Our Little iMac…

“Nothing can dim the light that shines within” – Maya Angelou

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There are many sayings about being a bright light to motivate others… iMac, my little wheelchair bound champion, embodied all of them and was not only a daily source of sheer joy, he was a constant inspiration and a firm reminder that when you get knocked down, you pick yourself back up and keep going.

I am so sad to be writing this tribute, but it is the very least I can do to honour the illuminating being that was iMac. To many people, he may have been just another dog, but to me and my family, iMac was a treasured and much loved friend.

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iMac has passed away, after a very quick and unexpected decline in his health. We noticed that he was not his usual, energetic, playful and noisy self, but he sadly passed away, before we were able to take him to the vet. His sudden death, has left us all in a deep state of mourning and I keep catching myself saying goodnight and good morning to him, every time I walk past his enclosure, despite the fact he has been gone now for several days…

I found iMac four years ago. He was a filthy mass of hard, matted hair, clusters of ticks, hundreds of fleas, months worth of poo stuck to his back legs and bottom… He was thin and covered in badly infected sores, caused by dragging himself along, desperately trying to survive.

I spotted him as we were driving to BLES and screeched to a halt. I was honestly convinced I had found a strange wild animal, as iMac was barely recognisable as a dog. I took a few deep breaths and then got out of the car.

I watched him drag himself across a heavily trafficked road, apparently oblivious of the speeding trucks and motorbikes. He moved towards a house and I decided to follow him. There was a woman lying in a hammock and I asked her is she knew the dog. She reluctantly grunted and after I explained that I ran a sanctuary, she waved me away, telling me to take the dog away.

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I was shocked at her lack of empathy and found myself at a loss for words. I looked down at the dirty and very stinky dog hovering around my ankles and he beamed up at me. His eyes were so bright, so full of love and life and that was it – right there – that was the moment I fell hopelessly in love with iMac.

I scooped him up and put him in the car. He panted with excitement and didnt once look back at his old house, his old life.

The next day, I took iMac for a haircut. To this day, I still get a lump in my throat when I remember his transformation. I was a nervous wreck as I waited for him to come out of the groomers. I had no idea what we were going to find underneath all that dirty, matted fur and I couldnt believe my eyes when he was carried out – he was a completely different dog!

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His hair was soft and so white. His eyes were even more alive and he was clearly thrilled with his new look as he kept trying to jump around!

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Again, I scooped him up. Our next stop was the hospital. X-rays showed several old breaks in his pelvis and back legs and we discussed our options for iMac. We decided to have a wheelchair made for him and I started creating an enclosure for him, that would keep him safe.

The past four years with iMac have been delightful. I always used to joke that iMac thought he was a rottweiler and it was a daily highlight to watch iMac zoom around in his wheelchair, running over everyone’s feet, terrorising our other, more patient dogs. He found friendship with Paws and Ladyboy, two of our rescued cats and brought big smiles to everyone who met him.

iMac was an absolute delight and was always eager to befriend new rescues, guiding them through their recoveries.

iMac was my little ray of sunshine and the sanctuary feels so empty without his energy. We do not know the cause of his death, but we do know that he was reborn the day he was rescued and lived every single day to the max. I am sure iMac didnt realise the extent of his injuries. In the four years he lived with us, he never once stopped playing, trying to stand and walk.

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Making the dogs dinner will never be the same now. iMac used to bark and bark at me, as he watched me prepare the dinner for the dogs and I would always talk back to him… Those conversations meant nothing to the rest of the world, but to me and iMac, our chats were such a high point.

I loved iMac so much and my heart breaks a little bit more, when reality kicks in.

iMac inspired so many people and touched the hearts of everyone who was lucky enough to meet him. Im so thankful I was able to be a a chapter in iMac’s life and am very proud of the special little being that he was.

I have planted a jasmine tree opposite his enclosure. The jasmine flower is white, sweet smelling, pretty and delicate. People continuously admire it’s beauty and sweet fragrance and I am confident that iMac’s story will forever be retold, when people appreciate his tree.

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Rest In Eternal Peace my darling boy. You were so loved xxxx

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To Ride or Not to Ride? – Should that even be a question?

There is thought to be an estimated 9500 captive elephants across Asia. Approximately, 3000 of those are currently being used for entertainment in tourism.

Thailand has the highest population of captive elephants in the whole of Asia and a shocking 77% of those elephants are ‘living’ in inadequate conditions.

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Basically, this means that elephants being kept in these facilities are chained to the ground on short chains, sometimes only 1 meter in length. If they are elephants that are known to play with the chain, they will also have their front feet shackled together or be secured by a back foot, as well as the front. There are several other factors that result in a captive elephant showing signs of distress: Lack of water, poor diet, being overworked, restricted movement, not being allowed to socialise, vocalise or display natural behaviours such as dirt throwing – the list goes on.

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And how do elephants show that they are stressed? Just like we do… Some elephants pace, rock, self harm, develop anorexia, cry, lash out, give up.

In 2005, Dr Gay Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. confirmed that elephants and chimpanzees were displaying signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She established that African elephants were exhibiting psychological symptoms. These included, inter- and intra-species aggression, depression, mood disorders, and emotional dysfunction, including infant neglect. All were related to a series of human-caused trauma: mass killings, translocations, social disruption, and habitat loss and degradation. Her findings were further supported by neuroscience research stating that the brain structures affected by trauma (cortical and subcortical areas of the right brain) are highly conserved across species.  (Bradshaw, G.A., Slotow, R.,Balfour, D. & Howison, O.Mahwah, N.J.: Erhbaum. )

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Over the past ten years, BLES has rescued 27 elephants. Each of these elephants have expressed various signs of long term psychological and physical strain. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the video of sweet Sontaya, swinging left to right, non stop, with so much vigour, she had inflammation around her shoulders. Permpoon had trust and aggression issues, Tong Jai, refuses to allow any other mahout, other than Anon, to get close to him – these are just three examples of elephants being wrecked by captivity and destroyed by tourism.

