My idealistic bubble burst after only a few hours of arriving to The Elephant Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. And from there I was on a seemingly slippery slope downward. Asking the wrong questions, making the wrong phone call, acting the wrong way. Oh, and then the incident with the dog and the machete almost threw me over the edge.
As I sat at the staff table on my first day, a flood of confessions spilled forth from longer term volunteers and some permanent staff. Rumors and stories criss-crossed from multiple directions as people dipped french fries in mayonaise. I'd read that before the sanctuary became The Elephant Sanctuary, it was called Elephant's Place, a retirement center for elephants created by a man from Belgium and a Thai woman. When she died only 3 months after opening the park, the husband withdrew from their life long dream. One volunteer told me she'd heard the prior place used to be known for orgies. One thing that is certain; facts are a bit hard to come by here.
If you ask 3 different people about the history of the elephants here, one will tell you they are under ownership of people who could take their elephant out of retirement at any time. Another will tell you we own all of the elephants and their ears are microchipped and the hybrid story is that we own some elephants outright and others are here on a contract.
Rules seem to beg to be broken. I'm never sure which rules we're allowed to break, and I seem to break the ones we shouldn't. On my second day I was spoken to about making a phone call to the office regarding my concern over metal soldering and loud hammering less than 3 feet from an elephant tied to it's feeding position. I'm certain the flying sparks just feet away from her golden brown eyes were agitating to her.
Another volunteer and I mentioned our concerns to the program manager who flippantly said, "I don't know. That's Tam's department. I don't know." And with a quick shrug of the shoulders, she was done entertaining our questions.
"Well where is Tam?" I asked, anxious to get the soldering halted until after the elephants had eaten. We had just learned how sensitive they were to loud noises and can startle easily. We guided the tourists past the display of elephant vs. minor construction. Thankfully, none of the tourists saw the irony.
I spoke with Celine when I called the office. She agreed the soldering shouldn't be happening directly in front of the elephant. But the next day Elise warned me not to do that again; that I should call her or Veronica. "We are the farang." (the tourist). "And I've seen bad things happen for less."
I wondered if she was referring to any of the 3 deaths of volunteers on the property?
But the non-explanation for the machete wielding farmer had me puzzled.
I was leading a few families down the road toward the river banks. The water buffalo were crossing the dirt road as one of our little black dogs ran wild in a beautiful display of instinctual herding techniques. The dog took a few lunges toward the farmer who wore a full face cover. I couldn't even see his eyes. He had his machete out in 3 seconds.
With the machete aimed at the dog, I quickly searched my mental file box for an explanation of the dog massacre I was certain was imminent. I know how traumatizing it was to see my beloved childhood dog, Dusty, get hit by a garbage truck. Her tongue turned white as she laid on a red plaid wool blanket in the back of my parent's station wagon. She died on the way to the veterinarian's office.
We all took a collective breath in gratitude for the safety of the dog as the farmer put the machete back in its sheath.
"I don't know what to tell you." Veronica quipped in her usual cool tone. The only thing that is cool here.
"We cannot tell the farmer what to do."
"Okay, but how would I explain that to the family?" I was really struggling to come up with a reasonable explanation.
"I don't know. We cannot control what the farmer does."
Later, Elise, the older and a bit wiser foundation manager presented a reasonable explanation. In this country, the dog is pretty low on the totem pole. They are scene as a nuisance, not a treasured pet. And with so much poverty, the stray dogs must seem like vermin.
I suppose I can learn from my own story. Perhaps Veronica's bark is worse than her bite. But it still leaves me feeling intimidated, like I'm going to be fired from volunteering.
Patty Blue Hayes is the award winning author of Wine, Sex and Suicide – My Near Death Divorce and the creator of You Can Heal Your Heartbreak, an audio program based on her book, My Heart is Broken. Now What?