Volunteering can be a rewarding way to do something positive for other people or animals. But how do you know if what you’re doing is actually helping? After years of trying to put the Kanchanaburi Safari Park into words, here it is. An honest account of what it’s really like volunteering with animals.
An experience of a lifetime
In the winter of 2014, my best friend and I set off for the experience of a lifetime. I had been working abroad for a few years already and she had previously travelled to various countries, so we weren’t new to overseas adventures. We were brand new to this though. 2 months in a safari park, in south-east Asia. An English woman, shocked at the standards and desperate to do something about it, had created the safari volunteer program a couple of years before, and we couldn’t wait to help.
We were off to save the world!
We had no idea what we were in for.
When you first arrive at the Safari park in Kanchanaburi, it is truly mesmerising. For most people, it is the first time ever volunteering with animals or even just coming into such close contact with such incredible creatures. The experience is overwhelming. The first few days on the park is met with pure excitement. Gasps of “oh my god! Look at that! I get to do WHAT this afternoon?!”
And there is so much to remember. The names of the animals, the staff and the volunteers is just the beginning. More unfamiliar pieces of information begin to settle in to your memory. ‘Ok, Jr. is a macaque and he stresses if you take too long cleaning his enclosure. Don’t step in front of the cats when walking them, they will attack. Don’t hold food too close to Chutney or you will be nursing scratches on the backs of your hand, and potentially a bald patch if he reaches your hair. This Macaw can lift a padlock with his beak and will escape if you don’t lock the cage. That Binturong will bite you if you go into the same section she’s in.’
Wait, whats a Binturong again??
And so the list goes, on and on and on.
After a while, the dust settles and you start to take everything in your stride. An elephant is sick? Ok, get as many people together as possible to help lift her. A cub needs it’s bottle? Ok, that’s a 4 & 4 combination of formulas. And suddenly, everything is normal.
In that fantastic way that human nature works, you become accustomed to daily life surrounded by animals. Animals that, had you stayed in your home country, you may have lived your entire life, totally unaware of their existence. And now? You can tell the next batch of volunteers what their diet consists of, and even more impressively, the exact glint in their eye that will alert you to a possible attack. Not an attack that is likely to seriously harm you (although you never know!), but one that will more that likely leave you with a souvenir in the form of a bruise or a bite mark.
But once you have settled into a daily routine and your brain is feeling a little less stretched, it leaves room for something else.
The sad reality of volunteering with animals in Thailand
“Don’t mention the Tiger”
The phrase ‘don’t mention the Tiger’ became as well-known to many volunteers as ‘Don’t mention the war’ is to the British public. The first time I saw Blue, I cried. Everyday, this magnificent tiger was chained to a truck and led to the huge table at the front of the park. I watched, in shock, as tourists arrived to lay alongside him, taking photo after photo. Naively, I watched in horror as nationalities I stereotyped to know better, lined up to get the perfect selfie. Quietly, I cried for him. It stirred an emotion in me that lasted for my entire stay at the park, and still lives with me now.
For a long time I hated to let my eyes linger too long on Blue. But then I started to look at the Cubs cages and think, this isn’t good enough either. I looked at things in a new light. Started to question why certain animals just didn’t ‘show up’ some mornings, and where did they even sleep anyway? The problem is, what could I do?
Honestly, and it sounds terrible, I did nothing.
I didn’t argue or complain, I did as I was asked. I didn’t mention the Tiger.
A new perspective
After some time, my mindset changed. My morals remained the same, after asking myself non stop, “should I be condoning this? What am I really doing to help? Should I even be volunteering with animals?” But I looked at things in a new, and more educated light. I used my time talking to the tourists to inform them of the volunteer program. I tried to protect the cubs when they came in for photos, minimising the stress. Hinted that paying for a photograph condoned the practice, “isn’t it nicer to see them playing naturally?” I did what I could without being forceful enough that the Thai staff would just ask me to leave.
As I got to know the Thai staff, I realised: these are not bad people. In fact, in most cases, they are brilliant people. Caring, light-hearted and a pleasure to be around. These people love the animals just as much as any westerner that arrives declaring they know what’s best and this that and the other is wrong, based on a trip to the London zoo with school and a few David Attenborough programs.
It doesn’t matter how many times I, or anyone else, tells you “it’s just a different culture!” You will never realise what that means, until you truly immerse yourself in it. Yes, there’s a lack of education. And yes, a lot of what these people do with the animals is little more than fear-based superstitions. And no, it doesn’t make it right. But learning the true motivations behind a persons actions will always shed a welcome light on a seemingly hopeless situation.
