*Don’t worry that’s paint on my hands, not poop in that cover image… I’m not that gross. 😉
We have gone from picking up elephant poop everyday to picking up monkey and bear poop twice a day. I think it’s fair to say that at this point, we are skilled professionals in the field of picking up animal poop. So, we go to sleep at night very comfortably knowing that if something doesn’t work out for us back in SF… at least we have a career in shoveling shit. Thank god.
Where We Are and Some Background
We are at the Laos Wildlife Rescue Center run under the WFFT organization based out of Thailand. What’s really interesting about this place is that it functions as two entities, a zoo and a rescue center. The owner of the zoo needed proper management a couple years back to keep the zoo functioning and a couple failed NGO and management attempts later, WFFT was asked to step in. They had one condition and that was they had to change their philosophy and name, turning the zoo into a rescue center. Now the rescue center does still function as a zoo or “educational center” as they like to say here but in addition there is a rescue, enrichment and recovery center, which is where we work.
What We Do Everyday
The day to day consists of cleaning up the shelters, feeding the animals, making enrichment activities (which I will expand on shortly) and working on construction projects around the park. These projects consist of scrubbing and painting enclosures, making new enclosures with cement, branches, plants or tires. Renovating old walls and structure or lending a hand to anything else that will help the park run a little more effectively. The manual labor is actually quite intense and gets exhausting even after 4 hours, especially because we do it in monsoon or shine.
The best part of the day is making the “enrichment” for the animals. This means we make challenging “puzzle” like activities for the animals to engage their minds and give them something to encourage activity, to stimulate natural skills that they would use in the wild throughout the day. Every enrichment is catered to what the specific animal needs or is good at. That might mean sunflower seeds and grass stuck in bamboo for the baboon or tires with fruit stuck in it for the bears or a plastic ball with fish in the middle for the otter. Every enrichment is catered to each animal. This part is really fun because you get to be creative but also because it probably is the one thing that you are doing that really helps enhance these animals lives and it’s extremely enjoyable watching them try to figure it out.
What We Learned
- Stereotyping: Stereotyping is different syndromes or unique tendencies that animals tend to develop in captivity. For example, swaying back and forth, standing on their hind legs, throwing poop, sucking their thumbs, etc. This is actually quite sad because when you see an animal stereotyping it almost seems like you are in a psych ward. The hardest thing is that when animals do this, people generally think it’s cool or cute or funny and encourage said behavior, but really the animal is going through trauma…which is hard to watch.
- Sheltering vs. Breeding vs. Release Programs: We learned a big lesson at the rescue center, which was the different types of programs that surround animals and how they are protected by humans. One way to do this is through a “shelter” which would be like a rescue program or a zoo that we were at, taking in animals that are injured, being sold, or mistreated. Then, there is the breeding program which would be like the turtle conservation program which takes an endangered animal and breeds it so that they do not go instinct. Then, there is the release program that takes animals who have a chance of returning to the wild like Jaguar Rescue Center or Elephant Nature Park and they help the animals regain skills they need to go back to their natural habitat and hopefully release them. So when we see a Polar Bear at a zoo and think to ourselves, “why can’t we just release this Polar Bear back in Antarctica?” it’s a bit more complicated than that. Releasing an animal without properly training them or informing the surrounding environment, they will simply not survive, which we expand on in the next point.
- Politics of Animal Places: Something else that was interesting to us was the question of “why can’t we release them all?”. Looking at a lot of these animals who clearly are not happy, and we think they should be released and knowing the directors and staff who are kind hearted people who love animals,we tended to think “why on earth would they keep them here?”. And this is where the politics and money plays a part. To release an animal back to the wild it takes a lot of money and you need to jump through a lot of hoops. For example, in Laos there is no protected land by the government so if you were to release an animal back into the wild, they could get killed for food or souvenir. They could be dangerous to the people of Laos depending on where they were released, if they go into houses or villages and look for food. Or they could die because they don’t have the resources they need to survive in the wild. Therefore, you are stuck with this burning question of “what is more humane?”, keeping an animal that is unhappy but extremely well looked after or releasing it to it’s uncertain future. And in most cases… having the choice is not even an option.
- The upkeep of a GOOD animal shelter: It takes a village to keep one of these things running. We weren’t completely aware of this at ENP because we weren’t behind the scenes enough to know. However, here at LWRC we are 2 of the 3 volunteers with only 5 other direct staff members. We are working 24/7 just to keep the animals clean and fed. Of course there are many other workers at the zoo, restaurant and on the construction team but not that are in direct contact with what we are doing. Everyday you can see the passion and devotion that you need to run one of these places because you literally don’t have days off, because animals don’t have days off either.
- Humans are jerks: Which we all kinda secretly know. Of course humans can be wonderful and caring and great. But I think its safe to say the mass majority aren’t looking at animals as something that has a soul, yet as something that will make them money or help them in their life. Someone told us that humans are the only organism that you can take off the planet and everything would still function just as it should be. Which is pretty crazy and sad. So if there is something we learned through our animal volunteering it’s this; make a difference, whatever it is you care strongly about… because we might not solve the issue, but at least we won’t contribute to the problem.
Cool Animal Facts
- The Binturon is a really cute animal and can rotate their feet 180 degrees
- Gibbons (type of monkey) are different colors depending on gender, they mate for life and have a song with their mate that they sing every morning and throughout the day
- Crocodiles can use their tails to propel out of the water, and potentially over enclosure walls (scary)
- There is a caterpillar that fakes its own death, gets taken by ants to their nest, then mimics the sound the baby larva ants make when hungry and gets ant slaves to feed it all day everyday
- Some types of turtles eat fish… weird
- Black bears are just the cutest and act like dogs. My new favorite animal.
Now we are off to Vietnam and Cambodia for a week before we make our way back for some relaxation on the beaches in Southern Thailand…so bye for now!!