When release from abuse does occur, the road to recovery is not easy. Elephants coming to sanctuary experience tremendous improvements, yet they still carry the scars and burden of their past. Similar to human prisoners who survive, captive elephants are diagnosed with Complex PTSD, as well as other trauma-induced conditions.

The 14 elephants living at BLES are the fortunate ones. They have been removed from the torturous life of circus shows and back breaking rides. We are proud to be able to provide true sanctuary to our small family of elephants, but what about the remaining thousands that are still trapped?

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This is where YOU come in!

World Animal Protection – WAP, recently released a well researched document that revealed the frightening facts and figures behind elephant tourism in Asia. The study claims that 54% of people surveyed found it unacceptable to watch a show or performance involving wild animals.

The first time I read this, I was relieved to see that the percentage was over half. Then, it dawned on me – ONLY 54% of people surveyed – why so few?

In todays world, I passionately feel there are no excuses for contributing to the cruelty of captivity. We have so many resources available now, mostly Wifi and good old Dr Google, as well as TripAdvisor, to name a few. We can type in any question and within a fraction of a second, have the answer. There have been a number of documentaries made, highlighting what happens behind the scenes of elephant tourism. Articles, blogs, papers, but most importantly conversations, take place, all around the world, explaining why riding elephants is now not the number one thing to do, when you visit Thailand.

In the past ten years, there has been a visible increase in the number of elephant friendly facilities. These venues allow the elephants in their care to interact naturally, do not offer riding as an activity, allow tourists to observe the elephants and encourage visitors to gather food for the elephants, muck out sleeping areas, plant trees – lots of eco positive activity that is rewarding and does not encroach on elephant welfare.

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I guess the key thing in all of this is that we have to be prepared to put the animals, in this case, the elephants, first. We have to accept that we might not get to touch them, stand next to them, take a selfie with them, because despite what we have always been conditioned to believe, we, humans, do not have the right to invade another being’s (elephant’s) space.

I take a very firm stance on this controversial matter. I have always said that captivity is about compromise – there is no black and white approach to elephant tourism in Thailand and honestly, I do see both sides of the never ending arguments.

Mahouts and elephant owners are fed up of ill informed tourists, blaming them and wagging their fingers, accusing them of abusing their elephants. These tourists, of course, have the best of intentions, but often, behaving like this can end badly and mahouts end up resenting foreigners and ignoring their underlying message of compassion.

On the other hand, I can understand why tourists would be upset by seeing an elephant on a chain and jump to the wrong conclusion.

The simple fact is, if you want to get close to an elephant, throw buckets of water over it, feed it, touch it – nine times out of ten, those elephants will be stressed and will need to be controlled, either by being tethered or by a mahout carrying a hook or worse, hiding a nail in his hand.

The point I am trying to make is that you, as individuals, travelling to Thailand, have the power to really make a significant change for the captive elephants of Asia.

You are the ones who decide where to spend your money. If you continue to pay to watch elephant shows, the elephants will have to keep dancing. If you chose to sit in a bench, balanced on the back of an elephant, the elephants will continue to suffer. The camp owners and mahouts are meeting the demand that tourists are creating and now is the time to change that.

To be clear, I am not boycotting the hundreds of elephant camps in Thailand. Quite the opposite actually. I encourage people to go to the camps and instead of riding the elephants, pay to walk with the elephants. Imagine if every tourist did this? How quickly the face of elephant captivity would change?

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Instead of being critical, I urge you to try and relate to the hardships the thousands of mahouts face daily. The mahouts, like the elephants are victims and are often unfairly represented. It costs nothing to be compassionate. To be humane, not human.

The power to create change is within all of us and our gestures do not have to be grand or impressive. A simple, ethical choice to walk, not ride an elephant could start the ripples we need to end the cruelty once and for all. Every single one of you can make that move, take that step and be a part of ending the suffering.

As Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, Global Wildlife and Veterinary Advisor, World Animal Protection so eloquently puts it, “Once tourists understand the suffering, they will make the right choices. If you love wild animals and want to see them, choose to do so at a genuine elephant-friendly facility or in their natural habitat, through a responsible tour organiser.”

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When we know better, we do better – if you are travelling to Thailand, you owe it to the elephants to educate yourselves and empower others to be responsible travellers.

 

 

 

Sleep deep Permpoon, our pretty, pink lady…

It has taken me several days to gather the strength to announce the news of Permpoon’s passing…. To say her death has hit us all incredibly hard here at BLES, is putting it lightly…

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Permpoon was a lady of strength and poise. She represented patience, perseverance, determination and independence. Every time I watched Permpoon, gingerly make her way through the long grass, gathering big bundles and slowly stuffing them in to her mouth, I would always be filled with this overwhelming feeling of thankfulness. Her rescue was one of the most complicated BLES has ever embarked on. Egos, politics, drama and bureaucracy, stalled the rescue of Permpoon for three months. It was a very tough time for everyone involved, but no one more so than our pretty Permpoon. Tied to a tree, she stood in the same place, wondering why the world had forgotten her. She lost weight and her arthritic and achey body, suffered greatly from the lack of exercise and poor diet.

