The Safari Park Zoo
We arrived in Kanchanaburi unsure of what to expect of our time at the Safari Park Open Zoo. We were excited to see animals but we didn’t know much about the project. At the designated meeting spot in town we met a few of the other new volunteers, had a bit of lunch and waited.
A young couple arrived, out of breath, with mud on their boots and a few holes in their shirts. “Sorry we’re late and covered in poo!” the young woman shouted to us with an apologetic smile and a strong British accent. “But just give it a day or two and you’ll be just as poo-covered!”
“Something for you to look forward to,” the man beside her added wryly.
They were Tat and Ned, the creators of the volunteer project, and while she bubbled over with excitement and enthusiasm, he met her every remark with wit and sarcasm. They bounced off each other as they explained what we were about to jump into.
“You may have to look out for scorpions and poisonous centipedes, mate.”
“It’s basically glorified camping. But don’t worry- only one cobra in the house all year!”
“If you get stung by a scorpion you get the day off.”
“I’ve been stung twice this month, but it’s not so bad. The centipedes are devils though. If you chop them up into four bits you get four centipedes.”
With such assurances we were more than ready to get started.
Tat took out a paper and read off a list of things to know, “We have monkeys and lions and elephants. There are binturongs, and we have a tiger. Here’s our schedule, breakfast is at 6:30, out the door by 7 to clean the poo. We love to clean the poo! Ned, you want to talk some?” she asked, handing him the paper.
“Not really. Where are you at on the list?”
“Oh, I’ve been skipping around. Got bored with everything in order.”
“Well. So…” he scanned the list, “Yaya needs feeding!” he hopped up and ran off to feed the tiger.
“Ok… well then, who wants to play with a monkey?”
A few years ago Tat came to the Safari Park Open Zoo and didn’t like what she saw. There were animals in neglect, stuck in empty cement cages rarely cleaned, fed only dog biscuits and rice. Large cats were chained to tables and posts and used as photo props with the tourists. She knew that she needed to do something.
After months of exchanging emails with the park owner, she finally convinced him to allow her to start a volunteer program and she quickly set to work. Tat and Ned have been living and working at the zoo for the past year, not employed by the park but volunteering all their time and money to the animals that need it most. Sustained by fundraising and donations, they have brought over 50 volunteers to the park over the course of the year. They’ve expanded cages, gotten most of the big cats off the tables and posts and into proper enclosures, healed monkeys both physically and emotionally that had previously suffered from lives of neglect and abuse, taught binturongs how to climb and swim, rehabilitated and released owls and squirrels, and have even saved the local street dogs. They have created awareness where before there was none, and they are part of a new movement in Thailand to protect animals and put a stop to abuse. All in one year.
Nicole and I only had one week with the zoo, but it was an amazing week. Our days consisted of waking up early to feed monkeys and clean their cages (Tat and Ned weren’t kidding about the poo), walking the lions and tiger to and from their daytime enclosures and bottle feeding the young lions and leopards, riding elephants, hand feeding giraffes and giving endless back-scratches to Chutney the gibbon and Trouble the endangered Phayre’s langur.
One morning I had just finished feeding chicken carcasses to the leopards. Goo from the fleshy meat stuck to my fingers and palms. As I swept out a monkey cage my hair swished in front of my face, hot and sticky from the humid day. I blew a strand away from my eyes with a huff, “I’m just going to put my hair up. I’ll get chicken guts in it but that’s better than having hair in my face.”
Nicole raised her eyebrows, “Well, I think that’s debatable.”
But the work took priority, even over keeping chicken guts out of hair. The volunteers are passionate about the project because it is full of amazing experiences, run by people that are excited and motivated to make a positive change.
After cleaning monkey cages we would head over to the tiger’s line --- wire stretched between two trees that the tiger was clipped to, giving her room to wander around for a few hours each day. Two young lions, Simba and Narnia, had just been introduced to similar lines and we’d all meet there to watch the cats play and sometimes get in on the play ourselves. You had to be careful, though.
“Narnia’s a biter,” Ned warned.
“Look out!” came a shout as Narnia pounced at one of the volunteers who had their back to the young cat (don’t put your back to a lion or tiger, just a tip). Narnia’s teeth grabbed their shirt and ripped away a hole as a pair of hands grabbed her collar and pulled the lion away.
“Narnia’s a biter, Narnia’s a biter, Narnia’s a biter. Cannot stress that enough.”
“Just look out for her bitch face and you’ll be fine!” Tat put in with a laugh.
Simba, several months older than his biting companion and much larger, was also much gentler. You needed to keep an eye on him to make sure he didn’t go in for a playful pounce and sink his teeth into your ankle (he is a lion, after all), but he loved to have his belly rubbed and to roll around with the volunteers. Catalina, a young Colombia-born and Sweden-raised volunteer who arrived the same time we did, had a special affinity with the lions. She could jump right in with them and meet them lunge for lunge, winning every wrestling match with the young cats.
“Simba, koi!” she commanded, ordering him to calm down. The lion let out a big sigh, then flopped his body into the grass. She rewarded him with a belly scratch and a hug as he closed his eyes with contentment.
“Watch out… Narnia…” and once again the younger cat leapt in to catch her new prey.
Catalina scrambled to her feet just as Narnia landed on Simba and the two fell into a playful fight. ”Hey, Narnia!”
“It’s ok. Bite no die” Toi, the big cat caretaker at the zoo, reassured us. “She bite, you no die.”
The cats continued their play but it was time for the humans to head back to work. Nicole and I spent a lot of time building enrichment for the monkeys – chopping trees down and putting them up in the enclosures, hanging rope and ladders for them to climb, filling the bottom of their areas up with substrate (leaves from the forest floor) and making tasty snacks that were difficult to open or that were hidden to try and stimulate the monkeys and build their problem solving skills.
One day we spent atop elephants, sans saddles, and tromped through the jungle. Another afternoon we headed out to the “safari” to feed the giraffes with Salapong, one of the zookeepers. He handed Nicole and I buckets of carrots and a herd of the tall animals swarmed us, weaving their long necks around each other to get mouthfuls of the fresh veggies. They stepped over us and we ducked under them, avoiding their knobby knees and heavy feet. Their long purple tongues reached out to grab the last bits at the bottoms of the bowls while Nicole and I laughed in amazement.
Nicole squealed, “It’s a forest of giraffes!” as another animal craned its neck to check her bowl for more carrots, his face inches from hers.
To end the days, evenings were spent having BBQs by the river or drinks out in Kanchanaburi, getting to know each other.
“Hey, Tat, do you believe in ghosts?”
“Nah, mate. I can get myself freaked out with ghost stories but then I think, there MAY be a cobra under that truck there. So, I've got much more real life things to worry about these days.”
Tat and Ned never failed to supply stories of the animals’ antics (and their own) and other volunteers came from all over the world that brought their own perspectives and ideas to the table. It was a fantastic time of getting to know diverse, interesting, inspiring people and incredible animals. Nicole and I both came away from the project impressed with the way that Tat and Ned saw a problem and simply decided to fix it. They have devoted their time and energy to right wrongs, because it needed to be done. We laughed with them, learned with them, and fell in love with their project and the work that they’re doing.
At the end of the week we said our goodbyes with hugs and rounds of thanks and reluctantly headed away from the sleepy zoo in the middle of the Thai countryside and the animals that have been given new lives through the project’s efforts.