Posted by: kcullen75 | March 1, 2013

Pat Derby

In 2011 I was fortunate enough to spend a week at the PAWS sanctuary in California. It was the first time I met the founders Pat Derby and Ed Stewart. In spite of their workload each day as well as Pat’s ongoing illness, they were incredibly generous to me with their time and energy. I was immediately struck by their honesty and openness, and also by their genuine love and affection for all the animals in their care and as much so, for each other. It was a joy to watch and came with no ego or agenda attached. I was endeared to them even more by their insistence that what they ran was a prison for prisoners (as they saw the captive wild animals in their care) despite the fact that they had built what to me was the first sanctuary I had come across that was deserving of it’s name. I may live to regret not taking Pat’s offer to come and work for them, but I will always feel blessed for having the short time I had to get to know them both. 

Reading Ed’s tribute to his partner this morning really brought that home, and if you haven’t read it yet I would like to share it with you below.


It has been almost two weeks since I lost my partner of 37 years-and-one-day, Pat Derby. Our anniversary was Valentine’s Day. I’ve been keeping myself busy, spending some time alone, and doing needed, but mindless, jobs around the Sanctuary. The entire time I’ve spent thinking about what to say to PAWS’ friends and supporters about the incredible Pat Derby. I told our staff I would write a short piece about Pat for our next e-alert.


Pat lived for animals. She never wavered. She never slowed. She never stopped. 

Obviously, she made her mark on the world – there have been lengthy stories about her life in the New York Times, the Washington PostDetroit Free PressLos Angeles Times, and almost every other major news outlet across the country and many from around the world.


Ed, Pat and Christopher

I met Pat in February, 1976, at the Cleveland Auto Show. She had the contract with Lincoln Mercury to do live appearances with “Christopher” the cougar at major shows around the country, a plum job for an animal trainer. My brother was the Lincoln-Mercury merchandising manager in Cleveland and he asked me if I wanted to work part-time at the show, mostly to make sure the models (female) were on time. That sounded good to a single, 24-year-old, so I agreed. He then told me about the woman from California with fiery red hair, who performed with the live cougar. The word around the car company was that she could be “a real pain in the neck.” She was very demanding in regard to the cat’s needs: she wanted carpeting in his room, air-conditioning, 24-hour security, etc. My brother wasn’t kidding. Pat wanted the best for her animals. 

It turned out that I was far more interested in the red head with the cougar than the female models. That March I moved to California, and a series of events over the next several years, put us on the path to creating PAWS. 

Pat’s book, “The Lady and Her Tiger”, written with Peter Beagle, was released later in 1976. It chronicled her time as an animal trainer in Hollywood, and documented behind-the-scenes abuse on film sets, and at animal company compounds. She never regarded the book as an exposé. She merely noted what she saw, and described her frustration with the “animal business” – a term Pat despised. 

As she said in her book,

Pat was born in love with all elephants.

 Needless to say, Pat was instantly a “persona non grata” in the commercial animal world, and that was fine with her. Her critics said she was never a good trainer, anyway. That, too, was fine with her. Ironically, years later, in a book by the producer of the television shows “Flipper” and “Daktari”, Pat was mentioned as “the best female trainer I ever had.”

We slowed, then stopped any commercial work with animals in the early 1980s. We hated everything about it. All of Pat’s animals were retired, including Christopher, and we were now working to support them. Things were quiet. 

In 1983, a young animal trainer who had read Pat’s book, arrived on our doorstep and told of horror stories going on in Hollywood, much like the ones Pat had seen a decade before. Pat was back in action. We went to Sacramento, met a young Assemblyman named Sam Farr (now Congressman Farr), and the fight was on. The result was AB 1620, landmark legislation for captive animals in California. 

Pat wouldn’t back down from a war. She fought the biggest and richest circus, the most successful Las Vegas animal acts, the Hollywood movie industry and one of the strongest lobbies in Washington – and she won. Pat never had a staff of attorneys, or a big public relations department, or even a personal assistant. There was never enough money with which to battle; it was like fighting gladiators with a pocket knife. . . but Pat was never afraid, because she was right.

Pat with baby elephant 71

In 1984, Pat and I started PAWS to fill a void. There was (and still is) a disclaimer used at the end of movie credits that said something to the effect of “no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.” That message meant little in 1984, and it means little now. There was no oversight of training compounds, or training methods for wild animals used in movies. PAWS soon joined the “Coalition to Protect Animals in Entertainment” to investigate cruelty allegations in Hollywood. 

