Posted by: kcullen75 | July 13, 2011

Yim Flew over the Cuckoo Nest (part 2)

I did promise a few days, and here I am, back again with the second instalment of Yim Goes to Hollywood (which was the title I was considering for this entry, but as I decided in the beginning to stick to movie titles, I passed)

When I left you all last, I was just about to leave Oakland for sunny San Andreas, to the Performing Animal Welfare Society: PAWS. Margaret Whittaker had arrived at the end of my stay at the zoo, and she was to drive me out to PAWS. Margaret is a training consultant for both Oakland and PAWS, and many others besides, so I was very much looking forward to spending more time with her up at PAWS and seeing her at work. On the morning we were leaving I was fortunate to have the time to run into a lady I had met years ago here at the park, Elke Reisterer. Elke is a practitioner of Tellington Touch and has practised on many different animals, in different parts of the world. As we were due to leave that morning and had a long drive ahead of us, I was only briefly able to catch up with Elke again, but was able to see her in action with some of the elephants there, and the slow, gentle massage that is t-touch, seemed to certainly help to relax them, and Elke certainly feels it has helped them both physically and emotionally. It was great to see also that Colleen was open enough to this alternative therapy to not only allow Elke to practice on some of the animals there, but was herself now also practising t-touch on the elephants. You can read more about Elke and her work at;

Then we were off, up the highway to San Andreas, where I was checked in to the Black Bart Motel (which drew numerous questions as to how I found it; but given I sleep on the floor here with a bunch of dogs and cats, with a bucket of cold water for a shower, it was like 5 star to me!!) The small town I was staying in was very much that; small, and I will admit to not venturing out much in the evening except to walk to and from Margaret or Brian’s car when they picked me up for dinner. I don’t know about anyone else, but there’s something about toothless grins, Star Spangled Banners and a church on every corner that makes me feel nervous. I blame the movies. But really, I am exaggerating a little for effect, you understand. There was the one night though, when I got home from dinner and the couple next door were enjoying a large bottle of Jim Beam while sprawled against their Trans Am parked out front of their room. The trouble started about an hour later, when I was almost asleep, and they realised their son had closed the door on them and gone off to bed, leaving them locked out. This was close to midnight, and they spent the best part of the next two hours, banging and screaming on the door (right next to mine, remember) and threatening their young boy – who I had seen on another day and who wouldn’t have been more than seven – with the most grievous bodily harm imaginable if he didn’t wake up and open the door, all delivered in language containing the full spectrum of colour from the Jerry Springer rainbow.

But I never did meet a drunk, cussing elephant threatening to strangle their son while he slept, so why don’t we turn our attention to them instead. PAWS is a sanctuary. A real sanctuary, founded by Pat Derby and Ed Stewart. The facility I was visiting is their newest, and is known as ARK 2000, is 2300 acres in size and houses not just elephants, but bears, tigers and lions also. They have at present, three female Africans; Lulu, Maggie and Mara: Three female Asians; Gypsy, Wanda and Annie; and two Asian Bulls; Nick and Sabu. Their three female Asians and one bull, Sabu, have all been exposed to the TB virus, which can be transferred elephant – human and vice versa, so when in contact with any of them we were required to wear face masks; which only added to the heat whose absence I had complained so loudly about when closer to the bay, but was no longer so vocal about now that I was further inland and the sun was doing it’s level best to shut me up.

The sanctuary as it stood for the elephants was divided something like this, (and I am relying on an increasingly unreliable memory for my figures here, so don’t quote me): 100 acres for the Africans, 80 acres for the Asian females, and about 30 acres each for the two bulls. Two reasons exist for the areas not being even larger; one being the expense of fencing these areas off – and Ed’s Fort Knox inspired fences seem to have acquired an affectionate, legendary status – and the fact that the river, which lies at the end of the land used by the elephants and the beginning of the hillside overlooking and owned by PAWS, can’t be used by the elephants by Californian Law.