During those three months, I went to visit Permpoon to let her know we had no intention of giving up on her. We point blank refused to walk away from her rescue and I often get asked where I drew my strength from during those dark and confusing days. The truth is, I drew my strength from her – from Permpoon. Her deep, dark eyes were filled with such sadness, but when you looked past that, there was a shimmer of hope, a sparkle of determination and that was what kept me focused and driven – Permpoon’s staunch mission to survive and then thrive, under our care.

And thrive, she did! It really was such an honour to be around Permpoon. When she first arrived at BLES, she was a ball of anger and aggression. Her mahout, Phi Daam, fell in love with her instantly and was intent on building a friendship with Permpoon, based on trust and respect. I remember watching him, nervously reaching through the bars of the quarantine house, to feed Permpoon and every time she would lash out in his direction. He would respond calmly, telling her it was ok. Telling her, he loved her and would again reach out with his hand to offer her reassurance.

Permpoon was a tough cookie and it took Phi Daam about a week to gain her trust completely. I remember the tears of excitement in his eyes when he came to me and said he felt she was strong enough to join our other elephants on a walk in to the forest. Together, Phi Daam and I walked out with Permpoon. She was slow and so fragile, but – and this is the thing about her I will always hold on to – she was SO DETERMINED. Her delicate frame masked her fierceness. She had an inner strength that blinded us all, right until she drew her last breath…

Permpoon had been collapsing on and off for the past twelve months. Her ageing body, that had been through six decades of exhausting labour, was beginning to give out, but Permpoon’s will to live on, motivated us to keep on helping her stand and give her the best possible care we could.

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On Christmas Day morning, Permpoon collapsed again. We all knew what we had to do and  swiftly set up the tripod and hoist. It quickly became apparent that Permpoon’s body was not strong enough to stand and so, after several attempts, we agreed to remove the harnesses and let Permpoon rest. We surrounded her with blankets and rigged up a giant tent to protect her from the sun. I sat with her for hours, holding her trunk in both of my hands, telling her how loved she was and that it was ok to let go. Her breathing was laboured and she refused to eat or drink. As the sun set, so did my hopes of Permpoon ever standing again…

Permpoon’s mahout did not leave her side. He slept in a hammock, with a small fire burning beside them and kept a 24 hour vigil.

We all expected Permpoon to pass during the night, but we should have known better. The next morning, Permpoon was moving, swinging her legs and lifting her head up. She was trying to stand and as the mahouts speedily prepared everything, I held Permpoon’s trunk and told her that as long as she wanted to fight, we would fight with her.

We spent the next four hours cheering Permpoon on, helping her rise, allowing her intervals of rest and following her lead. We massaged her legs to encourage blood circulation and we supported her with all our physical strength when she searched for something to lean on.

Permpoon did stand again. Her legs were shaking and once again, her breathing was laboured. We could all see how hard she was trying and we all wanted to help her so desperately, but when I looked up in to her eyes, I could see straight away that her spirit was gone. I told the mahouts to slowly release the hoist and undo the harnesses. I was heartbroken, but knew that Permpoon’s time had come.

As she lay on the ground, motionless, Phi Daam went to her, with tears openly rolling down his face and whispered to her that he loved her. I believe it was at that very moment that Permpoon passed and am so proud that the last words she heard, were words of genuine and unconditional love.

One by one, the mahouts said their goodbyes, wishing Permpoon well and telling her to come back to them again. I waited until the very end and when they were all gone, I wrapped my arms around her head and sobbed uncontrollably. I am not sure how long I stayed there, embracing her… I just didn’t want to let her go.

We have buried Permpoon beside Sweet Sontaya, close to Sao Noi and Naamfon. Sitting amongst their graves, I am consumed with so much grief and heaviness, which is often hard to articulate. It is tempting to allow the sadness to consume me, but I hold these girls and all the other special souls we have lost over the years, so deep in my heart. I treasure the memories they have gifted us with over the years and I am just so grateful to be able to have given them back, what should have always been theirs, before it was too late.

2016 has been an emotional and at times, soul-destroying year. But in those moments of misery, I have searched for the lesson and I am thankful to be able to always gain something positive from my pain.

I am so sorry to deliver such sad news, but wish you all a wonderful, safe, happy and healthy new year. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, for the constant strength and support you all give so generously to us – BLES is a family and we send love to you all.

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Rest well Permpoon. You were SO loved and admired… We will never, ever forget you… xx

 

Ngor: Our friend and brother…

It is with very mixed emotions that I write this entry… I am so sad, but I am also incredibly proud and grateful for being able to share the last 10 months with the stately Seedor Ngor.

Ngor was in his seventies and in a very delicate state when we welcomed him in to our family here at BLES, back in December 2015. We all knew his time with us would be short lived and knew that each day spent with him was a gift. Ngor astounded us all with his determination to live every day fully. Up until his very last breath, he lived in the forest, surrounded by friends, free to be a bull again… Yesterday morning, at approximately 5am, Ngor lay his old and frail body down on the ground, closed his eyes and passed peacefully away, in to his next life.

We had all noticed that Ngor had started to lose weight in the last two weeks and he was looking weaker than ever. This however did not stop him from going on our daily walks and splashing in the river. The day before he died, he impressed us all by digging up a huge bamboo shoot. He spent almost an hour devouring it, ripping it in to shreds and throwing them around before eating them. He swished his tail and flapped his ears and it was clear to see how content he was. He didnt have a care in the world. He was happy and so was his devoted friend, his owner and mahout of 27 years, Phi Dam.

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Phi Dam knew Ngor’s time was coming to an end. He tended to Ngor’s every single need and I am confident that Ngor passed away, knowing how loved and admired he was.