An abuse case involving a tiger, lion and orangutan at a movie training facility resulted in the death of one of the animals. PAWS, and Pat’s good friend, Sue Pressman, investigated the case and the exhibitor lost his USDA license and paid a fine of $15,000. The quote from the humane organization’s president, which was supposed to protect movie animals said, “What you do in your backyard, really is not my business.” Pat Derby made it her business for the next 28 years. 

Pat’s first mission was to educate animal rights/welfare organizations about the reality of captive wild animals’ lives. There was no “anti-circus” movement when PAWS started, no one knew much about “surplus animals” from zoo breeding programs. Circuses beat and whipped elephants and nobody knew what to do. The public thought working animals were always well cared for and happy. Now, almost every animal organization in the world has an anti-circus campaign. That was Pat’s intent.

Pat and Ed with 71

I recently worked with a young person from one of the largest humane organizations in the U.S. on a bear rescue. When I mentioned Pat Derby’s name, the person said, “Who is Pat Derby?” I was shocked, but realized that Pat was in this for the animals only. She never pulled rank on anyone. Pat often worked with third or fourth tier employees from other groups, rarely speaking to a CEO. She could have had a giant ego, she had none. 

Pat and I never intended to operate an animal sanctuary. We cared for the animals left from the commercial days (most that Pat rescued) and the plan was to let them live a good life and die of attrition. Pat maintained her USDA and California Fish and Game permits, and at that time there were few, if any, qualified facilities to take wild animals in need. The county brought a lioness, a humane group brought a wolf (both “temporary”), and in August of 1986 the sick baby elephant, “#71”, came. The lioness, the wolf, and 71 all stayed at PAWS their entire lives. 

Our sanctuary has grown from 30 acres in Galt, California, to 2,300 acres at ARK 2000. Pat’s dream for PAWS was to one day have a place where “the elephants’ butts would disappear over the hill.” Thanks to Pat’s perseverance, PAWS, and the elephants, tigers, lions and bears have just that. There is no “state of the art” for wild animals in captivity, but ARK 2000 is pretty special.


Pat was, by far, the best animal person I’ve ever known. Her empathy for wild animals in captivity and her understanding of their behavior will never be matched. When she walked through the sanctuaries, every animal would respond to her voice. Even the most abused and confused animals would be confident in Pat’s presence.


I will always remember Pat in black rubber boots, jeans and a flannel shirt, leading a new elephant into a large enclosure for the first time. That was when all of the fundraising and the paperwork paid off. That was her perk.

1980s – Pat with friend Bob Barker

PAWS has been through tough financial times, but nothing dampened Pat’s optimism. When our friend of 28 years, Bob Barker, retired from TV, she was rejuvenated. I recently told a reporter that “Pat Derby was a Ferrari and Bob Barker put gas in it.”

Over the years, hundreds of “pseudo-sanctuaries” – a term Pat coined – have sprung up around the globe. Some breed animals, take them to do shows, and even sell animals. PAWS’ largest rescue operation was from a tiger pseudo-sanctuary. Pat always cautioned well-intentioned people, who are fooled by these facilities. She said, “if you are not working to solve the problem, you are the problem.”

I was Pat’s protector, sometimes physically, for 37 years, and her biggest fan. Sometimes, when people die they are unduly given “hero” status. Pat really was a hero. She could have done absolutely anything she desired. She could have been an actress, a top chef, an author, or run a Fortune 500 company. She was an expert on classic literature, music and art. Her grammar, vocabulary and writing skills were astounding. She was beautiful and entertaining.

Christmas in Galt

Pat could have easily made a living on late night television doing guest appearances like Jack Hanna from the “scientific” zoo community, but she wanted people to respect animals, not laugh at them.


People who choose to help animal causes are often criticized because “they do nothing for humans.” Pat Derby turned that ridiculous argument upside down. In 1986, she was one of the first women in the world invited into Rotary International. She was elected president of the Galt Rotary Club in 1992, and served on many District 5220 committees (Central California) throughout the ’80s, ’90s and into the 2000s. She helped organize food drives and toy drives in Galt, and chaired the Ambassadorial Scholarship Committee for many years. The members of the Galt Rotary Club affectionately referred to Pat as “Conan the Rotarian.”


Several producers have wanted to make a movie of Pat’s book. We declined, because live animals would have to be trained and used in the production. It was simple. If there was a “right way” of using wild animals commercially, WE would have done it. Pat stuck to her guns. The only movie about Pat Derby’s life would have to be animated. 

PAWS remains a solid organization. Pat and I have put together extremely dedicated and strong individuals to take PAWS into the future. Many of our key people have worked with PAWS for 15 years or more. I want to thank our veterinarian, Dr. Jackie Gai, as well as ARK 2000 manager Brian Busta and his animal care crew, for doing such a great job while Pat was sick. I look forward to working with each of you for many years into the future. 

