Overflowing with gratitude

I’ve been home for three days. Most of it I’ve spent sleeping. The rest of it, I’ve spent wondering how things can be just the same and yet so completely different. I am different, my life will be different from now on. I have officially thrown aside any fall back plans to return to life as usual. It still seems absurd even to me, but I will dedicate the rest of my life to captive elephants.

I have so many people to thank for making this life-changing trip happen.

First of all to Dr. Gay Bradshaw, who wrote the book that changed my life, took me under her wing, gave me all the knowledge and tools and then introduced me into the “elephant world.” When she proposed I go to Thailand and India as a Kerulos intern, my mouth dropped. But she gave me the courage to go.

To Katherine Connor, for showing me that one person with enough love can do so much. She is the matriarch of the most amazing team of people, human and nonhuman. This family welcomed me with open arms and gave me the most joyful month of my life, full of laughter and never ending kindness. To all the beautiful, brave, strong eles, dogs, cats, monkey, etc who never let go even in the worst conditions, who showed me that no matter how old or broken you are, life can begin again. To David Owen, one of the best people I have ever met, for being my guide and translator. Your loving spirit is infectious, there is no limit to how much you will accomplish and I am honored to be your friend.

To Suparna Ganguly, Anand Jacob, Shilpa Mahbubani, Supraja Dharini, John Flynn, Kishore Kumar, Pugal, Harif Parengal and everyone else from WRRC, CUPA, and TREE Foundation who took such great care of me in the culture shock that is India! Thank you for sending me off on an all India tour, for giving me the opportunity to witness what is hard, but so important, to see. For trusting me and letting me help and offering endless encouragement. Most of all, to the elephants I met in the temples, the riding elephants, the zoo elephants: I have seen your suffering. I won’t turn away, I won’t stop fighting. You deserve so much better, hang in there.

To my mom and dad, for trusting me and being proud of me for taking a step so far from the social norm! They are always there for me, loving me, listening to me, having faith in me.

To my sister, who first inspired me to look deeper, expand my circle of compassion and go vegan. This has given me such peace within myself. Also for being my best friend for 25 years and counting.

To the friends who are genuinely interested in my passions, who have real conversations about it, who never say silly things like “w\When are you going to get married?” Or “Why don’t you want kids?”

To Joseph for putting up with my “radical” ideas, listening to me, and bragging about me. For always being there to Skype and for taking the most loving care of the other man in my life while I was gone. Thanks to the other guy too, my Odie, for being the light of my life and waiting patiently for my return.

To my Canisius colleagues, all with big plans to help animals themselves, for following my journey and giving support. To the professors for being inspirational and overflowing with passion for what they do. Special shout out to Margo DeMello for introducing me to Dr. Bradshaw, and Paul Waldau for assigning the article “An Elephant Crackup” in my first class.

To the donors who financially made this trip possible. Who had faith in me and my mission and gave without questioning or judgment. I hope I have proven myself worthy of your graciousness.

Elephant Journeys

I know, I know, its been entirely too long since I’ve made a post! I have been all over India with sporadic internet access. I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around all I’ve seen and thinking, “How can I possibly share this in a way that means anything?”

My first journey was to Mysore. I visited the elephants at Mysore Zoo, where a young male spent his day chained on a concrete platform while the other eight roamed around the enclosure and cooled off in the pool. I don’t know why he was being held there, with no access to water, stretching and straining and pulling on the chains.


Miserable and unable to move at Mysore Zoo.

Then I went to Mysore Palace, where riding elephants spend all day on hot pavement, walking endless circles with tourists on their back. They are given no water or rest and bear the marks of their mahouts’ bullhooks on their foreheads and the wounds from the chains that constantly encircle their ankles.


Exhausted and dehydrated at Mysore Palace.

After a short break back in Chennai, where I saw something that gives the promise of hope (which I will reveal later!), I headed to Kerala, to the site of the (in)famous Thrissur Pooram festival. I was supposed to accompany an inspection team appointed by the Animal Welfare Board of India to see the elephants commissioned to appear in the festival. However, the forest department officers and elephant owners disallowed their entrance and they were not able to do their job. This sign of how tense the situation is made the front page of the newspaper the next day. I watched the elephants along with all the tourists as they arrived, stepping off of trucks, walking through burgeoning crowds, chains jingling. Their mahouts parked them beneath the trees where many of them swayed or bobbed in stereotypic agony. They too wore the wounds of captivity, displayed for all to see, yet few notice.


