Published: Veterinary Practice, July 2014, page 34, Welfare
ERIKA SULLIVAN records her experiences of working at a dog – and elephant and other animals – shelter in Northern Thailand.
A Sheltered Life in Thailand
Thailand is a country diverse in wildlife, cuisine, and culture. Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is an animal sanctuary in the Mae Taeng Valley, outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Since 2005, ENP has been a sanctuary for Asian elephants that are victims of the tourist trade; many injured from inhumane training methods, riding/trekking, logging, and street begging. The sanctuary was started by a compassionate women named Lek Chailert. Lek’s passion is helping animals, and since its conception the sanctuary has grown from two elephants and a treehouse, to 37 resident elephants, water buffalo, pigs, peacocks, cats, dogs, and lots of land for freedom. Volunteers and visitors arrive daily/weekly/monthly from all over the world to help the animals, experience Thai culture, and share stories.
Elephant Nature Park also has a canine hospital and volunteer program. ENP Dogs started in 2011 after a flood in Bangkok. The capital city of Thailand, home to over 10 million citizens, was covered in water. Many people died, homes were submerged in water, and shortages in food and water lasted weeks. Most of the humans affected by this natural disaster struggled for their own life and sadly could not save their dogs. Dogs were left swimming to safety, scavenging for food, fighting over space, and desperate for love. When ENP saw the turmoil on television, it only seemed natural to help. Boats were hired, neighbourhoods were searched, and nearly 300 dogs were rescued and taken to safety in Chiang Mai. Without the help of ENP, most of them would have died.
After a tumultuous experience, the abandoned dogs now had a home and a chance at life. Volunteers and staff built runs with swimming pools, houses, ramps, and play space. ENP Dogs strives to provide dogs with a place of refuge while offering a peaceful living environment to live. Each dog is provided with individual medical care and physical and social enrichment. In addition to serving as a long-term animal care facility, the small animal clinic was created to provide community service to surrounding villages, offering subsidised health care services and sterilization surgeries that assist in controlling unwanted animal populations.
My first visit to ENP was in 2009 as an elephant volunteer. When I was offered a job working with the dogs in 2013, I welcomed an opportunity to return. I hadn’t visited the park since the dog clinic was built, but I was mostly excited that my professional skills would help abandoned animals, ultimately fulfilling a role I set out to accomplish in becoming a veterinarian.
My first week of work as the sole veterinarian for 400 dogs and over 150 cats was overwhelming. Fortunately I was assisted by a friendly nurse that spoke more English than I do Thai, and was trained to perform sterilization surgeries. We each worked 6 days per week. International volunteers arrived weekly/monthly and helped bathe, walk, and clean cages. Each dog run had an assigned “mahout” or keeper, that fed, cleaned, and de-ticked the dogs daily. Each dog was given a name, a file with its description, and a photo identification card. I became close with the staff here. Despite language barriers and cultural differences at times, we all had the same goals for the animals, and it was like living and working with a big family.
As a veterinarian from Canada, I managed a variety of cases that were new to my skill set. Some opened my eyes to the harsh realities of uneducated villagers, for example when a dog with intentional machete wounds and maggots arrived nearly dead. Many animals were abandoned at the park gate, hit by vehicles and fractured, bit or deeply wounded, infected with sexually transmitted genital tumors (Transmissible Venereal Tumor), and nearly all acquired tick-borne blood parasite diseases like Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis. There were limitations to the medications and equipment that was available, however working alongside a local veterinarian and dedicated volunteers, in a clinic with trained staff, offered medical care analogous to the advanced care that would be offered in other parts of the world.
I will never forget the animals at ENP or their affect on my life. In my time working at the clinic I witnessed Blue, the resident bull terrier that bit people out of fear, transform into a loyal playful companion. Steel arrived after surviving a vehicle accident, with old injuries that resulted in her bones healing in an abnormal position, preventing her from walking. In her new home at ENP, Steel glides across her custom-designed tile-floored enclosure, when not walking in her donated wheelchair with volunteers. Monk was a pregnant dog from a temple that was given drugs to induce abortion late in gestation, causing a severe uterus infection and fetal decay. She was near death on arrival. Emergency surgery was performed and intensive therapy for two weeks before her the owner, coincidentally a monk, brought her home. Starbucks and Ewok, two dogs that followed me walking in the mountains, always reminded me to smile often, laugh lots, and that dogs really are man’s best friend.
Being a veterinarian had never been so rewarding as these eight months proved.The shelter is fortunate, and continues to rely on, volunteers willing to make financial and time commitments to help. BEWARE: if you visit, you could end up taking a dog home! Like Alfie, the stray dog that wandered his way into the park, and later charmed his way into the United Kingdom, where he now lives with volunteer Rebecca. Shelters are expensive to operate and donated expired or unused medical supplies help reduce costs. Volunteers reduce the numbers of paid staff while keeping morale high. Veterinary professionals willing to donate their skills to help animals offers new experiences that cannot be learned in school.
Outside of work, my life in Thailand was spent visiting magnificent temples, shopping in vibrant street markets, and immersing in Thai culture, learning the language and making new friends. Veterinarians are privileged with a career that offers a breadth of opportunity. For those looking to combine travel with volunteering, while making a difference to animals and their communities, consider tantalising Thailand at the Elephant Nature Park!
For more information visit the ENP website at www.elephantnaturepark.org and related links to the dogs.