Pat spent the last two months of her life in the house, overlooking the elephants at ARK 2000. She knew they were grazing on the mountain and sleeping in the sun. She could hear the construction at the site of Alexander the leopard’s new, spacious enclosure, which made her very happy. We discussed current projects and planned for the future. She didn’t like to hear people say how proud she should be of all she had accomplished. . . her work wasn’t finished. Now it’s up to all of us to continue the incredible dreams of Pat Derby. 

We should all take a piece of Pat’s ability, sincerity and confidence; there was plenty to go around. She was the best person I’ve ever known. She was a genuine “animal protection super-hero”, and I am so proud of her. Pat was not bitter, or sad, near the end. The only tears on her face were mine when I said, “goodbye.”

I want to thank all of you for making Pat’s life so productive. I miss her.

Posted by: kcullen75 | September 13, 2012

a growing stream of kids and dogs ………… pt 2

It was my fifth day at Botshabelo that I received my induction by Leigh and Nicole. This was primarily a list of do’s and don’ts for my three months there. Perhaps stupidly I found that I had already crossed the line of many of the don’ts. With a few of the people and children in the community affected by the HIV or Aids virus, and other blood born ailments there were precautions that needed to be taken, and I hadn’t considered that the main concern was not for something being possibly transferred from someone to me, but vice versa. This made perfect sense once I heard it as especially with something such as the HIV virus where a person’s immune system is greatly compromised, there is a much greater risk of me making them sick than the other way around. On my first day alone I had two children come to me with bleeding wounds and I had taken them straight to wash the blood off before finding someone who could dress them. I hadn’t even thought at the time that I may have been putting them in danger.

The other, and more difficult to accept precaution, was allowing the kids to be too intimate in their play with me. Not difficult to accept in the sense that I didn’t agree with it, but in the way it changed my interaction with the children (though after some time I’ll be honest I kinda forgot about it again). But this precaution was due to the past of many of the children which involved sexual abuse. Often form a very, very young age. So the simple act of having a young child climb on your lap, or some such, became tainted by the knowledge that children of all ages there were much more sexually aware than any child ever should be. Out of the corner of your mind you were suddenly aware of where a child’s hand might be and the like, and with often four or five –or more – children vying for your attention, you can see how this became difficult. And if a preschool girl was to absent-mindedly lift her skirt up higher than it should be, it wasn’t necessarily because of an innocent naivety of her own body – but perhaps the opposite. It is very difficult to view children in this way and still view them as children, but in time I think I was able to once again view them for what they are: children. Children who have had a very different, sad and painful awakening to the world, but still at the end of the day, almost in defiance of it all, children. This is something, again, that children share with animals. And a reason that we are so often drawn to both, especially when we grow weary of the world, because underneath it all, at the core I think we are all still children, and we are all at the end of the day animals. What better company could we keep?

What else came out of the induction was my main role for the next three months, which was the animals. I was to oversee the care of the many animas kept by the Botshabelo community. This covered the cows (eight when I started), the sheep (twenty three when I started), the two ponies, the pigs (I shamefully can’t remember the number when I started) and a core group of dogs. The other dogs and all of the cats were fed at the houses where they stayed. It was still a few days before I got the instructions and began the role (I was constantly reminded that everything ran on African time, but my assurance that I had plenty of experience with Thai time didn’t seem to hold much weight. It seems to me that it is really only a small, but influential section of the world that runs, likely to our detriment, by what we call “on time”). Basically my role was to make sure that all the things that had to happen with the animals on a daily basis happened – and on time. Other things discussed were possibly taking art classes and music classes with the children, but unfortunately this didn’t eventuate, but there was much more to be done outside of looking after the animals – too much to mention everything here, as like at ENP, everything was subject to change at a moment’s notice, and you always had to be prepared for anything.

Such as when in my second week there and electrical failure saw the water supply dwindle and in many cases disappear from the pump fed tanks that supplied most of the complex. The only still viable water supply was in the village, where a giant wheel turned manually fed a raised tank and water could then be extracted from a tap. As this was the water source for the entire village already, using it to supply the well over 200 children and workers at Botshabelo for drinking, cooking and bathing, the almost three days that the water was off became mostly concerned with ferrying water constantly in buckets and any other available container. So every spare moment I headed out there, turning that wheel for hours each day. Certainly kept us all busy, and for many of the children it became a good excuse for skipping their baths – which was tempting at times given how cool the evenings were. Something that took me a little by surprise. I had been warned it would be cool, but hadn’t expected to find myself by the end of the three months sleeping fully clothed and under two blankets. Most upsetting about this was having to wear shoes all day and night. Having grown used to traipsing around barefoot in Thailand, confining my feet to shoes and socks for such an extended time was akin to being imprisoned; and I can tell you my feet really screamed. There is really nothing like walking barefoot over natural ground, even though it may take a little time to build up the ugly big calluses that allow you to do it with full confidence, it is worth it. Day by day though I watched those calluses soften with sadness.