The kings of the jungle, submissive and broken after years of abuse. Thrissur, Kerala.

I also visited Guruvayoor temple, where more than 40 elephants spend 23 hours a day tied to the same spot. Here again was the endless stereotypic swaying and bobbing. To me, the pain there was palpable, but the smiles on other visitors’ faces showed again how little most people understand. Pressure has increased so much that the temple no longer allows photos, but I was able to sneak a few.

Mighty tuskers, chained 23 hours a day and at the mercy of their mahouts, Guruvayoor Temple, Kerala.

Mighty tuskers, chained 23 hours a day and at the mercy of their mahouts, Guruvayoor Temple, Kerala.

From there, I headed to Delhi and on to Agra. I stood in awe in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, fed monkeys at the Taj Fort, and finished my souvenir shopping.


Early morning at the Taj Mahal.


The monkeys at Taj Fort got the leftovers of my breakfast fruit salad.

The next day, I was rejuvenated by a visit to Wildlife SOS Elephant Care Center, home to nineteen rescued elephants. I saw elephants taking long walks, eating pound after pound of fruit, and resting in the shade with friends. There are so many people fighting for a better life for the elephants of India- there is hope.


Freedom and friendship at Wildlife SOS.

I also visited Wildlife SOS’s sloth bear facility and learned about the awful tradition of dancing bears. Thankfully, the hard work of this organization put an end to this practice and provided other means for the families to make a living. Now the bears reside here in peace but they’ll never be rid of the scars on their snouts through which a rope was threaded and many of them also show stereotypic behavior indicative of the pain they bore in the past.

Then by train, by plane, by car, I scurried back to Chennai to embark on a three-day road trip to Kanchipuram and Kombakonum. With my Indian mentors Suparna and Supraja and Swiss filmmaker Bridgette, we visited six temple elephants. Some of them will see better days very soon (again, I’ll reveal all later!), others, in less desperate need, must wait. They live on concrete, chained and commanded at all times. Here again, the swaying and bobbing, inadequate methods for dealing with intense emotional and physical stress.


Life in a concrete box. Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu.

When I see others laughing at the elephants “dancing”, when I know the real pain behind it, I almost wish I also was ignorant. But for the most part, even though it involves looking upon such misery, I am so glad and honored to be working for these amazing animals. I am so lucky to have been taken under the wing of Dr. Gay Bradshaw at the Kerulos Center, and through her so many others. I’m so proud of the work that is being done by elephant advocates all over the world and honored just to be in their presence. I am more determined than ever to devote my life to this, to become one of those advocates, working tirelessly for each and every elephant.

I want to close by saying: This isn’t only India. This isn’t only Thailand. Everywhere that there are elephants held captive, there is suffering. There is the severing of families. There is training by fear and pain. There are chains and bars and concrete. Do not visit elephants in zoos and circuses, do not support this terribly inhumane breaking of a glorious spirit. Elephants deserve better.

Turtle Tales

It has been an amazing couple of days with the sea turtles at TREE Foundation. I have had the immense honor of watching three sets of hatchlings head out to sea. The Olive Ridley sea turtle babies, small enough to catch under a coffee mug and practically weightless, use their innate senses to follow the light of the moon (or in this case flashlights) and the tilt of the earth as it meets the sea, to catch a wave. This wave that will push them out to sea, testing their brand new flippers, exposing them to a multitude of dangers. It is estimated that just one out of 100 hatchlings survives to adulthood. To get there, they must avoid being snatched up by the many predators of the sea and air, find good food sources, and steer clear of the nets and hooks of fisherman. Just one little turtle facing the whole ocean.


I won’t anthropomorphize about how brave they are, although it’s tempting. The thought of what they face would surely make any human stay buried beneath the sand. It is, however, a reminder of how much is lost when we look at other lives as less meaningful as our own, no big deal, just a turtle, dog, elephant, chicken. Despite the odds, despite all we have done to make the earth a more dangerous place for all other species, they continue to battle fiercely for their lives and for their families. Many species have lost this fight already, but others can be saved. The suffering of species that we use to satisfy our own desires can be relieved. But we must start seeing them as we see ourselves: as persons with the fighting desire to live, to love, to have peace and security.


When I look at the turtles currently in the care of TREE Foundation, I see persons who have overcome all the odds they faced as hatchlings and continue to overcome odds after losing limbs to propellers, swallowing our garbage, and getting tangled in old fishing nets. I see a history, some of which go back years before mine, others that might last years beyond mine. I see a life with meaning and purpose, a life that makes the earth a better place for other living beings, a life that is just as deserving as my own.

