Posted by: kcullen75 | August 29, 2012

A growing stream of kids and dogs …… 1

My planned post of my time in Sth Africa has already stretched to 2000 words and I’m only up to my first week there. Given my complete inability to self edit (which probably means somewhere deep down I believe every word I write is important – something that makes me dislike myself just a little) I have broken it up into less ADD challenging posts. This is the first –

I was born in Ireland. When I was almost thirteen my family moved to Melbourne, Australia. When I was  27 I moved to Thailand, and have spent the majority of the last 10 years there. In April this year I went to South Africa to volunteer for 3 months. While I was there, on the few occasions that warranted it, I was introduced as Karl – from Thailand. When I was living in Thailand I was always Karl – from Australia. In Australia, I am from Ireland. When I first heard “This is Karl, from Thailand,” it struck me. It was natural for them of course, as that was where I had come to South Africa from, but I guess I had never considered myself as being from Thailand. So then where was I from? Not Thailand. So; Australia? Ireland? It was an interesting question, as it’s one of the first things people will ask you, isn’t it? Especially in a foreign country. “Where are you from?” As someone who hates Nationalism of any kind (all the flag waving and southern cross t-shirts, tattoos etc. on display last time I was here for Australia Day, I found quite disturbing, if I’m honest) it’s not an important question at all. I am quite happy to be from nowhere. But an interesting question all the same.

The other question most often asked – much more so in fact – is’ “What do you do?”  This is an important one, because it’s very often how people are at least initially, and possibly subsequently,  going to define you.  It may even likely be how you define yourself. For a long time I had a great response to the question. “I am an elephant mahout in Thailand.” The “Australian/white/foreign mahout”, as I was often referred to by others. Later it changed to elephant trainer, but it didn’t matter, it always sounded cooler than, “I work in a secondhand record shop” (nothing wrong with that either) – my previous response before I got the call from the elephants.  Apart from a few people, who I actually think didn’t really believe me, the reception to what I did was always positive and greeted with interest. That was nice. I don’t think I ever used it to deliberately impress people. I tried to never let it define me. It was something I did, just like thousands of others who didn’t have the Australian, white or foreign tag in front of it. It wasn’t who I was. Or was it? Is it?

By April I was no longer a mahout, a trainer or anything else involved directly with elephants. I was totally disillusioned with the captive elephant industry. I could happily work for elephants for the rest of my life. I loved the work I did. I just hated the context I did it in. I could no longer reconcile the two. So I left. That’s a short sentence, “So I left,” but there’s a whole lot hidden inside those three words. Leaving was never going to be easy, and wasn’t – but also should never have been so hard. I had done it before. It should have been easier the second time, or so I told myself. It was harder. The attachments that are built between people are hard enough, but when the time comes to stretch, or break those attachments, you can, to the best of your abilities, explain the why’s and the how’s; when it comes to animals, you are simply one day a present and possibly  important part of their daily life – and then the next day you simply are not there.

We may come to believe that animals which we have become close to have some innate sense of what we are doing and an understanding of what is going on outside of their immediate life and inside ours – and that may well be the case – but in actual fact, we don’t really know. But that may be what allows them to keep the noble tag of “animals” where they are able to move with their environment and adapt to the changes, (as long perhaps as said changes are not too sudden or dramatic, which is often only when the less noble tag of “human” has come on the scene), that come with it. But I am human, and thinking that this was likely the last time I would see so many animals who had become such a big part of my life was too much at times. It was a blessing in a way that I have spent the most part of the last ten years working for little or no money, and so when I decided that on leaving ENP my next port of call would be Botshabelo Community in South Africa, I had to suddenly figure out a way to get there. That’s where the paintings came in –see the last two posts – and doing almost thirty paintings in under a month helped to divert my mind from the task really at hand; which was leaving. And then suddenly, it seemed, I was leaving.

And almost just as suddenly, it seemed, there I was standing in Botshabelo, an hour or so out of Johannesburg, wondering who I was, where I had come from – and what the hell was I doing there?! I had first heard about Botshabelo when some of the people who lived and worked there had visited ENP and shown us the movie, Angels in the Dust, which was made about the work being done there. Walking out after watching that DVD, I had stated with certainty to a number of people around me that I was going to go there one day. Just under a year and a half later, my self-fulfilling prophecy had come true.