I have shed many tears for Ngor and Phi Dam. Their relationship was remarkable. Watching them together in the forest was so inspiring and I will miss that so much. Phi Dam would whisper to Ngor, guiding him to the softest leaves and thickest bushes and Ngor responded instinctively. Once Phi Dam knew that Ngor was comfortable, he would climb in to a tree and watch his friend graze. Phi Dam would gaze at Ngor, never taking his eyes off of him, smiling sweetly as Ngor would slowly disappear in to the dense foliage. The two of them truly understood each other and shared a mutual respect. The fact that we were able to share just a snippet of this unique bond is something I will always feel deeply thankful for.

After Ngor’s funeral, Phi Dam and I spent some time reminiscing. We smiled when we spoke of Ngor’s love to lie on his side in the river and close his eyes… We laughed when we remembered the day Pang Noi and Pang Suai accosted him and decided he would be their new friend… Then, we both wiped away tears when we talked about Ngor walking through the long grass in Heaven and finding his old friend, Somai… Phi Dam placed his hand on his heart and smiled. He thanked me for taking Ngor in and giving him the best days of his long life. He told me how proud he was that Ngor, who he calls his brother, got to be a real elephant again and said he knew Ngor would have died months ago, if it hadnt been for his time at BLES.

Although we will never see Ngor’s striking and individual face or be in his humbling presence again, I am reluctant to say he has died. Ngor lives on in our hearts and we will always celebrate the strength and dignity he graced us with until the very end. He was a friend to us all and every day shared with him was a blessing.

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Walk tall and proud Ngor… Now and forever, you will always live on in us. Thank you for allowing us in to your world. You were such a lovely old boy xx

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Bringing Nwon Back to BLES

“Home is a place where your feet might leave, but your heart will always be”….

Nwon is a sixty year old bull, who is blind in one eye. On the 1st December 2015, he was one of four bulls from our local village of Baan Tuek, to come to BLES, as part of a retirement plan. You can read all about how the four bulls, Nwon, Ngor, Mr Moo and Sompord, came to be at BLES here – https://blesele.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/the-bulls-of-baan-tuek/

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When the owners of the four bulls approached BLES and asked for our help, we knew we had to act quickly. There was no time to launch a fundraiser to buy the bulls, as their combined worth would have been a substantial amount to raise. It would have been unrealistic to raise such an ambitious amount and risky to expect the owners to wait for the funds to be raised, before bringing their bulls to BLES.

So, BLES came to an agreement with the owners, that the bulls would be leased on a permanent basis. The agreement was verbal and as I have stated before, this is how we have always and will always handle negotiations – based on trust and the belief that we are all working together for the good of the animals. I know there will be many people out there who will find this approach laughable and I understand why in your world, this management style would not be acceptable. However, the fact is, in our rural community, this is how business has always been conducted.

This method has never failed me, until very recently…

I was shocked and appalled to my core, when the owner of Nwon came to me on the morning of the 28th September 2016, to tell me that people were coming to collect Nwon and take him to Surin. I had to ask her to repeat herself three times, as I just couldnt comprehend what she was saying. After almost 12 months of BLES caring and providing for Nwon, she was going back on her word and even worse – she went behind our backs and sold Nwon.

I was confused, furious and devastated – how could she be so deceitful and not give a single thought to Nwon’s welfare? I see now, that she was only thinking about money. We will never know why she acted the way she did, but in a way, to me, none of that matters anymore, because after our most powerful fundraising campaign to date, Nwon is back at BLES – he is home.

I left BLES with my amazing team of mahouts at 4am. We were all in the one truck and it was such a bumpy ride! We laughed and chatted as the night sky faded away and the sun started to rise and I knew we were all feeling the same emotions – pride and excitement. I kept looking over at Phi Nit, who beamed back at me every time he caught my eye. He was so animated and I couldnt wait for him to be reunited with Nwon again.

It took us 16 hours to get to Surin. We were achey and exhausted, but eager to see our boy. We walked out, through the small village, towards a grassy area. Nwon was there, secured beside a lake and he looked well. I had been so nervous as we neared Surin, wondering what kind of state Nwon would be in. Worrying that he would be wounded… I was so relieved to see Nwon look strong, calm and content. His owners had taken good care of him and there was not a single injury or scar on him.

Phi Nit walked straight up to Nwon and wrapped his arms around Nwon’s front leg. He held on to him for several minutes and as I watched him with tears in my eyes, I realised he was crying too. Phi Nit then rubbed Nwon down and kept reaching up to Nwon’s face, talking to him the entire time. Nwon, who had been happily eating, froze and then started smelling Phi Nit and purring. He shook his head and roared and it was one of the most spectacular sights. Nwon remembered his old friend, Phi Nit and was clearly very happy to see him. Phi Nit walked towards me, wiping big tears from his eyes and thanked me for bringing Nwon home. He told me he loved him very much and would never leave his side… I hadnt realised until that moment, that the Bring Nwon Back to BLES campaign, wasnt just about bringing Nwon back home, it was about bringing back two friends, who had been cruelly separated… The love that Phi Nit has for Nwon is beautiful.

It took us all day to get the paperwork sorted out. Once everything was in place, the owners prepared a big dinner for us to celebrate Nwon’s journey back home.

Nwon walked on to the truck easily and he remained calm and patient throughout the 14 hour drive back to BLES.

As we were driving up the road to BLES, I opened the window, to smell the morning air. The sun was rising and I looked up at Nwon behind me and he was also smelling the air. I could feel his deep purrs and a rush of excitement shot through my body – he knew he was home!!

