I have always been an avid animal lover.
Well, ‘avid’ might be putting it mildly. I’ve always been a rabid, borderline-obsessive lover of anything with four legs. When I was five, we ‘rescued’ a bunny that turned up in our back garden. I carefully made a comfy nest for it in the bathtub of my childhood home, where I would sit and hold and hug it like it was a stuffed animal. It returned the favor by biting me in the leg one day and giving me my first set of stitches before running off forever. I was inconsolable, both over the mutinous stitches and the loss of my precious (and probably wild) bunny.
For years, I wanted to be a veterinarian, until I realized that veterinarians have to perform surgery on animals, and most often put pets to sleep. So I settled on getting a puppy when I was 21 and just finishing college, much to my parents’ chagrin.
So when I read that there was an opportunity to volunteer with rescued elephants in Northern Thailand, it was a no brainer. I was in.
I wanted to spend a week at the Elephant Nature Park, the most famous of the elephant rescues in the area. But my sister was worried about the expense of a week and she isn’t as weirdly into animals as I am, so we opted instead for the full-day trip.
The whole ride from Chiang Mai out to the rescue center I was buzzing with anticipation. I wanted to sprint into the center when we arrived, but our guide led us to an area where we were told the basic rules of interacting with large animals before they let us out onto a viewing platform where we could hand feed elephants chunks of squash and watermelon. The first time a trunk extended in my direction for the food in my hand I was suddenly that five year old girl again, amazed and wowed by this wild animal in front of me, and incongruously wanting to give it a hug.
Throughout the day we were able to both observe and interact with these amazing animals, walking with them, giving the adults scratches behind their ears, and watching the babies frolic and cause mischief. At one point, the youngest in the rescue center (a one year old calf) managed to get his collar off his head, which then got stuck around his nanny’s right foot, and then it also wrapped around her left foot, nearly tripping her! One of the guides managed to help her extricate herself before she went down with a big thump.
But the highlight of the day was when a group of eight of us waded into the river with a big old female elephant to give her a bath. Armed with a bucket each, we were encouraged to fill the buckets with water and toss it at the elephant to get the mud off of her body. I swear she was smiling as she was doused with water, enjoying her day at the spa.
The Elephant Nature Park also rescues cats and dogs. Just after lunch, I wandered into the cat den, a netted enclosure that’s full of young cats. We were called back to the elephants before I had a chance to visit the dogs. But between all the animals, I was on cloud nine. I definitely will be planning a return trip, and this time, I will stay for that whole week!