowls (lg, med and small)
- Iv extension sets
- Soffban bandaging
- Dog bedding
- Dog blankets
- Cat litter and litter trays
Fees & Whats Included: One week’s stay at the Elephant Nature Park with the Dog Rescue Program costs ~$155USD, and includes accommodation, food & water, a t-shirt, a water bottle and a water bottle holder.
Accommodation: Accommodation is on-site in stilt houses. Each room can house 2-3 people, with double and single beds available. The beds all have mosquito netting and there are fans in the rooms.
Working hours per day: 8:00 am until 4:30 pm, with break for lunch.
Food: Buffet-style vegetarian food. Lots of options, very very tasty, but hard to eat gluten free, which was an issue for me. Celiacs beware of the fake meat, or “wheat meat,” as it is most definitely not GF.
Bucket List Info:
Activity Type: Volunteering
Value for Money: High value! The food and accommodation alone is given at a pretty cheap price for traveling, the park is gorgeous and you really feel like you’re doing something. Its extremely rewarding and I can’t wait to do it again.
Suitable for: Able-bodied people who love animals and are willing to work hard.
Recommend: Definitely, to anyone and everyone who will listen! Its an amazing experience and the whole ENP set-up is legitimately one of the best non-government organizations (NGO) I’ve ever seen. An amazingly good cause that’s well-executed and extremely thorough in organization.