Posted by: kcullen75 | May 6, 2011

O Yim, Where Art Tou?

Well, it’s been a little while since I last reported on the goings on in the life of, not so little any more, Chang Yim, and my part in it; and in that little while, my part in it has significantly decreased. I am now, and for the past two and a half weeks, no longer Chang Yim’s mahout. That role now belongs full time to Ley, who you have all met in previous entries. It has been a transition for both of us, that is for sure, and I would have to say happily, that I think he has dealt with it better than I have.

He seems, from the relatively little I see him these days, to be doing fine, and the month or so Ley and I spent gradually overlapping before I finished seems to have paid dividends. For myself, I am certainly looking forward to my new role – which we shall get to shortly – but did find myself quite lost after returning from a five day hiatus in which I renewed my visa and finally got to visit my good friend, the renowned Dr Josh Plotnik, at Anantara Elephant Resort. And he certainly is renowned now since releasing his wonderful paper on elephant co-operation, which you can read a report on here:

It was also within these five days that we lost Lily, as many of you would have heard. When I left into town, Lily was as fit and healthy as she has ever been, and by the time I returned, she was gone. The exact cause is unknown, but it seems that in the night, Lily had found herself awkwardly splayed over a mound of dirt placed in her shelter for her to sleep against, and the best guess is that in her struggle to get back to a position to where she could right herself, she must have done herself some internal damage, which took it’s final toll only four days later. She will of course be greatly missed by all and was a perennial favourite amongst volunteers for her soft nature and grace; but she will be missed most of all by her inseparable friend Mae Keaw.

But back to my feeling a little lost. It was quite a strange feeling coming back, with the training wall yet to be finished, and not knowing whether it was in my, Yim’s, Ley’s, or anyone’s best interest for me to spend any great deal of time with Yim, or whether it was best to let him adjust completely and without confusion to the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to play such a big part in his life. I leaned towards the second notion, and so I would go to see him in his shelter – but I wouldn’t go in. I would go and check on him at the close up time – but I wouldn’t go down on the ground.

I went a couple of times to the feeds, but didn’t feed him. I watched his training sessions, but from a distance so neither he nor Ley knew I was there, ( I also didn’t want Ley to feel I was standing over his shoulder all the time). I guess I just wanted things to be clear to Yim, and also perhaps I was just making things easier for myself. I had in six short months become quite attached to him; and so, less than a week back, I found myself a way back in. On the pretence that I was concerned about Ley and Atu – Faa Mai’s mahout – having to both arrive early and finish late in order to keep the babies training sessions going, I suggested that I return to doing Chang Yim’s training each morning, and also I could take on Faa Mai’s too.

It seemed a good solution to a few small issues – keeping the training progressing at a good speed, allowing the mahouts to have their mornings back, and most of all, keeping me in touch with Chang Yim. I have thoroughly enjoyed getting back to it too, and taking up with Faa Mai has also been very interesting, as she is quite a different subject in the training. I am loathe to say that Yim is simply smarter ( I kinda did just say it, didn’t I!) but he is sharper in the sense that Faa Mai always feels a little distracted to me, and more interested in simply getting the food. I feel I need to push a little more to get what I actually want from her, while Yim is more likely to give you what you want, as long as you make it clear to him.

Those at least are my early impressions, as really I have only been training with Faa Mai for a week. I have started them both on open mouth presentations, and Faa Mai on trunk presentations, which she got, to her great credit, in about five minutes. Yim has of course been doing trunk presentations for quite a while, (I’m not really pitting Faa Mai against Yim, just having a little fun) both to target and in hand, and is now holding it against target, in position, for any length of time.

This then, is what my new role will be; training all the elephants here in this way. It was due to begin once I got back from town, but with Lily’s illness and passing it was understandably put on the back burner. So in the meantime I became the morning tractor driver for mahouts and volunteers, started training with the two old girls, Mae Kam Geaw and Mae Tee, and helped out in the elephant kitchen as much as possible after Michelle chopped off her index finger down to below the top knuckle, with a machete aimed at a pumpkin. Yes, that’s right, but I’m not going to make a big deal of it here.Michelle can get her own blog if she wants to go on about it…..oh, alright; since many of you who will be reading this will know and love Michelle, then you may want to hear more.