The thing that helped the most is talking to the long-standing volunteers. Hearing stories of how the park used to look, the things that had changed, the bridges that had been built between volunteers and Thai owners through patience and mutual respect. My favourite moment was a simple comment I made to the woman who runs the volunteer scheme, and her humbling answer.
“You must be so proud when you look back on everything you have done in the last two years.”
“I’m more excited to see how it will be in another two years”
With that simple reply and seeing the optimism in her eyes, I realised. How can I be concerned for these animals, when they have people with enough passion for their lives, they are giving them their own?
Some volunteers stay for a few days, others have no intention of leaving. I met some people who seemed to be so happy to be volunteering with animals and enjoying the photo opportunities, that any mention of the not-so-improved conditions seemed to encroach on their perfect bubbles and they became unable or unwilling to discuss anything that could cause ‘bad vibes’.
It was during these times I really struggled. I mean, we had tourists here to be like that. Surely volunteers should be like-minded people wanting to make a difference? I guess for some of them, they didn’t have the privilege of time and reflection that gave me a different point of view. Wasn’t I similar to them in my first 3 days?
Other volunteers really struggled and felt they couldn’t do enough, like they had bitten off more than they could chew and couldn’t handle it, emotionally. I met a few people who were just totally overwhelmed and couldn’t stay the full-time they had planned. Seeing it as too big of a task to be able to make a difference. We debated ourselves, whether to leave earlier than planned, but instead took it day by day.
The new arrivals
During my time at the park, I fell totally in love with a beautiful little lion cub. Snow, as she was appropriately named, was shown to the public just as we arrived and her arrival caused quite a stir. Snow and three tiny leopard cubs were the new stars of the show for an unusual reason…. They were white! We had photographers visiting the park and even a news team, to meet the new additions.
I spent so much time with Snow that the Thai staff slowly let me take more responsibility and referred to me as her mum. I fed her and shielded her from over-enthusiastic tourists, I played with her for hours and she curled into me when she napped, as she would have done to her real mother. She sucked on my thumb as she slept and cried when I walked away. The more attached I got the harder it was. I knew I wasn’t right for her, none of us were.
She didn’t have a pride, she didn’t have the company of any other animals. Sometimes I was allowed to let the leopards play with her but as they were much smaller there was a risk of them being hurt, so it was rare. I used google to try to learn what I could do to help. I even practiced imitating lioness sounds to call back to her! But of course it still wasn’t enough.
Getting behind the scenes
After awhile, you become more trusted by the owners. So you begin to learn certain things, or see certain areas of the park you wouldn’t normally. The Mountain was one of these places. Placed on the only area of the park that wasn’t totally flat (hence the exaggerated name) was the parrots, the fridges of raw meat, (the almost genuine) mountain of bananas, and the place where the cubs slept.
The smallest cages imaginable sat a foot off the ground and provided just enough space for a cubs to sleep. This is where they were brought, every night. We saw into where they kept the ‘new arrivals’ who had apparently been born to the adult cats on safari and then brought to this room to be looked after by the staff. I don’t know how these cubs could be taken from fully grown cats without a fight, I don’t know if they were really taken or if they had been bought or traded for other animals, but either way, they were there, and they were tiny.
One morning, the cubs didn’t turn up. I was told they had gone to be de-clawed. I had seen this already in the older leopards I had worked with. This was when I learnt, through an American volunteer, that it is normal practice for domesticated cats in some countries, including the US! I couldn’t believe it. The next time the white leopards didn’t turn up I didn’t get a reason, and when they did return, there was only 2.
Kept in the dark
There were a lot of things going on that the Thai staff weren’t honest about, or possibly they didn’t know the answers themselves. One of these being when Snow, the amazing and rare lion cub…. Wasn’t white anymore. As she grew she turned the typical yellowing brown shades and just as I left they changed her name. Leah the Lion.
I heard speculation that something had been done to her fur to make her white at first, there was talk of genetic issues due to illness or incest. Some said it was totally natural. I honestly could not tell you what the reason was, only that I loved that cub and I wished she could live a life away from humans.
Eventually, we left the park and I said a teary goodbye to Leah and the other cubs, it was sad to be leaving them, the people, the whole experience. We hadn’t made the difference we set out to make; I didn’t know whether to be proud or ashamed. Of course, I had loved the whole experience of volunteering with animals, but I had also been apart of the problem. I had been there to teach the tourists of the changes we were trying to make, I had helped raise that little cub, I had fed them and watered them and fought for them when I could. But ultimately, I had done what the Thai staff asked me to do, If I hadn’t I would not have been allowed to stay with the cubs. I had taken the photos for the tourists. I had taken photos myself.