One of the earlier projects I took on was cleaning out the paddock where the cows, sheep and ponies lived. The cows would spend the days on the large, basically empty land out the back, while the sheep and ponies were kept in the large paddock. Daniel, one of the older boys who was n o longer in school, was charged with taking the cows back and forth, and on many occasions I joined him on the walk out, often jealous of his days which more or less consisted of sitting under a tree keeping an eye that the cows didn’t stray too far, and making sure they made it back for afternoon watering. He always looked very serene and content under that tree – but perhaps he was also a little bored. When I left I gave him a bag full of books which he seemed quite pleased with, so I have fond images of him now sitting under the same tree, flicking through a tattered copy of a book on African magic and superstition written by a Nobel Laureate, glancing up occasionally t see that his cows are still there.

But an immediate part of sorting out the animal paddock was getting fresh installed. It became clear quickly that the only water source at that dry time of year, when the runoff fed dam was bone dry, was the black water that ran out of one of the nearby houses. Daniel told me that was where they had been drinking since the Dam had dried up, so we carried in some old bath tubs which had to be filled by hose twice a day, which had to be taken from one of the houses and returned each time immediately so it wouldn’t ‘disappear’, and the hose fitting had to be gotten from a house where it was kept under lock and key as they were one of the first things that would disappear; and later, when the closest tap at the school broke, two hoses had to be joined together to stretch about 60-70 metres, through two fences and past all the crèche children who tended to find a hose in their territory irresistible – and well, you can see how a simple thing like getting fresh water to the animals daily could become quite complex.

After that it was a clean up, and given the daily traffic of so many children along with the villagers who seemed to see the paddock as a safer dumping ground to the paths they used (sometimes, not always), especially after payday on the weekends. Saturday morning always brought a fresh supply of broken glass along the fence line. Added to that was enough wire, barbed and otherwise, strewn around to have surrounded the paddock with another makeshift fence, and various other bits and pieces that the kids seemed to have dragged in their to play with, but forgotten to take out again. I’m not sure how long it had been since Thabiso, the guy who had my role prior, had left , but it seemed a long time as I took wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of material out of there for days on end, eventually resorting to the large trailer take all the larger stuff. But when it was finished it was well worth it. It looked like any animal paddock you might see on a farm, and walking around no longer found my foot snagged on yet another piece of half buried wire, which for galloping ponies, or scattering sheep, is a real menace. Added to that was the extensive build up of waste in the pens where the cows and sheep were confined in the evening. I don’t know how many wheelbarrows I used before I got down to dirt, but the pile of manure that built up outside by the end of it caught the eye of more than one villager or teacher who came to me to ask if they could take some for their garden.

I really enjoyed this work. The physicality of it, the autonomy, and the pleasure of seeing the results in the end. A small difference to the lives of the animals perhaps, albeit a satisfying one. But except for the interchanging pair of children who were assigned each day to animal duties, it didn’t give me much interaction with the kids. That changed soon however, with the assigning of duty manager.

There seemed to be a lot of changes in the structure of management in the time I was there, particularly early on. One of those changes was in the role of duty manager. The basic idea was each day two senior people there would take the role, which put them as the person who oversaw all of the duties of that day. Meaning that once said duties were performed, it would be reported to the duty managers and they would check it off their checklist. It more often meant that the person on duty had to chase around the people who were supposed to be doing said duties and trying to get them to do it. I was, to my surprise, put on duty each Thursday. I had said I was willing to do whatever they asked me to do, as I was just there to help in whatever way I could, so I didn’t object, but I did wonder how someone who really had no idea how things were done there, was to make sure that they got done. When I mentioned to the workers in the kitchen while peeling potatoes, that I had been put on duty, the amount of laughter that ensued was unnerving. The person who was on duty with me know exactly what to do though, right? When I informed them that Joseph was to be my duty partner, the hysterics reached another level. Joseph is the husband of Leigh, and his job there is as driver. I was assured he probably had less idea what the duties involved than I did, and would likely be about as interested in finding out as the potato I was peeling would be! Hmmm ……….