For those of you who don’t know Michelle, she has been at ENP since 2003 in many varied roles – guide, volunteer coordinator, mahout and more, including most recently preparing and organising all the elephant’s daily food in the elephant kitchen, where she has become famous for her machete wielding skills. It was maybe her proficiency which was her downfall in the end as an errant slice through a pumpkin held aloft in her hand, (this is the quickest way to cut the pumpkin to be fair) took in a fair chunk of her finger as well.

When I arrived on the scene, Michelle was seated while one doctor and one ambulance worker, who luckily were here as volunteers, wrapped the finger and tried to stem the blood flow, while others were putting the severed portion on ice in the hope that it could be sewn back on. (The severed portion had fortunately landed in the rim of an upturned bowl and was easily found). To everyone’s amazement Michelle was calmly joking around, blood covering one hand, cigarette held in the other, while one volunteer lost his breakfast and his friend turned a whiter shade of pale.

Anyhow, before this turns into a gruesome account of Michelle’s misfortune, I’ll finish by letting you all know that they were unfortunately unable to reattach the finger, and Michelle is still on an imposed break, though is back at the park and doing well. It will obviously take a bit of adjustment, and like any one else, Michelle would prefer to have all fingers and toes present and in full working order, but from the operation, (which I sat in on while the doctor cut bone from the wound and folded the top of the finger over itself to make an end – though insanely beginning with dousing it in alcohol before the local anaesthetic, which still makes me wince now more than Michelle did at the time), through every part of her recovery Michelle has just powered through it all in a way very few could manage.

Just yesterday I sliced into one of my fingers resulting in a fair amount of blood which I brought to Michelle for cleaning, and when I found myself whingeing at her harsh use of alcohol I had to check myself very quickly. This was a cut about 2cm across! Not quite the same thing, really.

What do you say we move away from the blood and bone and back to the elephants? As I mentioned, I did start training with Mae Kam Geaw and Mae Tee while waiting for the training wall to be finished. These two were a priority as Mae Tee has a very bad abscess on the inside of each of her back feet, brought on by her bad confirmation as a result of hip problems. Mae Kam Geaw has very badly overgrown back toenails which need trimming asap.

Carol Buckley had previously gone through the majority of the elephants here and trimmed down their front nails, but without them being able to safely present their back feet, they had to be left for the the time being. And speaking of Carol, she was actually here for three days recently, and started the work on training both Mae Tee and Mae Kam Geaw to present their back feet; but three days is a very short time for two old girls to learn some new tricks.

Without Carol’s years of experience, I decided that once in my hands I was better going back to basics and start with the simplest of target training and work them up to having their back feet rested calmly on the stools that were recently built for this purpose. It was going to be a bit slower maybe, but the last thing I wanted to do was stress them out with my inexperience.

I can report that now, a few shortish weeks later. Mae Kam Geaw is presenting her head, ear – which she holds in place, left and right feet, and kicks both back legs vigorously into the air on command. Almost too vigorously at times! She will also hold them in place, but baulks a little when it comes to trying to put a chair under it. I am using a chair first because it is lighter and easier to manouever, and the steel stool freaks them out a bit still. But I think she is only days away. The best part of the whole experience has been how much she obviously enjoys it, and if she sees me coming and has strayed far away from the medical shelter, she turns and makes a steady beeline in her gently paced way.

Mae Tee has been a more difficult case. Mostly, I feel, because of the discomfort she is in with her feet, and the constant annoyance from the flies. She is confined on doctors orders to the medical centre, which leaves her bored and restless, and the first few days drew no response at all from her. I was wondering if it was worth even continuing in this way. Then suddenly, something clicked, and I was getting the slowest, almost imperceptible back lift from her hind legs; but it was enough, and with encouragement she started to raise them higher and higher each time. This took a lot of patience, and I want to make special mention of Dam, the mahout of Mae Kam Geaw, who was for most of this time looking after both elephants while Mae Tee’s mahout, Preti, was ill.

He has been so supportive, patient, understanding and encouraging to both elephants, I think it has helped their progress enormously. He also has great instincts with the training (he rewards them while I command with the target) and I never have to tell him to give an extra reward for a particularly well performed behaviour. And he also laughs at all the right things, which might sound ridiculous, but I honestly think it has helped me from not becoming overly serious, and even more so has helped keep the mood light and enjoyable for the elephants, and they do seem to enjoy his approval. Preti has since returned to good health, and he too has followed Dam’s lead, and they are both been a pleasure to work with.