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We were greeted by lots of trumpets from the other elephants and as soon as Nwon was unloaded from the truck, he started grazing and dusting himself down. Phi Nit then led him to the hose, so he could have a cooling drink. Nwon’s trunk was high in the air again and I knew exactly what he was thinking – “Where are my girls?”

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We had prepared a huge welcome home buffet for Nwon and as soon as he started to enjoy it, Pang Suai and Pang Noi came hurriedly down the hill and greeted their old friend with lots of gentle touches and purrs. The three of them stood, shoulder to shoulder, eating all the different fruits that had been laid out in a heart shape for them.

I sat on the grass watching them and once again found myself wiping away tears. Tears of pride, relief, joy and exhaustion. This was an epic and emotional journey. From the moment I announced Nwon’s departure from BLES, to launching the fundraiser, to driving through the night to Surin, to seeing Phi Nit and Nwon being reunited, to being in the grass, at BLES watching Nwon live like a real elephant again… Every sleepless night, every critical comment, every stress filled minute – it was ALL worth it. I love what I do and will never stop fighting for a compassionate world.

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I can not thank everyone who played a part in bringing Nwon home to BLES enough. We would never have been able to liberate Nwon without you and your incredible support. Once again, the BLES family has proved what can be accomplished when a community of kind hearted and like minded people, come together. I am so proud of you all. I am so proud of Phi Nit, but most of all, I am so, so, so, proud of our beautiful old boy, Nwon.

Welcome home darling boy… We are your forever home now, your sanctuary and you are so loved xx

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Sweet Dreams, Sweet Sontaya…

Once again, I am sitting here broken-hearted. Our sweet old girl, Sontaya, who’s health had started to decline in recent weeks, has passed away.

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Sontaya was such a gentle, sweet and loving soul. Her wisdom and grace, radiated from her beautiful, wrinkled (and hairy) face and everyone who had the honour of being in her presence, fell deeply in love with her.

We rescued Sontaya from a busy tourist camp in Pattaya, back in May 2016. Sontaya was thin and spent her days walking in circles, carrying heavy tourists on her protruding back bone. The nights did not provide much relief for Sontaya, as she was tied to a stake in the ground, on a very short chain, surrounded by piles of trash and burning dung and nothing to stare at but the numerous building sites and skyscrapers that litter the city of Pattaya.

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When we were contacted by the owners, it was clear that they loved her very much and wanted to do the right thing by Sontaya and retire her to BLES. We set about raising the funds and over 300 people donated towards saving Sontaya – https://blesele.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/sontaya-needs-saving/

The elephant world was smitten with Sontaya and her rescue was a huge celebration – https://blesele.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/sontaya-is-home/

Sontaya was with us for five months. One of the hardest realities that BLES has to come to terms with every time we rescue an elderly elephant, is that they probably will not be with us for very long. This is exactly why we are 100% committed to ensuring every single day that passes, is filled with freedom, friendship, peace, respect and love.

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Every single day with Sontaya was a gift.

Once again, we have been reminded that it isn’t about the length of time the elephants have with us… The most important thing, is that they are with us. That they get to live at least a small part of their life as they always should have. That they get to rediscover themselves and know what it is to be an elephant before they leave this world. This world, that has done so wrong by them… BLES is a sanctuary, but it is also my apology to the elephants. The first thing I say to an elephant that we find working in the tourism industry is, “I am so sorry” I founded BLES because I wanted to represent the human race and show the elephants how incredibly sorry we were for all we had done to them – snatching them from the wild, breaking their spirits, putting them to work, exploiting them and grinding them to death – just to name a few of the shameful things humans have done to elephants over the years….

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I had been away from BLES for two days on business and on the morning I was due back, I had frantic messages from Sontaya’s mahout, Dom, asking me to call. I knew instantly that something was seriously wrong with Sontaya and jumped in the car and started driving home. I spoke to David and Phi Sot, who said through tears, that Sontaya was weak and clearly letting go. I burst in to tears, told the driver to hurry and started praying for Sontaya.

As soon as I arrived at BLES, I went to Sontaya’s side. She was lying peacefully on the grass and there were no signs of her being stressed or struggling. The mahouts had rigged up some shade for her and I sat with her, rubbing my hands over her hollow temples, her kind face and down her soft trunk, whispering to her to let go. I told her how loved she was, how sorry I was and told her again, to let go… Sontaya took a deep breath and then did just that – she let go.

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We were all with her when she passed. Dom, her devoted and now heartbroken mahout, Phi Sot, our head mahout, David, my assistant and myself – we sat on the grass, surrounded by nature, surrounding Sontaya with as much love and respect as we could. She left this world knowing she was adored and appreciated and I think that is what we would ask for in our final moments of life.

Sontaya has been buried on the hill, behind Naamfon and Sao Noi. We sprinkled flowers petals in to her grave and over her body and Dom laid out an elaborate fruit feast for our darling Sontaya.

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The funeral was so moving and so fitting for our sweet old girl. As the monks chanted, our tears were kissed in sympathy by raindrops. As I sat, breathing in the smell of the rain, I closed my eyes and visualised Sontaya walking through the thick, long grass before us. Despite my tears and my heartache, I smiled, because at long last, Sontaya was truly free.

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Walk on Sontaya: Walk through the fields and forests and be free. Thank you for allowing us to be just a small piece of your long life. We will love you forever and I will think of you everyday, until the day we are reunited, as I watch the sunset over BLES.

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Sleep well sweet girl… Sweet dreams Sontaya xx

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I do not have the words….

“You never know how strong you really are, until being strong is the only choice you have”…

I am at a total loss for words right now.

I can not believe this.