Again, as at the zoo, I found all the people I met at PAWS to be extremely welcoming and helpful, and very interested in the work we are doing here in Thailand. For many of them, the concept of 37 free roaming elephants on less than 100 acres was about as foreign as could be to their experience of elephants there. While PAWS carried a very relaxed and easy going vibe about it, everything there seemed to be tightly managed and controlled – and when I say managed and controlled, I mean all of the peripherals, which in turn meant that the elephants didn’t have to be tightly managed and controlled. A neat result I should say. But there was no lack in care for the elephants as a result, as every elephant comes into their spacious barns daily and can be examined, have their feet taken care of, blood drawn, training done or any other needs to be attended to, but still spend the vast majority of their day out in their habitats.

I spent the majority of time there with Margaret and Brian, who is the elephant manager. Pat and Ed were away for the first few days I was there, moving a bear from their Galt facility to the newer and bigger ARK 2000, but Maragret and Brain were fantastic, and allowed me to follow them as they went about their duties; which involve all you would expect of any elephant keeper, but they do the vast bulk of any hands on work with the elephants. So there was a lot of training sessions, either just general ones or specific ones for such things as blood draws, trunk washes, (which is the main test given for TB and is required by all elephants in the US by law), injections, all footcare and so on. Again, I was allowed to participate, doing a little work on Nick’s back feet, and more substantial work on the ever accommodating Gypsy, who was often seen lifting legs into all sorts of positions when another elephant was being worked on, as if to say, ‘Do me, Do me!!’. I learnt a lot in this time, and Margaret and Brian were ever patient with my questioning, and always apologetic if there wasn’t much time on a given day where a lot of work could be done on the elephants; which was never a concern for me as I can totally understand the inconvenience of having another consideration added to an already busy schedule, and all the time given to me was greatly appreciated.

Added to their normal agenda was the fact that Sabu, a magnificent young Asian tusker who towers at least as tall as Max did, (I can’t say taller, I just can’t) was not feeling too great. Sabu came from Ringling Circus with the addendum that they (PAWS) would never be able to ‘do’ anything with him as they (Ringling) had not been able for, I believe, the last 15 years, as he was too aggressive and could not be controlled at all. Well, a short time later at PAWS, I observed them calmly draw blood and tend to his feet, and all of course by Sabu’s choice, a major factor of protected contact environments and this type of training. This should not be understated, because as I understand it, one of the major oppositions to protected contact from the free contact world, is that you cannot do all the things you need to take care of the elephants. This is one case – and it is not unique – of the total opposite being true.

Sabu, as I mentioned, had been exposed at Ringling to the TB virus, and so his being under the weather was a major concern. Added to that, his mobility is greatly undermined by tendon damage in his legs, so in a short life, he has already felt the sharp end of the stick more than once. It is saddening to see such a regal and magnificent animal reduced to hobbling around, but at least he has found a good and safe home at PAWS, where he can amble around at his own speed, and has more space than he will ever actually, sadly, be likely to use regularly. By the time of my leaving, Sabu had shown some signs of perking up slightly, and I hope at this time of writing that he has gotten back to his best. Margaret and Brian, who seems to have a special affinity with the two bulls (and I should say, is a very calm and relaxed influence on all the elephants as far as I could see) spent a lot of their day checking in on Sabu and consulting with the vet, as did Pat and Ed once they were back. Detailed records were kept on all the elephants, and there were people there also to observe and record throughout the night, so any change in behaviour or diet was picked up on very quickly.

Again, this is running on, and I have still to give an update on the goings on back here at the park, so even though I could go on with a lot more about PAWS, I think you should get a feel for the work that is done there, and some of my most enjoyable moments were the brief conversations I had with Ed, who had a very open and honest (and humorous) perspective on the whole elephants in captivity thing, and while I wont speak here on Ed’s behalf, I will quote from an article I saw on their office wall. where Pat was quoted as saying that they basically run a prison, in reference to their sanctuary. This was refreshing to me because it seemed to me then that, despite their enormous achievements, neither Pat nor Ed have gotten carried away by that, and can see even with all they have done, how limited that really is when it comes to the underlying issues of Elephants as a whole. Having often in the past also likened myself, when I worked as a mahout, to a prison guard, I can relate to this perspective fully. And despite it’s negative connotations, I think it is an attitude that can help to instil change, by seeing and admitting how things are, even if we are compliant in them.

For my time at PAWS, I want to thank all the wonderful staff there; Pat, Ed, Margaret, Brian, Mervyn, Terry, Michelle, Michelle and Michelle (seriously!!), Ron, Nick, Lisa, and again, any others who I have forgotten. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope to be able to visit again in the future.