A TREE Foundation turtle release. This image is from deccanchronicle.com.

A TREE Foundation turtle release. This image is from deccanchronicle.com.

To borrow the title of TREE Foundation’s documentary: “Every turtle matters.” I expand this to “Everyone matters.” We all depend on one another. Be kind, be careful, live life in a way that is least damaging to other lives. Do you part, care for those around you, and empower others to follow your example. Together, we can make the world new again.

My first train ride, sea turtles, and…an Irishman?

Eager to begin my grand tour of India, I took an early morning train to Chennai. Believe it or not, this was my very first train ride. As the man next to me explained, the rail system is still very much alive in India, with millions of passengers daily. The trip from Bangalore to Chennai offered sights of the beautiful Indian countryside- something I really needed to see after a week in Bangalore. The train offered more room than an airplane and more interesting views. I took a couple short naps during the ride and was quite happy with the experience…I’m even proud of the fact that I can now say I’ve used a squat toilet on a moving train.


The mountains feel like home!


Neat-o rock formations.


Winding dirt roads.


Adorable house!

Although I was a little worried about the trustworthiness of my chosen autorickshaw driver, I made it to the TREE Foundation site without much problem. Having been told the ride should cost 400 rupees or less, I stuck to my guns when he asked for 500. Another proud moment. I’m getting the hang of this!


I was led to my room to deposit my stuff and woke up two hours later to knocking on the door. I was informed that this was a second attempt to wake me up for lunch! I guess I didn’t realize how poor my sleep has been in my new PG. Coming from small town US, to rural village in Thailand, to big city India, the adjustment to noise level has been difficult. Much quieter here in a side street in Chennai.


After lunch I was introduced to all the sea turtles currently being treated here at the TREE Foundation. Why am I at a turtle rescue, you may ask? The director, Supraja, has taken an interest in temple elephants and offered to show me around. But in the meantime, I’m happy to learn about feeding turtles, the dangers they face, their importance to marine ecosystems, and medical treatment.

I really love TREE Foundation's logo.

I really love TREE Foundation’s logo.

I watched a great documentary put together by the TREE Foundation and learned about all the work that went into the development and initiation of Turtle Exclusion Device (TED) use on Indian fishing boats in Tamil Nadu. TREE Foundation does a huge amount of community outreach and education.


Oh, and also there is an Irishman working on the team. Although, Indian people are completely lovely and I’m glad to work with them, there is something comforting in having a fellow Westerner around to show you the ropes. He’s in the room next to mine at night in case I need anything and took me for breakfast at a little coffee shop. Next to the coffee shop is a convenience store, and its all an easy walk down the road, so I already feel much less overwhelmed here than in Bangalore. Looking forward to hanging out with turtles and elephants for a handful of days.


I was asked not to share photos of the turtles on social media, but here’s some snaps of my new best friend, Elinor. She was rescued from the floods that occurred in a Chennai a couple of months ago.


My new friend. Can’t resist that puppy face!

Welcome to India!

Suddenly I’ve found myself in the midst of the swirling chaos of Bangalore. After the quiet familiarity of rural Thailand, the steady crush of people has me feeling a bit claustrophobic and overwhelmed. However, in the middle of the hustle and bustle are the dedicated folks who make up Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue Center and Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, who have welcomed me with open arms.

Bangalore = NOT rural Thailand.

Bangalore = NOT rural Thailand.

This incredible team has so much on their plate! So far I’ve visited Bannerghatta Rescue Center and the Elephant Care Center (more on that in a bit), but have yet to see the dog and cat rescue, the geriatric center, the trauma center, and the large animal care facility!


My schedule is filling up with trips all across India to visit elephants and people associated with WRRC/CUPA. On the list: Chennai, Mysore, Kerala, and Delhi! I’ve rented out a small room at a PG (paid guest accommodation) just as a place to lay my head when I’m in Bangalore and store my luggage while I’m on the road. I’ll be moving there tomorrow after a weeklong stay with a very gracious friend, Anand.


The highlight of my first week in India is, you guessed it, meeting an elephant. Aneesha has been at the elephant care facility in Malur since May. Although much of her history is unknown, she is estimated to be 56 or 57 years old and at some point suffered a very serious injury to both front legs. The injury has been exacerbated by severe arthritis and the pain, although much improved since coming to the facility, is evident. She is encouraged to walk throughout the day, otherwise she stands under her shelter, taking turns lifting one leg after the other.