Making baby steps
The idea was that the volunteers were showing the Thai owners that people want to see happy animals, animals with space to roam around. To see them trained without the use of violence. Happy animals = more paying tourists. Volunteers were clicker training the big cats in a new and improved enclosure, which was an amazing sight to see. There were other areas of the park with both better and worse situations than the cubs. Some sections, like ‘rescue’, with its mixture of unusual animals and monkeys once kept as pets, were totally controlled by the volunteers.
Ultimately, if no one was to work there, perhaps the business would fail. The animals would starve from lack of food, or maybe die from illness and injury that no one could afford to treat. The animals would slowly fade away, or be sold on to other Zoos. There is no RSPCA, and if the government-run facility I visited was anything to go by, they would be better off at the safari.
With the volunteer scheme the park has a better chance of thriving and so do those animals. But it also means more money for more animals, more space, more ‘attractions’. Overtime it may become a much more suitable home for the animals, they may have more space, great enrichment, better food. Perhaps they will have more freedom and they will no longer be handled by tourists at all, photos only being taken from a distance. But they will still be there, and generations more. Still behind bars, still without their freedom.
Think first, type second
The truth is, when you sit behind a computer and see a Zoo in Cambodia, a tiger temple in Thailand or a monkey attraction in India; it is easy to say “that’s terrible! How awful, how could they!” But the world is not black and white, it’s not even grey. It’s a complete spectrum of every colour, some darker than others.
The people who run these places and work with the animals are not always bad people. For many it is how they manage to feed their own families. Not everyone that has been to these places are bad people. Don’t be a keyboard warrior if you truly care. Be curious. Ask questions, research, offer your own help and see for yourself if you can. Be smart, be careful, be ethical where you can but most importantly be kind.
Respect goes a long way
If there is anything I learnt about the people who lived and worked at the park; it is that they are the bosses. They are in charge of what happens to those animals. Not a bunch of western backpackers that act better than them because they have formal educations and have lived a privileged life in comparison. We are volunteering with animals, not running the show. The more I listened to the staff, the more I helped them and showed interest in their lives, beliefs and experiences; the more I learnt and the more I got to have my say. When I showed appreciation for their knowledge, they showed it for mine. And it was like this that the long-standing volunteers had managed to make the progress they had already.
Only when we show mutual respect can we hope to bring about a change.
A year after we left, I visited again. It was a bitter-sweet trip. Some things had changed. The park had made improvements, including a much larger space for the parrots. Staffing changes and a restricted access to money meant that things had moved slowly, and many of the improvements felt more aesthetic than anything else.
The biggest thing that hit me was the amount of volunteers. It had clearly become more popular and people were now sleeping 3 to a room to fit. While this was a positive thing overall, it was a lot more people to manage. Some of them seemed to be in competition with each other about who the animals liked best, or who knew them better. Many of the volunteers were left with little direction and although we did take part in creating some enrichment for the monkeys and bears, it felt very much like we had paid our money and were now free to do as we pleased. It felt as if some of them were more concerned with their own experience, rather than how they can impact the animals, something I think we had all been guilty of at times, whether we realised it or not.
Looking for Leah
The most devastating news was about Leah. She had finally ‘graduated’ into Safari, only to have one of the other lions nearly tear her throat out.
I suspect that her time with humans, and her lack of play mates as a cub to teach her to fight, would have contributed to her not being able to defend herself. We’ll never know. While driving through the safari, the staff pointed out a lioness in the distance and told me it was Leah, and that she was healing. I don’t know if it was her, or if she fully recovered, but I truly hope she did, and that she is safe.
I’m not trying to put anyone off volunteering at this park, although, I suppose I’m not promoting it either. Places like this are usually painted with promise filled rainbows, or portrayed as nightmarish prisons. I only hope that anyone that reads this can see that it is an honest account of an amazing experience. A real experience.
Still want to volunteer?
If you wish to make a difference and think volunteering with animals is for you, then go. But, consider how long you have to give, how you will use your time. Consider where you choose to go and what their goals are. Be kind and have the right intentions, but be realistic. You are probably not going to change the world in one visit. Unless you have an eduction or previous experience that relates, you will not know best. You will likely have no idea what you’re doing without listening to the people who have been there longest. You aren’t going to always have the most positive experiences and sometimes its hard to know what is right. But you have to try. Be kind, be compassionate, be respectful and always, be curious.
“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
Since my last visit in 2015, Blue has been taken off the table and is now in ‘retirement’ in considerably better conditions than his previous cage, including a pool. The last cat to be used purely as a chained photo prop. A huge achievement, and one that brought relief to both volunteers and staff. The Big Cat Garden (where the cats are clicker trained) has been expanded and the park has seen many new, dedicated, volunteers. If you’re still curious, then check it out for yourself here.