So before getting back to the park here, I did manage to see a little of San Francisco before I left. I had hoped to get up to Yosemite, but as it was school holidays, it, and all the surrounds, were totally booked out. I wasn’t keen on doing a day trip, with a 12 hour round trip, and the experience likely consisting largely of going through the park, bumper to bumper in a van, stopping at the key sights to catch the all important photos to prove to your friends that you were actually there. Tick box. Not my kind of thing.

So instead I spent the best part of 5 days walking. I was staying in a colourful area just outside of the city centre called The Mission, which was a great place in itself to hang out, which was only two stops from town on the subway. So I got up early each morning, had a great breakfast in one of the many awesome cafe’s, and headed into town. then I would simply pick a different direction each day, and just walk until I got hungry enough for lunch, and then I would walk again until I was hungry enough to head back to The Mission for dinner. It was a great way to see SF, as the sun was shining every day and the streets were filled with people of all kinds of persuasions, the corners were dotted with some of the best street performers I have seen, and each corner you turned felt almost like you had entered a different city – or country even. It is an incredibly diverse city, full of life, with all the glitz you might expect of an American city, and all of the destitution that often comes along with that; and everything else in between. But I have to say, considering the sterotypical view of the American population by us outsiders, the people of San Francisco are among the fittest looking I have seen. Perhaps it’s all those monstrous hills, or also the fact that so many of them cycle or walk, but they did destroy some of my illusions of the overweight Americans. Disappointing. But it was a great place just to hang out, duck into a bar and see some local band that was playing, sit for hours at a cafe and read or write, have a dinner from a different part of the globe each night, and at prices at least half those of my home town, Melbourne; or just wander around aimlessly and see where you end up. Worked for me.

Eventually I had to come back to what I know as ‘reality’, and so here I am, back at ENP almost two weeks now. In the time I was away. Michelle had been keeping the training program going, and as was soon evident, had done a wonderful job in doing so. It was only three weeks that I was away, but here are some of the highlights I found on return;

Mae Geaw and Mae Jan Peng, two of our more senior elephants, both now offering their left and right legs on command ( no; I’m going to change that word to the more applicable, ‘request’), and in Jan Peng’s case, lifting them up and onto the foot bars of the wall. To put that in some perspective, Jan Peng was one who I had said from the beginning, that I didn’t expect much from, given her age and arthritis, and I had never pushed her at all. When I left, we had just started asking for her feet, with no response, so to come back and find her doing the can can, brought a great smile to my face. And in the time since I returned, she now is putting them onto the second highest bars, which puts her legs at a 90 degree angle to her body. I will never underestimate any elephant again.

Danee, who was always keen, but spent most training sessions, as you might remember, in a state somewhere between waking and sleeping, now comes charging to the wall at every given opportunity, with great energy, and would be labelled a pest if she weren’t so adorably cheeky about it. She is now putting both feet on the second bars with ease, and just a couple of days ago I started trimming on her feet as she was so relaxed about us touching and brushing them.

Mae Kam Geaw, another of our oldies, who I left in both the hands of Michelle and her mahout, Dam, who seemed a natural with the training before I left, is now jumping sideways to present her hips, and by Michelle’s account, Dam was as overjoyed when she first did this as Michelle was.

Kam Sai, who had never once turned up for a training session, is now coming twice a day. The reason she had never turned up was because her mahout considered the training of these older elephants to be pointless, and point blank refused. I had never pushed the point as I always want wherever possible for the mahouts to bring their elephants by choice rather than coercion, and knew that once Michelle came on board, her popularity with the mahouts could sway some of the more stubborn. This, perhaps along with the already apparent results with elephants older than she is, seems to have worked, and we deliberately waited until I had left before approaching him again. Now, as I said, he happily brings her twice a day, and always gives us both a warm thank you when we are done. Surely the best result we could have hoped for.

Every elephant has in some way made great progress, even if it is just in their demeanour during the sessions, and all elephants now are greatly relaxed and no longer seem to see it as any threat, except for Mae Keaw, who is still a little unsure, but getting better all the time.