Gorgeous lady, Aneesha.

Gorgeous lady, Aneesha.

I’ve made some suggestions for enrichment based on what I saw at BLES and also set up communication between Katherine and Dr. Ganguly for discussion regarding the continual efforts to improve Aneesha’s welfare.

Here she is plucking out the choice greens. You can see that the position of her legs is unnatural due to an injury in her past.

Here she is plucking out the choice greens. You can see that the position of her legs is unnatural due to an injury in her past.

Overall, Aneesha is in a very good place and appears mentally well. She is well cared for and most importantly, allowed to be Elephant…no working, no human schedules, no external pain inflicted. I look forward to spending more time with her and watching and hearing about her continued improvement.

If you’d like to help Aneesha as she heals, donate here.

Aneesha is a gentle soul who has been granted a chance to heal.

Tamman! Tamman!

I am incredibly proud to have played a role in the March sterilization clinic at BLES. Several incredible professionals joined us for an intense seven days of surgery and treatment. Dr. Poppy and vet nurse Wa came from Chiang Mai, Dr. Lauren from the UK, and Monica, a fellow American living in Chaing Mai, worked together so well and it was amazing to see them in action!

Dr. Saradet and his team from Pitsanaluck did an outreach clinic at a local clinic for three days as well. With Katherine and David working the front end and mahouts going out to gather up more and more animals, the team successfully sterilized (drum roll please) a RECORD 213 dogs and cats!


Pups awaiting surgery.


Post-surgical pups.


Dr. Poppy and Dr. Lauren hard at work! These two are superstars!


During the clinic, a local man brought a very special dog to us- Sabi- who had been hit by a car and was paralyzed in her back legs. It was evident it had been a while since the accident as she has bad wounds on the tops of her back feet and inside her hips where she has been dragging herself. I gave this beautiful girl a bath and spent an hour or so ridding her of ticks and fleas. She is so patient with her wound treatment, even falling asleep on her back as I treated them! Soon she’ll have a wheelchair like iMac’s and we hope the two will become friends. We formed a bond during the short time we spent together before I left Thailand so I think about her often, but I know David and Katherine are taking excellent care of her. Welcome to the BLES family, Sabi, your luck has certainly changed!


How gorgeous is my friend Sabi?


She is such a trooper, falling asleep during a wound treatment.

I was happy to help, some days at the clinic and other days holding down the fort with guests back at the sanctuary. The sterilization clinic was a main reason that I extended my trip as I knew it would be a busy week! The incredible dedication of the BLES team continues to astound me. I look forward to helping one in the future- I especially look forward to one suggestions\ coming to fruition: David driving around on his motorbike with a megaphone yelling, “Tamman! Tamman! (Sterilization! Sterilization!)”

My Friends, My Family

When I first arrived at Boon Lott’s, I mostly aimed for photos of elephants without people or dogs. Before long, I realized that such photos don’t do BLES justice. These elephants come from captive situations, having spent their whole former life being commanded by and working for humans- some in fairly good conditions (like the four bulls that arrived in December) and others in very abusive situations. An elephant with such experiences can’t just be expected to immediately act like an elephant again in a sanctuary setting. They need the calm guidance of dedicated mahouts. The mahouts of BLES use no cruel tools, but instead facilitate a trusting relationship so that the elephants respond to voice commands- directing them where to go for food, shade, water, or a bath. The relationships I witnessed between mahouts and elephants were beautiful and deserve to be documented. Here are a few photos that I think represent the special, trusting bonds here at BLES.


The great tusker, Tong Jai, receives a thorough shower from Anon. Photo credit: David Owen.


Phi Toiey gives Wassana a refreshing drink as she gets her foot treatments.


On this day, Boon Thong was feeling under the weather. She was constipated and dehydrated. Phi Shat never left her side.


Phi Daam cuts up jackfruit for sweet Permpoon to try.


As I’ve said before, BLES is a family, and one that I was warmly welcomed into. I was invited into the homes of many members of the BLES community, sharing deliciously authentic Thai food, not so deliciously authentic Thai whiskey, and sharing in the warm smiles and laughter that Thailand is deservedly famous for. I feel like I have a second family in Thailand now- a family that I have promised to visit again!


Fun on the back of the Thai truck after a corn run with Phi Shat, Phi Joop, David, and Phi Do.