The Cloete family, who run the Botshabelo community and boarding school were not there when I arrived. They were out for the day and I wouldn’t see any of them until the next day, and some of them I wouldn’t see or meet until well into the first week. Life is busy there, and it seemed I had landed at a particularly busy time. My first day there was spent wandering rather aimlessly around the property, trailing behind me a growing stream of small children and dogs. If I was unsure what exactly I was doing there, the people I met as I bumped into one group after another seemed equally unsure. Who are you? where do you come from? what are you here for? how long are you staying? – 3 months or more!! What are you going to do here for 3 months?!! – why is there so much hair on your arms? can I pull the hair out of your arms? (seriously!) It was overwhelming – in the best way – to step into what I would learn later was the crèche and playground, where the youngest children, yet to start school, stayed during the day, and to be mobbed in a way I had become used to among the dogs back at ENP but had never experienced with children. I began to fear for the welfare of my clothing as, hand over hand children climbed me like a tree, and any assistance offered and noticed by other children was met with cries of “and me!! and me!!” but two arms can only lift so many children, and as I deposited one after another onto nearby climbing frames, tyres strung up for playing on, or swings resting nearby, the intensity lifted as a game was recognised as being afoot. “And me!! And me!!” came the shrieks, under the climbing frames, the tyres or next to the swings. Attention for children is similar to attention for dogs it seems. Exponential.

The offer came then by the kids to take me on a walk through the village – literally on site and made up of makeshift houses for the most part constructed from scrap metal and wood – and off we went, a line of children extending either side, hand clasped in hand, dogs bounding around us. It must be hard to find a better welcome than that offered by small children and dogs. Sincerity is their starting point, and you can feel sure that if they didn’t want to be there saying hello to you, or licking your hand (that’s the dogs!), they wouldn’t be.  A trait that fades quickly in people as they get older.

Soon after we came across some of the older boys who were shifting sand to their football ground, and having spent so long cramped on a plane, I jumped at the chance for some physical activity and joined them pulling the trailer full of sand. I soon found that the ADD that afflicts much of western childhood is not an isolated phenomenon, and soon the sand was forgotten and the children were putting on a display of acrobatics for me. This was where I first encountered Thapello – acrobat, artist, drummer and mechanical engineer extraordinaire, all by the age of thirteen. Thapello was to become a major part of my experience over the next three months. On this day though, he was a kid who taught me to walk on my hands in about half an hour. Guess you could add teacher to that list of skills.

It was five days before I would have my induction with Leigh and Nicole, the twin daughters of Con and Marion, the patriarch and matriarch of the community (though make no mistake, this is a matriarchal society. Sorry Con) Up until that time, I took myself around the grounds finding any work I could help out with. This almost invariably ended with me in the kitchen, where you can imagine with over 200 mouths to feed, there was always plenty to help out with. Slicing, dicing, grating, peeling and carrying supplies became the order of my days, and when there was down time I took myself off generally to see what the kids were up to.  By the time my induction came around I was wondering if I was going to spend the three months there in the kitchen preparing food. Not that that was an issue, as I had told myself that for those three months I was simply doing whatever I was asked to do, to help in whatever way I could help. I told myself that I was not there for any kind of personal experience, that it didn’t matter one bit what I got out of my time there, just what I could give back. Take as little as possible, give as much as possible.

A noble notion no doubt, but how many of can really be that selfless? Are we not always, always, after some kind of personal experience, benefit, validation, redemption; even just to hear people recognise how selfless we are? I guess I had struggled with questions like this at ENP; and had taken them with me to Sth Africa. I was after something, I was sure, but what that was I had no idea. “Something real,” I had ventured to someone in Thailand when asked what I was hoping to get out of my time there. What a stupid thing to look for. I don’t think I even meant it when I said it, but had to say something. Now that I was there, I was asking myself the same question, and had no simple answer. I really didn’t know what to want from it – perhaps just and end to asking those kind of questions.


  1. Ah K.C. the wondering philosopher. A joy to read as always. I do agree with you being asked where one comes from is expected to define who a person is. OK I was born in the UK but does that make me British, if I have to be referred to anything I prefer to be a person of the world. This obsession with nationalism causes more problems than it solves; if more people concentrated on collaboration rather than competition the world is sure to be a better and more productive place.