I am confused, upset and angry – very, very, angry.

On the 1st December 2015, BLES welcomed four beautiful bulls in to our family. The bulls, Mr Moo, Sompord, Ngor and Nwon, were all local boys who’s owners could not afford to keep them anymore. The owners wanted their bulls retired and wanted them to live out the rest of their lives, enjoying freedom with us here at BLES – https://blesele.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/the-bulls-of-baan-tuek/

At least, this is what we were told.

There really is no easy way of sharing this news, so I am just going to be honest and announce that Nwon is no longer with us. Despite us working hard to maintain good and open relations, Nwon’s owners deceitfully and selfishly went behind our backs and sold him.

The owner did not even have the decency to tell the mahout that had cared for Nwon for the past eight years and we are stunned by her lack of respect and ability to cheat.

Those of you who know me, will know that I always try to see the best in people and try to see the good in every lesson, no matter how awful and trying it may be. This time, however, I am so mad. I can not believe that to this woman, Nwon meant nothing more than a lump sum of money.

The past ten months have been incredible. Each of the bulls have added so much diversity and strength to our rescued elephant family. It has taken them all different lengths of time to adjust and relax around our females and it has brought us all so much joy to watch them rediscover themselves. Nwon, was slow to integrate. He was eventually taken in by Pang Suai and Pang Noi and these last few months have been beyond joyful, watching the three of them freely and naturally interact with each other and bond.

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Of course, I am proud of all our elephants, but Nwon was so captivating and impressive. He had this intimidating air around him that had me infatuated. In just a few months, he had let go of his infamous aggressive nature and life of shackles. With the help of his faithful mahout, Phi Nit and his new found friends, Pang Suai and Pang Noi,  Nwon was emerging as a calm, strong and confident bull.

We loved Nwon – No. We love love Nwon and are genuinely heartbroken by this rude and totally unexpected departure. We have the contact information of his new owners and we have every intention of keeping in touch with them.

I am very aware that I am now going to have to deal with all your frustration and all I can do is accept the inevitable criticism and questions. Trusting people and believing they want the best for their animals might seem like a crazy notion to many of you, but this is how I have always managed BLES and despite this disappointing development, I will continue to conduct every future rescue, respectfully and with faith that we can all be trusted to be honest and open with each other. I refuse to change my principles, based on the behaviour of one hollow hearted human.

Since this sudden turn of events, we have spoken to the owners of the other three bulls, who assure us they have no intention of removing their bulls from BLES. I feel confident in their commitment to our partnership and feel positive about the future for them all.

We are planning on visiting Nwon as soon as we can and I will share an update, even though it will be upsetting…

I am so sorry for all of you. I am so sorry for Pang Suai and Pang Noi. I am so sorry for the BLES family and in particular, Phi Nit, who has now lost his job. Most of all, I am sorry Nwon. I wish there was a way to let you know how much we adored you and how devastated we are at all of this. If your owner had been honest with us, we could have saved you…. I will never turn my back on you and I have hope that you will come back to us again one day… Be strong beautiful boy – BE STRONG xx

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Progress = Success!

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Nepal is a diverse and dynamic country and I have just returned from yet another life altering experience there.

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The Kingdom of Nepal is home to Mount Everest, The highest point in the world. The land of the brave Gurkha soldiers, the birthplace of Lord Buddha and origin to the world’s greatest mountaineers, the Sherpas. Nepal is also where some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever had the pleasure to meet, reside. It is rich with wildlife: It is home to 2% of all flowering plants in the world, 848 species of birds, 167 species of mammals, 500 species of butterfly families, 600 indigenous plant families and 319 exotic species of orchids.

This was my third trip to Nepal and my second to the eco friendly lodge, Tiger Tops.

Tiger Tops was first founded in the early 1960’s, with a focus on nature conservation. Many changes and improvements have taken place over the past forty plus years, but the underlining ethos of responsible tourism and nature conservation, established by the late A.V. Jim Edwards and Dr Chuck McDougal, has remained central to every development put in place to date – http://www.tigertops.com/tharu-lodge/

Elephant Aid International – A Carol Buckley Project, has been partnering with Tiger Tops for the past four months, to help improve the welfare of the 14 resident elephants. In that short space of time, all 14 elephants now live completely chain free. Riding on the back of the elephants has now stopped and the use of bull hooks, ceased. These changes are substantial, powerfully positive and should be applauded by us all.

It is not easy to create change, particularly when it involves culture, traditions and language barriers – this is something I know a lot about!! Elephants are also not easy to manage. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have elephants in captivity at all. However, I think we are all very aware that this world of ours, as beautiful as it is, is broken and far from ideal.

I was excited to see the changes implemented at Tiger Tops and was endlessly grateful to Carol Buckley for hosting her very first foot care workshop there, to share her experience and knowledge on elephant foot care management. Attending the workshop opened the door for me to travel and see the changes for myself.

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Carol is a champion, in every sense of the word. I feel honoured to call her my friend and am constantly inspired by her drive, determination and dedication to elephant welfare. Carol leads by example and thanks to her diplomatic nature, she now has thousands of followers from all around the world, including NGOs, governments and communities.

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The workshop was phenomenal. From the delicious vegan meals, to the welcoming Tiger Tops staff, the stunning surroundings, the calm (and calming) elephants, the sweet mahouts, the wonderful women joining the workshop, the rich wildlife, the friendly local community and the skills I was able to learn – I can not fault a single thing!