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.

Posted by: kcullen75 | August 17, 2012


My next post was supposed to be about my time in South Africa at the Botshabelo Community. This is not it, but while I was writing that I remembered how soon after I arrived there I was asked by someone in the U.S. to contribute to an online e-book about working with elephants. The idea was that each of the twelve chapters was written by a different person who had worked closely with elephants based on a different charcter trait chosen form the list given. I chose the trait of Patience, and took a morning off at Botshabelo to write it. I’m not sure when the book will come out, but will certainly let everyone here know when it does.  As it’s about elephants, and elephants were (and still are) the reason this blog exists, I thought I would share it. So here it is:




“Come on Max!” These were the first English words that Max – or Maximus, to use his full name – learned from me. They were the words that he was to hear regularly over the five years that we lived together, day in, day out.

Max was big. The biggest, as his name suggests. Max was old, Older than the years he had lived, which were many; though we didn’t know exactly how many. And Max, like all elephants who live captive to man, was hurt. So very hurt. His body was battered and bruised from years of working for us, his long, long legs had been twisted and broken from over use, from lack of use and from a great big truck that had been rushing, like all great big trucks, to somewhere and something that it thought was important, (and surely wasn’t) and in its rush had failed to see Max walking the streets home from work. Max was important.

But it was not just his body which was hurt. It was inside, where it is most difficult for us to see, we people who live almost always on the outside, that Max had been hurt most of all. It was inside Max that the scars were the deepest.

When I first met Max he seemed lifeless. He was alive in the simple sense. He was eating – a little; breathing – softly; moving – oh so slowly; sleeping – fitfully. But being alive yet lifeless seems a common existence for the captive elephant. What is missing from a captive elephant who is alive yet lifeless you might call spirit, soul, a natural relationship to the world around them. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but if you look, truly look, you will see, you will feel that it is missing. And if you are patient and allow the elephant to show you, you will see, you will feel, that it is not missing at all. It is there, always, waiting patiently for us to see it, to feel it. This is what living with elephants has taught me.

“Come on Max!” It is five years later and still I am waiting for Max. Or so I see it. From the beginning, when I was suddenly given the task of caring for this giant, with no idea then of how to do that, I had decide that I would always wait for Max. I would always call and encourage him to where I wanted or needed him to be, which I hoped on most occasions would also be where he wanted or needed to be, and I would never “drive” or push him from behind as I saw most other mahouts doing. Max needed to go at his own pace to allow room for that spirit to come back to the fore, and I would simply have to be patient enough to give it as much space to grow as possible.

And grow it did! In those five years Max grew from a lifeless shell to a bull elephant once more interested in his surroundings, in the other elephants around him, in life and in living. And the same thing grew in me. With all my inexperience and mistakes and constant searching for a way to give Max a better day each time the sun rose, Max never once scolded me, corrected me sternly, took my hand in his trunk to show me a better way. He simply stayed eternally patient so as that by looking at and really seeing him, I could come to see it by myself. A new, better way, each and every day, because with patience, there is no end to learning. No full stop.

Max has passed away now. But his lessons still grow in me. Not just his, but all the elephants I have lived and worked with; including most recently the highly spirited young bull, Chang Yim, who has no time to allow for our patience to come to him, because he knows we should already be there. For the sake of the elephant, we have to already be there.

Why? Because time is running out for the elephant. They have walked the earth longer than we have, but for the past few short thousands of years they have walked it too closely by our side, and our chains and hooks and constant wanting of something, anything, from them has shortened their footsteps to a crawl. They have waited patiently for us to see them, to really see them, and to release them from our world of always wanting more – faster, with no time to wait for the broken and dispirited elephants like Max to catch up.

But the elephants will wait, with their eternal patience, for us to learn what we need to learn so we too can be alive, but not lifeless. Even after they have left their last footprints on the Earth, they will wait, patiently.

“Come on Karl!” I can hear Max calling to me.


Posted by: kcullen75 | August 15, 2012

Thank You

It’s been a long time since I last posted here, and the last time I did I was asking for help to raise money to get myself over to South Africa. Well, thanks to all the people who purchased my paintings, or very kindly made a donation, I raised the money in less than a month. I have since returned and am now back in Melbourne, and will soon post a blog piece on my three months there (I’m still getting it all straight in my head) but for now I wanted to post the paintings that I produced in that month which allowed me to have that amazing experience – and most of all, to say a massive thank you to all those who helped.

I would also add that anyone ever interested in commissioning a painting, I would be more than happy accommodate. The hope is that I will keep painting either way, and will post any on here.

Again, thank you all!!




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