    Which brings me to the discussion on captive elephants introduced by Leigh. Naturally I agree with you that elephants at ENP and all such places are captive elephants as they do have the freedoms one would associate with wild elephants. Thankfully most other Asian countries categories all such elephants as captive whilst Thailand still sticks to the erroneous and misleading definition of domesticated for which they certainly are not. I also agree stopping ‘tourists trips’ etc. is not the direct answer. However I do believe solutions are out there. But any solution would need to involve true collaboration – if the various sanctuaries are really honest about wanting to provide long term solutions for captive (i.e. providing wild freedom) then they should be joining forces, working cohesively. Most crucially purchasing large areas of connected land. Organization should always be continuously asking themselves if they are the doing the best that they can, is the welfare of the animals really the highest priority – if so they cannot be satisfied with just maintaining the status quo the should be pushing for higher and higher standards. Learning from ‘constructive’ criticisms always leads to greater results than listening to praise – so anyone making constructive comments should be honoured and respected not as sometimes is the case treated like heretics”. Governments, supporters and financial investors also have crucial part to play if there is to be a new spirit of unity. Openness and honestly is really the best policy with the putting aside of individual egos. But are they up for challenge?

    So I guess the important question is not “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” but rather “Where are you going?”

    • Couldn’t agree more with Roger’s comments about co-operation and collaboration among people supposedly working for the same goal. It is something I have seen as sorely lacking in my time in the elephant world, with most org’s seeming to be in competition with one another – for what exactly I don’t know. Money, credit, often elephants themselves! It’s really ridiculous and destructive and gives almost no chance to the poor elephants, who are waiting patiently and must just be thinking, “when are they gonna grow up?”
      Openness and honesty are also two major hurdles. But is that not the case in almost every field of society? There is obviously a deeper core issue here.

      • About this core issue.

        Firstly I do not accept this age old excuse that it’s just human nature – there are enough ‘exceptions’ to make it evidently not true. Instead I think we need to look more closely at a man-made system that we have all grown absurdly dependant on. A system that requires one to be selfish in order to succeed, creates approximately 30% wasted energy globally every year and 40% wasted food. A system that creates a product that has literally an unlimited supply (yes it is literally created out of thin air) yet mankind will murder, pillage and destroy precious resources ,including killing many endangered animals just to get their hands on more of it. I am of course talking about the money supply and the global financial system which far from alleviating probity makes poverty a fundamental part of the system for without it the current money system would not work. Half the works population live on less than $2 US dollars a day yet there is enough money in circulation for every man, women and child to be earning $1,000 a day and yet all but a few governments are living with crippling debt that due to a mathematical anomaly in the system is in fact impossible to pay off.

        I accept this is going way of the topic of the blog, apologies Karl. But my point is the issues of conservation and the environment we all care about cannot be solved, in my considered opinion without first addressing the fundamental flaws in the financial system, principally because they demand extreme competition which produce environmental inefficiencies. However I am more than happy to discuss the topic further but appreciate it can be a bit heavy for most people. But in the words of John Galbrath “”The process by which banks create money is so simple the mind is repelled.” Still if you are interest I cannot recommend a better starting place that Chris Martenson’s Crash Course which explores in laymen’s terms the inter-dependencies on the 3 E – Economy, Energy and the Environment.

        • No aplogy necessary Roger. It’s not going off topic as it’s all related and intertwined of course and economics must surely be at the core of most issues in the world. But what’s at the core of that? Why do people accept and allow such an unbalanced society?

  2. Dear Karl, Leigh and the other bloggers

    I also had to rethink my way of living after realizing that the industry I was in was against personal beliefs.
    I love horses and as a natural consequence I have been working with them for 20 years. 5 years ago it occurred to me (I am a slow learner) that most of the industry is using them and that their welfare is dictated by financial goals. After much inner conflict, I decided to stay on board as I believed my small actions would make a substantial difference in the lives of those under my care. After 2 years and a lot more thinking, I thought that the best way to help make this world a better place for my friends would be to educate the younger generations. I enrolled in a BA and am soon starting a Grad Dip in education to teach in high schools.

    All of us in our own way- be it for elephants, dogs, horses or people- are striving towards the same goal: making this world a better place. Knowing that there are other people out there working on the same goal, questioning themselves and doing the best they can is a tremendous encouragement.