And then of course there is Chang Yim and Faa Mai, the two calves. I was thrilled to find them both now giving open mouth presentations so well that we can easily see all their teeth, the inside of their mouths and feel around their tusk cavities, which in Yim’s case, are now filled by two little nubs, which time will tell whether they become tusks or tushes. I am hoping for tusks – not sure about his mahout! Faa Mai, who had been having A.D.D. issues, is back to her best. While I was away, she got more space in her shelter, lost her mahout and was reduced to just morning sessions. For one or all of these reasons, she is now a very keen student once more, and is hot on Yim’s tail. But yeah, he is still the best, and will be hard to catch; though soon enough, we should be starting on the two juvenile bulls, Hope and Thong Suk, and I suspect that Hope, who I still rate as the smartest elephant I have met, may put up a challenge. Something to look forward to.

That is where I am going to leave you. It was quite a mini-adventure those three weeks overseas, bearing in mind that 5 days in inner city San Francisco is for me what 5 days out in the mountains of Thailand might be like for most, and I loved every minute of it. Every minute that is, except the fact that all of it, and all of this, was only made possible by the fact that we have elephants in captivity at all; something that I know – even after having visited somewhere as wonderful as PAWS, where as much as possible was being done to make life as enjoyable as possible for the animals there – I will never be able to come to terms with, or be able to justify. Even watching three elephants share 100 acres, with no chance of any abuse from any human, with plenty of food and fresh water, mud wallows and all the rest of it, it still is tinged with sadness at the knowledge of how far removed it always will be from the natural life they were born to lead. Still so much to be done for elephants, it often feels like we haven’t even started, and yet it’s almost too late, but thank whoever is listening that there are such people as the many I mentioned above who are spending their time doing what they can to make whatever difference they can.

Protected contact is my new catch phrase; now if we could just put an Ed Stewart designed fence around half the world, then step outside ………

ADDENDUM (love that word!!): Below are two of the videos I have promised for a long time. The first is from last week, and show the first time we started any kind of footcare on Danee. Basically, I am just picking at them with the knife to get her used to the sensation, but I have since cit a fair amount from her pad, and started filing her nails. She has been great about it. You will also see a little of the general training we are doing with her.
The second video is a morning session with Yim from a few months back. You will see him present his ears, his feet fro brushing, turn and give his back feet and tail, give and allow me to hold his trunk and so on. He has come on again since this video, but given this was no more than 6 months of training (actually 5 I think by memory) you will agree that Yim is a pretty cool little dude!






  1. does the poor PAWS ellie have TB? you mentioned facemasks so I was wondering?

  2. Wonderful videos. Yet more proof that kindness is better than brute force. You are doing wonderful things in Southeast Asia to improve elephants’ treatment and health care. Thanks so much for sharing your blog and your videos. Kisses to all the eles and huge hugs to all of you for what you’re doing. You are my heroes.

  3. The videos can be watched now- I just watched both

  4. What does this mean? Private??

  5. Is Medo included in the training ??

    • Not as yet, though in time the plan is that all elephants will undergo this training. 37 is a lot of elephants, so it will be step by step progress for a while and some elephant can’t start until the second wall is up and running, which will be very soon.

      • Do you think she’ll be physically capable of handling it ?? She looks terribly limited – Is she in pain ??

        • No not at all. Danee is a very limber elephant. This is her first time having any footcare, so she is a little unsure, but we have done a lot more since this video and she has gotten better each time. She is around her fifties supposedly, so for her age she is doing great!

          • The midges first thing in the morning are terrible, and both Yim and I are getting bitten the whole time there, so he does very well to get through it so well. Will get better when the rains stop.

      • Hey, Karl, thanks for the quick responses – love any tidbit I can get about the ENP elephants ….. how do you think Medo (Mae Do) will do with the training ??

  6. Karl — Both videos come up as private. 😦

  7. Turns out Yim Goes to Hollywood would have worked ( Loving your updates! So impressed with all you’ve accomplished. Can’t see the videos because they’re marked “private”. 😦

  8. Karl, another fanstastic post. I can actually visualize those older ladies presenting their feet and looking positively, overwhelmingly cute. in fact, I am overwhelmed by their cuteness in general. My new favorite “word” is snorgle: “to snuggle a cute item in an manner meant to drink in or experience its overwhelming cuteness”. I would love to snorgle all the elephants at ENP (again).

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