But despite the difficult start for Mae Tee, she has come on in leaps and bounds. The greatest improvement came when she was given a reprieve from being confined to the medical centre in order to keep her feet clean. For three short days she was allowed to roam free, and it was a wonderful sight on the first of these days to see her and Mae Kam Geaw head down to the river for a bath, with Mae Tee plunging in and immediately laying down in the swollen river (we have had a very early and eager beginning to the rainy season.

It has rained, most often with great vigour, every day for the past two and a half weeks. Very strange for this time of year). It was Dam who drew my attention to her, with a great big smile on his face. He was obviously as pleased as Mae Tee was at her liberty, telling me that it was better for her to be in ‘nature’ than chained all day. I have to agree. Unfortunately a few days later the vet deemed that it wasn’t good for her feet, and so for now she is back to the medical centre. But in those three days, I found that the dirt covering kept the flies at bay and meandering through the grass, however slowly, greatly improved her mood; and so I would take all the training gear out to her, chair and all, and work with her and Mae Kam Geaw wherever they happened to be.

These were very relaxed sessions, and Mae Tee in particular revelled in them. So when it came time for her to return to her chain, she at least had gotten a better understanding of the training, and just today she popped both her back feet, one at a time of course, on the metal stool, to great cheers of “dee, dee, dee”, (“good, good, good”)’ from both Dam and I. She genuinely seemed very pleased with herself that she had done so well.

She too is presenting her head and ear, but I haven’t worked on her front feet yet as I have concentrated heavily on her back feet. Whatever may come from this training – and the great hope is the ability to reshape Mae Kam Geaw’s nails which might save her from a similar fate to Mae Tee, or at least make walking a whole lot more comfortable, as well as being able to treat Mae Tee’s abscesses more thoroughly and comfortably – it will at the very least have been a good deal of fun for all concerned, a wonderful learning curve for me and the mahouts – sorry mum, the mahouts and I – and daily extra treats for the two girls. It has also been another amazing opportunity for me to get to know two wonderful elephants better.

I do sometimes wonder how long this can go on for, before someone discovers I really have no right to be living this life, taps me on the shoulder and says, “excuse me sir, can I see your ticket. I think you may be in the wrong seat.”

But until that moment, I’ll keep on. I can hear the last nails being hammered into the training wall as I write, (not really. I’m writing this at night and there are only frogs and crickets outside, but it sounded good , right?), so the next time I check in I will have about a dozen more elephants to report on as the training program takes flight.

As long as no one has escorted me back to the economy seats by then.




  1. We’ve checked the “flight” manifest and you are, indeed, in the right seat. The flight may be long, but the destination is beautiful.

  2. You write very well and honestly. And loving how detailed you get. Always looking forward to your next post.

  3. WOW! Nearly lost my breakfast just reading that. Michelle you are a freak – in the nicest sense possible!! Lots of love to you, and I hope you’re feeling ok, and adjusting to 4.5 fingers.
    Sorry to hear about Lily.
    Take care – xxx

  4. I think you deserve to be the holder of a first class ticket all the way on this journey of life. Take care.

  5. Karl,
    Having been to ENP and worked with the vet on both Mae Tee and Mae Kam Geaw’s wounds and feet, I give you a hearty thumbs-up!!! Those sweet, sweet girls deserve every treat and ounce of freedom they can be given. I’m horrified to hear of Michelle’s ‘accident’. I marveled at her skill with the knife and even posted about it in my own blog, so to know her accuracy streak came to an end with bloody results is devastating (more for her than me, I suspect). But I’m glad she’s ok and seems a bit non-plussed about the whole thing, eh?
    Again, buckets of gratitude for taking your time to keep us involved in the goings-on. I so look forward to each post and read them over and over with smiles and tears. I can’t wait until I can get back. Carry on!

  6. I just love getting these updates, Karl. Your written accounts of life there at the Park are so vivid and easily visualized in all the fun, scary and sad situations. Michelle, we know about, will never write a blog, so I am glad you gave us her recent escapade here too. Say Hi to all for me, and Thank You for your beautiful writing and willingness to share your “unticketed” life.

  7. […] “Well, it’s been a little while since I last reported on the goings on in the life of, not so little any more, Chang Yim, and my part in it; and in that little while, my part in it has significantly decreased. I am now, and for the past two and a half weeks, no longer Chang Yim’s mahout.” Keep reading via O Yim, Where Art Tou? « Elephant Dreaming. […]

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