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Our days started early (5am) and with a steaming hot cup of coffee (or green tea) delivered with a warm smile to our bedroom doors. Most mornings we walked for 2km, through the jungle, down to the Narayani River, to cut grass for the elephants. As we worked alongside the mahouts, cutting and gathering the grass, the elephants either played in the river or grazed. The elephants were free to behave naturally and were clearly very happy, which was not only incredible to witness, but was all the motivation we needed to work up a sweat!

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After a belly filling breakfast of scrambled tofu, and ‘over night oats’, we walked down to the elephant camp where the elephants roamed freely in their chain free corrals, created by Elephant Aid International – http://www.elephantaidinternational.org/projectsDetail.php?recordID=11

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Each habitat area is five acres and holds three or four elephants, who have formed strong friendship groups. The mahouts do a sterling job of maintaining the fences and keeping the habitats clean and it is awe-inspiring how they have embraced the recent changes put in place.

Guided by Carol and the mahouts, we set to work on the elephant’s feet. Maintaining healthy feet in captive elephants is one of the most important, yet most difficult tasks for elephant carers across the globe. Foot health has become a serious issue for elephants living in captivity and it is now believed that poor foot health is the biggest cause of death for captive elephants. Inactivity, poor husbandry practices, too much time spent on short chains, can cause a long list of painful and life threatening problems. Cracked nails can quickly lead to infection and then osteomyelitis, which is irreversible, not to mention agonising for the elephant.  If ignored, a cracked toe nail can cause the toe bones to disintegrate. This is normally followed by the elephant’s physical collapse and inevitable death.

Carol was a tolerant teacher and shared her years of experience with us generously. It was amazing to be able to learn these life saving skills and as I sat, straddled over an elephant’s back foot, rasp in hand, carefully filing down an overgrown nail, I took a moment to breath it all in. The elephants really were incredibly patient and calm with us. The mahouts were always on hand to feed treats to the elephants, rewarding them for being so good natured. Between us all, elephants included, we worked well together. The energy was steady, calm and the results were beyond rewarding.

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Most days, we headed back down to the river, where we sat watching the elephants play, until the sun set. This time was so special and healing to us all. As I watched the elephants roll in the water, it dawned on me that Kristjan Edwards and his loyal team of naturalists and mahouts at Tiger Tops, are singlehandedly leading the way for captive elephant welfare. These 14 elephants have not been ‘rescued’ and removed from camps, transported across the county to live in sanctuary. These lucky elephants have been able to remain within their friendship groups, with their faithful mahouts, in their familiar home and this is EXACTLY the change we are all striving for.

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Tiger Tops are proving that mahouts can earn a living without forcing elephants to entertain tourists. This might sound obvious to you and me, but this is, believe it or not, a myth that has been started by a group of anti sanctuary activists, right here in Thailand!

Tiger Tops is not a sanctuary: It is a shining example of how elephant welfare, when prioritised, can in turn improve the welfare of mahouts and provide an even richer experience to travellers wanting to spend time with elephants.

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I will forever treasure the memories made at Tiger Tops and am so grateful to have had the opportunity to make new, life long friends – Namaste to you all xx

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Nature’s Greatest Masterpiece – The Elephant

Today is World Elephant Day – a day to honour and respect all that it means to be elephant. But what exactly does this mean ?

Elephants should be able to make their own choices in life. They should be in charge of where they want to go and what they want to do. They should have access to endless amounts of natural fodder and should be protected by their family or friendship groups. They should be free of human invasion and they should, very simply, be happy.

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There are estimated to be 2000-4000 captive elephants in living in Thailand today. The majority of these elephants work in tourism, performing in shows, giving rides, posing for photos…. Most of these elephants do not have access to a natural or healthy diet. A number of these elephants spend their days tethered on a short chain to a post, standing in rancid puddles of their own urine, surrounded by piles of old dung and trash and have nothing but sky-high hotels and shopping plazas to look at. Many of these elephants stereotype, limp, pace and display aggressive behaviour and I think it is about time more people are asking WHY??

We live in a very privileged society. We have access to limitless information, literally at our fingertips. We can Google search any single thought that drifts in to our head and this is why I am left, day after day, frustrated and confused.

I travel the beautiful Kingdom of Thailand extensively, researching and gathering documentation on the captive elephant situation. I am always left feeling let down. Not let down by the camps or even by the owners of the camps or mahouts of the elephants. My disappointment is directed at the tourists and the thoughtless, selfish way they scramble on to the backs of the elephants, laugh and take photographs of the calves performing their gymnastic displays and walk past the elephants as they swing from side to side out of desperation. I can not fathom how someone travelling to Thailand would not do their research and read all the well thought out blogs, articles and posts that are so readily available on the internet and I honestly feel that there is no excuse in today’s world, for not knowing how damaging your fifteen minute ride or thirty minute show is for these elephants.

Where you spend your money matters and really does make a difference. On this day – World Elephant Day, I ask you to PLEASE think twice about using elephants, tigers, horses, monkeys, etc for your personal pleasure, for your selfie, for your fifteen minutes of fun. Please take the time to find out exactly how your actions affect these animals who are generally kept in appalling conditions, because there are so many eco and ele friendly projects out there, that can offer you a meaningful, unique and safe experience that ensures the wellbeing of everyone – you and the elephant.

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Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary – BLES has been striving forward in our mission to provide true sanctuary for all the animals in our care, since our inception ten years ago. Here at BLES, our seventeen elephants live peacefully and freely and thrive in our care. We have an expert team of mahouts who share a combined passion, wealth of knowledge, hands on experience and deep understanding of humane elephant management. On this World Elephant Day, I want to celebrate each and every one of our mahouts, because without them and their devotion and dedication, our elephants would not be able to be what they were born to be – elephants.

