There are 450 dogs at the dog sanctuary at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, and we had signed up to take care of them for a week. The dogs have come from a variety of places, although the majority were rescued by ENP following the Bangkok floods in 2011. We joined eight other short-term volunteers and got straight into work last Sunday. The focus for our volunteer group was the dogs in the medical clinic, who were there because they were unwell, awaiting surgery, or were otherwise unable to go into a big run with other dogs. Campbell put his hand up to work in the main clinic area, and I volunteered to take care of the three puppies (although they were really more like teenagers) and one old-timer that called the clinic office home.
It was a tough, but incredibly rewarding, week. We were lucky to be part of a group of great volunteers, who all got stuck in and put in the hard yards. Our time at ENP has been a highlight of the trip so far, although I suspect it will take a few more days before we feel properly clean again!
A typical day at ENP went something like this:
6.30 am: Alarm goes off. Groan, curse your aching feet, get up, get changed, fight the dogs to get into the toilet, shuffle to the platform for breakfast.
7.00 am: Make a pig of yourself at breakfast buffet and talk rubbish with the other volunteers.
8.00 am: Start work at the dog clinic – feeding the dogs, cleaning out enclosures, sweeping and mopping floors, taking dogs for a walk and a toilet run.
9.00 am(ish): Once the clinic dogs and pups have been taken care of, get to work walking the runs of other dogs, moving dogs from one run to another, cleaning out empty enclosures, socialising with dog packs etc etc.
11.00 am: Break for lunch. Make a pig of yourself at the lunch buffet and talk rubbish with the other volunteers. Shuffle back to the house to reapply sunscreen and insect repellent. Maybe lie down for 20 mins, but only if you’re confident you’ll be able to get back up.
12.30 pm: Repeat morning routine – feed and walk clinic dogs, clean enclosures.
1.30 pm: Continue dog walking and socialising.
3.30 pm: Evening pack down – feed and walk clinic dogs, clean enclosures, do meds and get everyone settled for the night.
4.30 pm: Sit at the volunteer house eating chips and drinking Chang, discussing how terrible you smell and waiting patiently to use the one functioning shower.
6.00 pm: Make a pig of yourself at the dinner buffet. Drink beers and chat with the volunteers about the crazy things that happened that day and what tomorrow has in store.
9.00 pm(ish): Bedtime
2.00 am(ish), 3.ooam(ish), 4.00am(ish): Wake up to hundreds of dogs howling in unison. We weren’t entirely sure what set them off, but at various stages through the night the dogs would perform a howling Mexican wave, which seemed to start at the clinic and roll its way down all the runs until finally reaching our house, where our own soul sister would waddle to the front gate and represent on behalf of our pack.
In amongst the routine, there were some stand-out moments from our time at ENP.
Mass dog adoption: On our first evening we were all pretty stuffed and just about ready for bed when we were asked if we would like to help with preparation to send 14 dogs on the truck to catch a flight to Colorado. The same number had previously been sent a few days earlier in a mass adoption that had taken a lot of work to get across the line. The dogs will be fostered in Colorado before hopefully being adopted. Although we had to get up at 4am to walk the dogs (in the hope they’d poo and wee on the grass, rather than in their travelling crates), it was awesome to see so many dogs begin the journey to their new lives. It was also really heart-warming that the agency in Colorado had selected a really diverse mix of dogs (young, old, healthy, sick), rather than just cherry-picking the most adoptable dogs.
The Volunteer House: The majority of our group of volunteers stayed in the dog volunteer house – a basic, three bedroom house, which sat in the middle of a large dog run. We shared the house with a pack of nine dogs. It was clear from the day we arrived that the house belonged to the dogs, and they were very kindly letting us borrow it. Their generosity didn’t extend to the outdoor furniture, so in the evenings we either had to sit on the floor and watch the dogs lounge all over the outdoor chairs, or try to squish in around the dogs to get a seat. The big boss of the pack was a dog named Duang. Duang was rescued from the streets of Bangkok where she had been trained as a hustler who stole money and wallets from tourists. Duang still has the attitude she acquired on the mean streets, and more than one of us got the pleasure of one of her “love nips” during our stay.
