When world-renowned elephant conservationist Lek Chailert was a child, she witnessed animal abuse in her home country of Thailand, often stemming from animal-centered tourism.
So, when she had the chance to do something about it, she did. In 1995, three years after she rescued her first elephant, she started Elephant Nature Park sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Officially opening its doors in 1996, that sanctuary, today, provides a home for thousands of animals of all species, spanning companion animals to wildlife, including more than 80 elephants.
“We have 600 dogs and almost 500 cats at the moment,” Chailert said. “We have horses, we have wildlife, we have cows, we have buffalo, we have donkeys. We have all kinds of animals and all of these animals were rescued.”
Over the course of the more than 20 years, Chailert has realized that rescuing animals isn’t enough—she not only needs to convince elephant owners to adopt more ethical standards of working with the animals, but she also needs to raise awareness among tourists who, in many ways, contribute to the abuse.
It was in that vein that Chailert visited the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) on Oct. 1. During her visit, she talked with students and hosted a screening of the film “Love and Bananas,” which documented Chailert’s rescue of a 70-year-old captive, blind Asian elephant.
But the awareness that needs to be raised is for more than just elephants, according to Chailert. When tourists vacationing in Thailand participate in activities such as paying to take photographs with Bengal tigers or getting a fish pedicure at a Thai spa, it signals to the business owners that tourists approve of animals being treated as they are behind-the-scenes, even if tourists aren’t aware of that treatment.
“The tigers are declawed, their teeth removed, and often have the tendons in their wrists clipped so they can’t swat or run with a lot of speed,” she said. “I went to the fish spa myself to be fair to the business. I don’t want upset any business without evidence. They starve the fish, and (witnessed) after a couple of groups left, the fish floating—they die one by one (because of bug sprays and lotions on guests’ legs) and the owners take all the fish and throw them in the garbage and then buy new fish.
“It’s unbelievable how they are abusing animals,” she said.
Chailert’s visit also worked in conjunction with the CVM’s newly created study abroad in Thailand program for veterinary and biomedical sciences students led by Michelle Yeoman, a lecturer in the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS). During the trip, students volunteer at Chailert’s sanctuary.
Though she has about 528 employees at her two refuges, Chailet said she can always use the help.
“We have over 2,000 animals in our sanctuary, but I look after so many stray dogs that I can’t count,” she said, adding that people all over the country also call her when they encounter injured animals or are no longer able to afford their pets. “So many exotic animals are brought to Thailand to sell—even possums, even animals from Australia, Brazil, from Africa—and when people don’t know how to treat the animal when it is sick they turn them over to the Department of Wildlife, but the department doesn’t have money (so even they bring animals to Chailert).”
Ultimately, Chailert said she hopes that students will realize through her talk and the screening of the film that there are more humane ways to engage with animals while on vacation—from feeding or bathing the elephants to simply observing the animals in the wild.
“In my country, there are no animal rights and laws, not any protection. The animal abuse I witnessed when I was young until now, it never reduced; it still carries on, even in different industries, and the more need people create (by participating in animal-centric activities), the more animal suffer,” she said. “That’s why I decided if I was going to work for anything, it’s my choice to work and be a voice for them. I can give them a chance to live in better; that is my passion.
“Our purpose is to educate people about tourism from the inside, and ask those traveling to Thailand or Asia to travel with love and care, with respect to the other lives, and not just think about animals as entertainment,” she said. “It’s important for the people who want to be involved with animals to understand about that this is happening in Thailand and around Asia; it’s a really eye-opening documentary.”