I helped David teach English one Friday afternoon at the local school, where I met this bunch of great kiddos.



A low quality photo of a high quality night at one of the mahouts homes: Lung Bunchu, David, Phi Joop, Phi Sot, and Phi Dam.

Let’s not forget the furry friends that warded off any semblance of homesickness. BLES is home to a lovable, diverse group of dogs and cats (not to mention the pigs, cows, monkey, and tortoises) that are always ready to snuggle and play. Like the elephants, some of them come from abusive backgrounds, and yet still allow and trust us to love and care for them. BLES would not be the same without this ragamuffin group!


My dog “husband” Ton. This beautiful boy survived terrible abuse but is still a sweetheart.


Uncle iMac and Aunt Ommo are excellent puppy sitters. Here they play with cuties Winter and Ruby. Winter has returned home to her family but Ruby is a permanent resident.


Lady and her cat friend, Paws, break the “no animals on the table” rule, making Gummee look innocent 😉


I didn’t even know I had enough room in my heart to love so many people (human and non-human) alike so much.

A visit to Thai Elephant Conservation Center


Yesterday, David and I travelled to Lampang to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. This government affiliated organization can be referred to as “The Best of the Worst”. It offers riding and has an elephant show, but they set the standards for elephant tourism throughout Thailand. I wasn’t happy with what I saw, which made me really horrified at what some of the worst of the worst elephant tourist attractions in Thailand must be like.


The elephants at TECC have access to water and didn’t show any visible physical signs of abuse. The mahouts were carrying ankuses/bullhooks with just one sharp point, not two, and I only saw them use the non-pointy ends. The show featured them bowing, pulling logs, throwing balls into baskets, but no one was forced to do headstands or stand on balls.


The riding was conducted on chairs, not on necks, which was disappointing as chairs are very bad for elephants’ backs. However, they were allowed to stop for drinks, which isn’t the case in many camps.


The worst was seeing the baby elephant, with pink clips in her hair, stereotyping constantly, which I caught on video. Three of the bigger elephants had obviously bonded and were reassuring one another throughout the show with trunks in mouths. These things indicate stress and trauma, and are very worrying.

Unfortunately, our visit was short, so there was only so much we could see. I’d like to return there with Katherine the next time I am in Thailand, as she volunteered there for 2.5 years and would be able to take me inside the stables, hospital, etc.


I will just say this- please do not ride elephants. Do not support elephant camps. TECC does a lot of good for elephants in Thailand, but they could be doing much more. If you want to experience elephants, please choose very carefully, and choose a sanctuary. This goes for the whole world, not just Thailand.


There is a new member of the BLES family that I have been itching to write about. Now that she has made her debut on the BLES Facebook Page, I can share here as well. I met Abu on my first day at BLES. She is a six to seven year old macaque, who has been living in a small cage for most of her life. The owner no longer wanted her and released her to BLES. Katherine jumped into action and told the building crew, “Drop everything you’re doing, we need a monkey enclosure.”


Abu is very wary of Westerners, so Katherine, David, and I have been working very hard to show her that we mean her no harm. For weeks we’ve brought her food and sat with her everyday, watching the new enclosure going up and promising her things would be better soon. I’ve learned her body language (mostly when to back away slowly!) and have seen her pacing, pacing, pacing her tiny crate.


Move-in ready!


The big moment: Abu heading for her new home.

Today is her one-week anniversary in her new home! The building crew did such a fantastic job and then Katherine and I joined in to put in finishing touches, painting, planting, hiding fruit everywhere. The sanctuary family gathered together to watch Abu’s release. I feel so honored to have been there for the moment, filming her first steps into her new home. Brave, brave Abu barely hesitated for a second when the door was opened. She scurried down the stairs and off she went, exploring this new mansion built just for her, with hammocks, tires, branches, and her own pool. She ignored the feast we’d laid out for her for almost an hour as she hopped and climbed and ran from place to place.


Without hesitation, Abu jumped right in to her new mansion and began exploring every inch.


Confident stride.


Checking out her tire swing, which we heaped full of fruits and veggies.


So much love was put into making Abu a sanctuary.

To know I’d been just a tiny part of this endeavor is incredible. For one little macaque, we all banded together to build a place where she could be safe and happy, her own private sanctuary. We hope one day that another macaque will need us, so that Abu can have a roommate. In the meantime, an unlikely friendship is blossoming between her and Lady the dog.