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…but where do we start?

In 2011 I stayed in Elephant Nature Park http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/ in Chiang Mai in Thailand  for 3 months .  Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary in the North of Thailand where they rescue elephants from the tourist industry, logging industry and landmine victims. After being volunteers there the year before with my girlfriend and Co-Founder of Elephant Haven  Sofie Goetghebeur, Lek and Darrick gave me the opportunity to come for 3 months and take care of Jarunee . 172643_10150102789972076_634492075_6429828_6375936_o Jarunee has become a blind elephant just before I came. It was so different than working in a zoo with elephants. I started at 6.30am and often finished at 7pm, working with elephants is of course not a 9 to 5 job.

We started our relationship from scratch. It took some weeks to get to know each other.  What I learned over the years is that you do not rush things with animals, take your time and especially let them take their time. I respected her personal space, helped her not to bump into things and other elephants some times because she was very afraid in the beginning. I followed her everywhere, not always easy especially when she was going into the direction of a bull in musth.

During my time there I had the opportunity to meet Carol Buckley (Founder of Elephant Aid International  http://www.elephantaidinternational.org/ and co founder of The Elephant Sanctuary https://www.elephants.com/ ). What an honor to meet her and  be there while she trained  the elephants for footcare.

What an inspiring woman!

Over some time I started training with jarunee, based on positive reinforcement that I always did at the zoo. The only difference is that at the zoo we never entered their enclosure and now I was.  We did 2 short training sessions a day and my end goal was that I could clean her feet and maybe even start trimming them.  It was my first time that I trained a blind elephant so it was new for me too. After about 20 lessons she lifted her front foot to touch gently the target. Yeahhhhh!! Was so proud of her!


After that, our relationship was really nice, she followed me, sometimes when I walked in front of her she touched me gently with her trunk to feel where I was, although she could hear me too. After 2 months she was more relaxed and started enjoying other elephants. I could see that she was doing much better with other elephants so I said goodbye to her and to the Elephant Nature Park. I could not thank Lek and Darrick enough for giving me the opportunity to have this journey with Jarunee.  During those 3 months I got even more convinced and determined  to start up the first elephant sanctuary in Europe!

Tony Verhulst, Founder of Elephant Haven



Elephant Haven

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