    Watching Karl and Michelle work with elephants was an amazing surprise. The revolution that took so long to reach the horse industry was spreading to other species. It is true that wild animals shouldn’t be kept captive and chains should be banned forever. Yet what I witnessed was a gentle and respectful exchange. What else could you want in the given circumstances? Change takes time and tools like you, Michelle, Leigh and me to happen. Be kind to yourself. You are doing an amazing job. Love to all xoxox


    • Thank you for your commenst Melina, and your kind words. I think too that education really is the key. The whoole world can change in a single generation – unlikely as that is since each generation has to take on and then dispose of so much from the generation preceeding it – but the problem (and I wish I could find a better word than problem here) is who decides how the next generation should be taught. Has there ever been a time where the world was didvided into more disparate ideologies – a great thing in itself in many ways – and languished inside a bigger area of grey, with daily changes in what society deems acceptable or unacceptable, right or wrong, good for you or bad for you, and so on. It’s a wonder anyone growing up now would still pay attention to any of it – and perhaps they don’t. And perhaps this is a big step forward. An overload of people telling the how’s and why’s of living your life may just result in more people saying, to hell with this, and just actually trying to figure it out for themselves.
      I am getting sidetracked, but the point I was moving towards was that education is supremely important -but first we must really educate ourselves; not with information and knowledge, because that’s almost always secondhand at least and often untrustworthy -but in how we look at things, how we perceive the world, and therefore being able to make our own spontaneous conclusions and actions based on what is, rather than on what we have been told is the case.
      Change may take time to manifest in the world, but fundamental change happens in an instant, when we can see clearly

  3. Karl, yet another insightful and thoughtful piece. It can be hard to know exactly what the right thing to do is sometimes. I had some similar misgivings during my time at ENP. But you spelt out the dilemmas more eloquently than I could have hoped to. Informed decisions will always be the better option, so at least you have assisted in that process by writing of your experiences here. In this world of quick fixes and celebrity, much useful and meaningful work is undertaken quietly and generously by many dedicated people. Often it is self funded and unacknowledged. You are one of these people and I for one appreciate it. Travel well.

    • Very kind words Denis! Thank you!

  4. Looking forward to part 2 Karl. 🙂

  5. Always find your posts so interesting. Have asked myself similar questions all my life and years ago left my job in the oil industry to work for a charity working with dogs (partly due to spending some time in Thailand and my visits to ENP and the people I met there). However this brings with it a whole bunch of new questions about the industry I now find myself! I daydream about having a job like you did at ENP and wish I was brave enough to take off to Thailand and pursue it. Sorry to harp back to ENP as you have moved on from there, but I am interested in your views on captive elephants. Do you view the eles at ENP as captive? Is there a better way as a ‘tourist’ I can help the asian elephant?

    As for the questioning, looking forward to hearing if you found any answers. I still haven’t and I suspect I need to change ‘what I do’ again before I get any. I guess what defines who we are is the kind of person we are on a day to day basis regardless of which job we do and where we are in the world, and as long as we can greet each day with positivity and passion, then perhaps the questions will cease. That’s what I’m aiming for anyway!

    Look forward to the next post.

    • Thanks Leigh. I think that’s great that you left your ‘career’ to look for something more fulfilling. That’s the point where the bravery comes in so I wouldn’t worry if it’s helping dogs in the Uk or flying off to the elephants in Thailand.
      As for ENP, I’m not sure I will ever be able to move on fully from there. The animals became such a big part of my life, and always will be in some way. To your question as to whether the elephants at ENP are captive – of course they are. I don’t think anyone would say otherwise. I certainly hope they wouldn’t as to believe they weren’t I think would be very damaging to elephant conservation. The elephants at ENP spend at least 14 hours a day in their shelters on chains, and when off chains are restricted by the boundaries of the park and the proximity of other elephants, all of which is regulated by the mahouts. I often described my job as a prison guard, as that was often the role that had to be played. Any elephant not in the wild is a captive elephant. Simple as that, and I don’t think there is any other way to look at it. That in itself is a major issue, but the biggest problem I have with the captive indusrty is that it provides service to a paying public which makes it attractive to both the owner of the elephants, and the public itself, to keep elephants in captivity, and given the mortality rate versus the birth rate in captive elephants is greatly out of balance and so elephants continue and will always contiue to be taken from the wild to boost the numbers in captivity (because remember, the owners want them there to make their mooney, and we want them there to have our ‘experience’, whatever that may be) and so in time, and probably soon, there will be no more elephants in the wild and the elephants remaining in captivity will be doomed, because they are just not sustainable there.
      So as to what is a better way as a tourist to help – I’m really not sure anymore. If everyone stopped going to trekking camps tomorrow for example – what would happen to all those elephants? And if they all are taken to ‘sanctuaries’ then as long as those sanctuaries are still profitting from and encouraging the breeding of elephants, then the danger is of creating a model that will just continue down the same track as I outlined above. But in a more acceptable manner to the general public; which potentially makes it more dangerous.
      I think the important thing is to stop with all the finger pointing, blaming etc. and state categorically that all captivity is harmful and wrong for elephants, even though it will have to continue in some manner at least for a while, and should be done in an ethical manner and with the most consideration for the elephants needs as possible, but always moving towards a state of no captivity. Re-introduction should be on everyone’s lips.

