I wake up early on my first day — as soon as the light begins to sneak through the tiny cracks in the wood, and the more than 100 dogs begin to bark their “hellos” to their cat neighbors and the elephants start making their noises out my window.
I’m too excited to sleep any longer.
That, and I really have to use the bathroom. There was no way in hell, at 4 a.m. when I first woke up, that under the cloak of darkness and the loud chirping of insects, I was willing to risk stepping out onto the crickety wooden platforms and trek to the bathroom. I don’t know what’s out there in the dark, and I wasn’t prepared to swallow my fear that first early morning. What if some wild jungle beast attacks me and my screams are drowned out by nature?
After a quick shower, I head to the compound to meet everyone for breakfast. Over breakfast, I explain to Pam my high hopes for my first chore at the park — pooper scooper duty.
When I first signed up to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park, whoever I told about my plans would ask me (without fail) what being a volunteer entailed.
My go-to response? “Basically, I am shoveling shit for a week.”
I’m prepared to do some heavy lifting.
So, when we met at the volunteer shelter following a delicious breakfast, I am a little bummed to see my first task at the park would not be Ele Poo Duty, but working in the Elephant Kitchen.
Our volunteer group is split into three — poo, kitchen and cutting corn.
My group heads to the elephant kitchen, a huge part of the compound that houses tons and tons of bananas, watermelon, pumpkins and more. It’s got row after row of shelves stocked from floor to ceiling with fruits for the elephant inhabitants to eat.
Shannon, a long-term volunteer in charge of prepping all of the food, explains our morning. First, we wash pumpkins, then chop them, then ration out bananas, then make mushy banana balls with the overly ripe bananas for the older elephants who can’t chew the fruits whole anymore.
We start an assembly line from one end of the kitchen to the other, passing along pumpkins and dumping them into a huge basin filled with water to clean them.
We’re about 10 minutes into the task when Jack comes up.
“We need one more person to come and shovel.”
“D, you were saying you wanted to go shovel poo, you should go,” Pam says.
So, I ditch the pumpkin dunking and head to the volunteer shelter to get a pair of gum boots on. It’s not raining, yet, but the last thing I want is to wear flip flops and be knee-deep in mud or poo or anything.
The gum boots are gross, covered in dirt from previous uses. And, they’re wet. I don’t even have socks on, but I decide nothing bad can happen to me by shoving my feet into dirty boots. And, if something does happen, like coming down with some rare and random jungle foot rash, I certainly won’t be the first it happens to.
I squash my feet in the boots and head out to the shelters to go help the group already shoveling.
It feels gross.
I can feel the mud scratching my bare feet in the boots. Swimming in dampness.
I shake it off.
You’re shoveling shit, D. It’s what you’ve been talking about for months!
When I meet everyone at the shelter, I jump in, grabbing a pitchfork and scooping up the balls of fiber.
Elephant poo isn’t like other animal’s poo I’ve seen. For one, it’s roughly the size of a grapefruit, and it doesn’t smell (what does smell is the urine). Compromised entirely of fiber, thanks to their veggie diet, it’s pretty light to lift. We don’t just scoop poo though. There’s husks from corn. Entire bunches of bananas that have been swallowed hole or flung away, discarded.
As we progress from shelter to shelter, about 10 dogs follow us. I immediately take a favorite — a thin boy who runs around with a stick in his mouth, but never lets us take it from his mouth and play fetch. We dub him “Stick” and laugh every time he runs by us, keeping us company but never getting too friendly.
We fill up quite a few tractors full with poo, husks and more — each time Chai, our other volunteer coordinator, drives away to dump it in the compost — we take a breather and hang out with elephants.
The best thing about our morning job shoveling? It’s fun. Yes. Fun.
Our group is chatty, and we laugh and joke and get to know each other as we shovel. We take turns, scooting aside when huge piles are flung onto the tractor so we don’t get covered. We help each other out, sweeping husks of corn onto shovels. We relieve each other when necessary.
We start to become a family that morning.
Our final stop of shoveling is the medical center where we meet two landmine victims, Sri Prae and Malai Tong. They have to stay in the shelter during the rainy season, otherwise their injuries will become infected.
I don’t want to look at their injured feet, but I can’t help it.
Malai Tong stepped on a landmine when she was being used in the illegal logging industry. Unlike most victims of landmines, she still has the front portion of her back right foot and can bare weight on it. After the injury put her out of logging, her mahout took her to the streets of Bangkok so she could gain sympathy (and tourist dollars) begging. When the government began to crackdown on the street begging there, they relocated to another province, but the money wasn’t coming in. That’s when her mahout decided to sell her.
Lek found Malai Tong distraught at the Surin Elephant Round-Up, an event that brings elephants to a central location from all over the country and highlights their importance in the Thai culture, in 2005 and brought her to the park. (The Round-Up also features tricks and performances where people can see for themselves the results of the torture they must endure for tourists.)
Sri Prae, the other elephant being cared for in the shelter, is a sweet girl. Like Malai Tong, Sri Prae was injured when she was being used in the illegal logging industry. Her front left foot went down on a landmine. For two years, she was in recovery, and now she can walk on it, albeit with difficulty. While we are advised not to really approach Malai Tong, we are given permission to walk up to this elephant and pet her trunk and feed her. She stands there, her eyes sparkling, as we all shower her with affection.
For a brief moment, we stand there, petting her, leaving the few piles of shoveling to wait.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in Sri Prae and her gentle ways. Her heavy breathing as we scratch her. The light flapping of her ears. Her curious trunk that reaches out towards us in search of fruits.
We finish shoveling quickly and head to unwind for a few before lunch and our afternoon activities. After all, we’ve got a tour of the park after our next Thai feast.
And, I can’t wait.