Our BLESele family has been enjoying spending long, lazy days grazing in the forested land BLES has protected for them. All the recent storms have ensured a plentiful supply of lush foliage for them to feast on and lots of muddy pools for them to splash in.

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There is no greater joy than watching one of our elephants wander through the forest, snapping off branches and stopping only to have a good scratch on a tree, before they soak their feet in the stream and spend hours throwing thick, wet mud all over their body. Our elephants do not have a care in the world and this is how we wish all captive elephants could live….  By working together, sharing knowledge, raising awareness and leading by example – I believe all captive elephant CAN live like this.

As I end this entry, I wonder how long it will take for people to realise that if it is wrong to sit on top of an elephant, then it is just as wrong to sit under one. Elephants are not here for our ego boosting exercises or personal gain. They are not here to serve us in any way, shape or form. Elephants are here, walking this earth, to simply and beautifully, be.

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Saying Farewell to Sweet Sao Noi…

There is such an intense and overwhelming ache in my heart right now. It consumes my entire chest and sits, stagnant in my stomach, along with the bundle of knots that have been increasing in size over the past few days…

Life can seem so unfair at times and I have found myself spinning in a non stop cycle of confusion and frustration to relief and understanding.

Here at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), we pride ourselves on taking in elderly elephants and giving them back what should have always been theirs – their freedom, their dignity, their right to chose… We cherish every moment of discovery as the elephants regain their strength and recover from the trauma of working in the tourism industry. Each elephant reacts to their retirement differently. Some of them form firm friendships, some of them focus on eating and replenishing their exhausted bodies, some of them explore every inch of our forested land and walk several miles each day… it can be an emotional rollercoaster walking side by side with our elephants as they go from strength to strength. All of us wish more than anything that their time with us will be long, that their days will be many and their lives will go on and on.

Sadly, this is not always how it works.

Sometimes, when we watch our fragile new arrivals take their first few shaky steps of freedom, we burst with pride for them. Yet, at the same time we share a silent sadness, because we all know that despite our tireless efforts, expert care and endless amounts of love, these beautiful old and oh so wise souls, will not be with us for very long.

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This was the case for our most recent rescue, Sao Noi. Her skeletal body told the unthinkable horror stories from her past that none of us wanted to hear. Her tired eyes were filled with haunting shadows that tore at your soul. But, her smile, sweet, warm and gentle, reminded us that no matter how incredibly tough life seems at times, there is always hope and there is always BLES.

Sao Noi’s health has been a big concern for us and we have kept her on round the clock care since she arrived just over one month ago now. She has blown us away with her inner strength and determination to live every day as if it were her last and now, as I sit here, typing about her passing, I wonder if she knew, more than we did, that her days on this earth were coming to an end.

Sao Noi loved being out in the forest. She would explore every little bit, of every bush, every tree, every puddle and field. She loved the company of people and would often approach us, just to be close to us. Sao Noi also loved the company of her own kind, Boon Thong and Permpoon being two of her closest friends. Sao Noi loved her food and would make quick work of the healthy options we offered her. She loved to smother herself in thick mud and she LOVED a good scratch!

Sao Noi loved her life and we loved watching her live every meaningful moment.

Sao Noi has taught us that the true meaning of contentment, is living, breathing and feeling every single moment. Being in the moment and embracing what it brings….

These past few days have been some of the most emotionally exhausting for the BLES family. We have all been hands on, supporting Sao Noi in her moments of need and doing everything we possibly could to make her as comfortable as possible. She stood so paitently when the vets from TECC came to administer emergency IV fluids and she trusted in us so whole heartedly when we were hoisting her back on to her feet, after she had collapsed.

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The moment she passed from this world on to the next, will always be etched in the depths of my heart. With her eyes closed, she let out a deep and long purr… I sat with her, stroking her and told her over and over how very loved she was. I closed my eyes and listened to everything she was listening to. The playful songs of the birds, the rythum of the raindrops, the gentle breeze – all we could hear, as we lay on the ground, were the sounds of nature.

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I am so proud of the easy passing Sao Noi made. I am grateful that we were able to watch her thrive and I am thankful for every precious moment we shared. My heart is full of thanks for my mahouts and their genuine compassion and incredible dedication to Sao Noi’s wellbeing. As always, I am indebted to you, our wonderful supporters around the world who made the rescue of Soa Noi happen. I am so appreciative to Sao Noi’s previous owner for letting her go.

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We held a beautiful ceremony in celebration of Sao Noi’s long life. The head monks from our local temples came and blessed her body and then we buried Sao Noi in the forest, beside beautiful Naamfon, who passed away in October of last year.

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We all made offerings of fruit and flowers and Phi Sot, our head mahout, covered Sao Noi’s eyes with a small towel, as he didn’t want the dirt to spoil her pretty eyes. As he lay the towel down, he touched her cheek and told her to go and find Somai. He told her that Somai would take care of her.

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Once the digger truck had finished covering Sao Noi’s body, Phi Gom, Sao Noi’s mahout, planted grass and pineapple heads in a circle for her. Even though the time they had spent together was short, the impact Sao Noi made on Phi Gom was profound. Wiping away tears, he told us that he would never forget her sweet smile.

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None of us will ever be able to foget Sao Noi and the joy she brought to our lives. Although my tears are still falling, I sit here and smile, as I imagine her walking through the long grass, together with Somai, Naamfon and all the other souls we have been blessed to share our world with. I miss her so much, but I am also filled with a sense of relief for Sao Noi. She is no longer trapped in this life that wore down her body and broke her spirit. She is well and truly, free….. God bless her beautiful being.

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