      I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph. As long as we are looking for answers, there will always be questions.

      • Thank you for your honesty, yes perhaps my question sounded quite ignorant. I didn’t realise they were chained up quite so much at ENP and obviously realised they have the boundaries of the park, which of course makes them captive. I was always under the impression ENP were working towards trying to create a world where there may be a chance for them to live back in the wild? Am I wrong? I know I have only seen a snapshot of ele life in Thailand (and other countries) and am probably quite unaware of the true picture…I just feel helpless but want to help! I was thinking of visiting the park again next year but have been wondering whether this is the best thing I could do. This was before your post! Dont really want to go into detail on here but just around some of the things I’ve seen change between my first visit and my most recent. I agree with everything you say about wanting to see elephants reintroduced to the wild, so perhaps it might be better not to be a ‘tourist’ and give money but to try to raise awareness and help in other ways? More questions for me to ask myself :o). I’d rather never see an elephant up close again if it meant they could live as elephants should. Thanks, and sorry for taking over your blog talking about elephants!

        • I think at least a part of the answer to your question Leigh about what can we do? is in your reply here, where you say you didn’t realise the elephants at ENP were chained up for so long. And this is not a criticism of anyone, or of ENP it should be clearly understood – but in all my time involved at the park it always surprised and sometimes frustrated me that people used words such as “freedom” and living a “natural life” in relation to the elephants at the park. The chains are hardly hidden and anyone can see the elephants chained up there by 5 in the afternoon and watch them get released before 8 in the morning, and yet there were many volunteers who sometimes stated that it wasn’t until later in the week that they even realised the elephants were chained. There is a strange inability in all of us to sometimes see what is right in front of us, once an idea has been planted in our minds. Particularly if it’s an idea that we dearly want to hold onto. This is a big stumbling block to elephant welfare – and many other issues of course – so I would say that one of the most important things we can do, which doesn’t take any time or money – is to simply allow ourselves to see what is actually right in front of us. To let go of any pre-conceived notions that act as a filter, and just see what is!
          I guarantee that really seeing an elephant for what it is, without the ideas you’ve already been given about what it is, what it’s situation is, etc. etc, or any ideas we already have of what we want or expect it to be, will change everything.

          • Thanks Karl, yes I am trying hard to view the world like that, because I am only (yes it’s taken a while!) just starting to realise that everyone seems to be out for their own agenda, and it’s becoming harder and harder to get to the reality of a situation. I feel stupid now, I visited the park 3 separate times and yes I knew they got chained in the evening and let loose in the mornings (“for their safety”) but somehow never really thought of them as ‘captive’ as such. Enclosed yes, protected yes, but not ‘captive’. What an idiot?! I guess in my head I compared them to other places where they are chained 24/7 and treated much less humanely than they are at ENP. However I’m not naive enough to think of them as free or living a natural life, despite also hearing those terms used. I guess I am wanting to hold on to the idea that everyone there is working towards the goal of ‘true freedom’ for elephants, and trying to purchase habitat where they can be free. I really thought that’s what my money was going towards any time I’ve donated to the park, but am starting to see by your words this might not be the case, otherwise why would you have left? However, surely if there were more ENP type places, that’s a step in the right direction, no? In a ridiculously idealised world if all trekking camps turned into ENP type parks, even if the eles are still captive, they are treated well no? Then these parks in time all progress towards reintroduction, is there still a chance for these beautiful creatures? Again you are probably right that I just don’t want to believe otherwise, the alternative (reality?) is just too depressing. Yes I see what you are saying about taking the time to just ‘see’ things. I manage to do it with the dogs I work with, people give them labels and pre judge them, but I like to just spend time with them and see them for what they are, so surely I can try to open my eyes a bit wider to the world and just watch and learn.

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