Operation DV2: After a few nights staying at the dog volunteer house we realised that there was a run of dogs next to us who never seemed to get walked, or taken out of their pen – DV2. We had a bit of a snoop around and realised that DV2 could be accessed two ways, but each way involved walking through another run, and another pack of very territorial dogs. The upshot was that in order to walk DV2, we would need enough people to move the dogs in the adjacent run, so that we could safely walk the DV2 dogs through that run and onto the street. We needed 20 people. All week we talked about how much we wanted to give the DV2 dogs a run, and on our last night Operation DV2 was formulated. We talked strategy, logistics and personnel and, with the help of some of the elephant project volunteers, we pulled it off. The plan did involve shutting Duang in the shower, so we owe an apology to the next round of dog volunteers who, as a result, will likely receive a higher number of “love nips” than normal.
Seeing the DV2 dogs finally get out of their pen and enjoy a few hours of freedom was one of the absolute highlights of our week.
Sleepover with Ma-rew: Ma-Rew is a beautiful, young dog who was hit by a scooter as a pup. He is recovering from a series of spinal operations, but currently does not have full function of his back legs, bladder or bowel. Early in the week it was decided that Ma-Rew should be moved out of his small enclosure in the clinic and given the chance to stay in the office and hang out with my little puppy troop. Ma-Rew only stayed in the office one night, but that night will be forever imprinted in my mind, and my nostrils. The morning after the sleepover, I arrived at the office to a scene straight out of the apocalypse – there was literally poo and wee in every corner of the office. We’re not talking nice discrete piles of poo and wee either, but great big skids marks and clumps all over the place. Because Ma-Rew is unable to lift his hind quarters, he is effectively the canine equivalent of a snow plough, so that when he moves about he traps and drags muck wherever he goes. It took two hours, six buckets of detergent and bleach, and countless bouts of dry-retching to get the office cleaned up.
Ma-Rew moved out that day, and joined the other disabled pups (Steel, Scully and Bao Bao) in their custom-built enclosure, which (importantly) can be hosed out every morning. When we left ENP, he was making real strides in his wheel chair and everybody hopes that he might get some mobility back.
Arrival of the Puppies: Late on Thursday afternoon, the clinic received a phone call to say that we would be receiving 21 dogs (17 puppies and 4 adult dogs) in an hour’s time. It was panic stations as we tried to rush through the evening pack down, so that we would be ready when the dogs were dropped off. When they arrived, we realised that we had three separate litters of differing ages, and a massive tick infestation on our hands. It was all hands to the pump, as we washed and deticked each little pup. The ticks were absolutely horrendous; when you looked inside the pups’ ears it was like looking at brown cauliflower – the ticks were so dense that you couldn’t even see inside the ear canal. The ticks on the feet were so thick that the puppies toes were splayed open to accommodate them. We sat on the floor racing against the fading sun to detick each pup, all the while hoping we hadn’t dropped any ticks on ourselves. My skin was crawling by the time we finished, and all I wanted was a long, hot shower before bed.
All of the pups made it through that first night and were full of beans when we left them yesterday.
Bathtime: Thursday at the dog clinic is bath day. We worked our way through a list of dogs that, for one reason or another (mainly skin conditions), require regular baths. As luck would have it, the majority of those dogs had the canine equivalent of short man syndrome – small, fluffy, excessively angry dog syndrome. Not to be deterred, we partnered up and captured, wrangled, muzzled, washed and blow-dried every dog on the list.
Chicken run for Silver: Silver is a very old dog who lives at ENP and is in the process of seeing out her last days. When we arrived at ENP Silver was refusing to eat dog food, but one of the other volunteers (Patricia) discovered that Silver was quite partial to the BBQ chicken from the store up the road. A routine developed where most afternoons Campbell would wander up to the shop (he was going anyway to buy post-work beers) and pick up Silver’s regular chicken order. On the last night, Campbell finally caved and added a chicken leg for himself to the order and hid outside the park walls before finishing and discarding the evidence. Turns out that a week of eating vegetarian was just too big an ask.
Elephants: As well as being surrounded by dogs, we spent our week at ENP surrounded by beautiful elephants. ENP has 71 elephants (although not all of them are at the park at any one time) and we got to see them roaming around throughout the day – we saw them on our way to breakfast, from the deck of the volunteer house, bathing in the river and crashing through the jungle as we walked the dogs. There were also a couple who liked to frequent the smoking area for a bit of a passive nicotine hit. The elephants at ENP have been rescued from the logging industry, tourist trade and from other hardship. There are a number that bear permanent scars (physical and mental) from their former lives, but at ENP they are given a safe place to see out their days. It’s a beautiful place.
We are now back in Chiang Mai for a bit of R&R and to plan the next leg of our trip. We will miss our furry friends, but have our fingers crossed that they will be adopted and be winging their way to their forever homes soon.