In her early twenties, Katherine Connor had a successful career as the merchandising manager for a Gap store in a fashionable part of London. She spent her income on clothing and accessories, bought her own house, got engaged, and enjoyed time with her career-girl friends. But something didn?t feel right. So in 2002, she quit her job, sold her house, broke up with her fiance?, and began what she thought would be simply a fun vacation that actually ended up transforming her life.?I was look- ing for something,? Katherine says, ?but had no idea what it was, until it found me.?
Describe how BLES (Boon Lott?s Elephant Sanctuary) began.
I have always had a passion for all animals, but elephants held a special place in my heart. I saw?a baby elephant for the very first time while traveling when I was 21, and I realized I needed to help conserve the Asian elephant. There was nobody putting the elephants? welfare first. Every place I visited, it was all about making money, bringing in the tourists, and keeping them happy. I wanted to make the elephants happy. In 2005, BLES was founded as a U.K. charity to help rescued and retired elephants. I started fundraising, working full time, and saving every spare penny I had. I sold practically everything I owned and stood on street corners in the pouring rain, holding a bucket?I needed every penny and was prepared to do abso- lutely anything to raise it. I moved back over to Thailand in 2006 to start building BLES. Exactly one year to the day later, we officially opened BLES and started taking in visitors. It has been a roller coaster ever since!
What challenges you about your work?
We have big dreams for the elephants and we need big bucks to make those dreams come true. We are fighting against time. Deforestation is destroying our chances of ever being able to release the elephants and preserve the other wildlife in this area. Once the land?is gone, it is gone forever. If the forest dies, all our dreams and hopes to give the elephants back their freedom dies too.?But when the going gets tough, so many things keep me going. My animals?all of them. We rescue dogs and cats, along with elephants. When I see them well, happy, and safe, that makes me want to carry on.
What is a typical day on the job like for you?
There is no such thing as an average day for me! I usually wake up around 5:00 a.m. and start my day with feeding the 14 cats and six dogs. Then, I iron the school uniforms and get my two eldest children up and ready for school. Finally, I try and jump online for ten minutes to see if I have any urgent messages before I start working with the elephants. I spend a lot of my time during the day teaching people about elephants. I do positive reward training with our youngest elephant, Mee Chok (Blessed One), who is three years old, and then examine the elephants for any wounds or injuries and treat them. We then take our elephants out on a walk, into the forest. We walk beside them and give them the space they need to be able to relax and just be elephants. Each walk lasts about four hours, and it is a form of meditation to sit and observe these beautiful animals in their natural environment, doing simply what they were born to do.
When we return from the walk, I collect my children from school and get them bathed and fed, then make sure they get their homework done. I jump online again quickly before the sanctuary guests?come down for dinner. Once the guests have retired for the evening, I feed the cats and dogs again and then get the children settled for the night. When they are asleep, I get back online and get the bulk of my correspondence done. I usually go to bed after I have fed my youngest son, who is still being breastfed during the night, and then it all begins again at 5:00 a.m.
What inspires you about BLES?
I love elephants because of their emotional intelligence. I love their ability to forgive. I love their intense passion for family. I love the fierce protection they show for their young ones, their physical strength, and what great teachers they are. I love that they are so loyal and that they allow us humans to walk along beside them. I love everything about elephants! I know I am doing what I was destined to do because, even after ten years of living beside elephants, they still move me to tears in a heartbeat, still make me laugh out loud, and still make my heart swell with pride?daily.
Once revered in Thailand, the Asian elephant is now an endangered species. In the past, elephants were used in Thailand?s logging industry but, once the government cancelled logging concessions, struggling elephant owners faced the choice between feeding their families and feeding their elephants. Now, the tourism industry has elephants performing gymnastic displays and giving tourists rides. Baby elephants are often prematurely separated from their mothers, reducing their life expectancy and overall health. Plus, elephants are often overworked, poorly fed, and sometimes abused.This?plus the reduction of forest space?all contributes to the decline over the past hundred years from an estimated 100,000 elephants in Thailand to about 5,000.