When Elephants Are Blessed

An Interview with Katherine Connor of Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary.

Posted Apr 14, 2017

Katherine Connor, used with permission
Source: Katherine Connor, used with permission

As part of our series on elephant psychological and cultural trauma recovery in diverse settings, we now hear from Katherine Connor, director of Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) in Thailand. As a country of origin, where Asian Elephants have lived for thousands upon thousands of years, recovery work differs from that in places like the U.S. and Europe where Elephants have been either imported or born in captivity. Katherine shares how she became involved in the care and psychological recovery of Asian Elephants and other abused and abandoned animals.

To bring in those less familiar, can you describe how Boon Lott was established?

Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary was founded 10 years ago, following the untimely passing of an incredible being, Boon Lott. Boon Lott was just two years and eight months old when he died, due to a long succession of unrepairable injuries, sustained when Boon Lott fell down a steep hill.

This fall resulted with Boon Lott losing the use of his back legs. Feeling heartbroken for him and let down by the casual acceptance that he was going to die, from the officials at the centre where I was volunteering, I took it upon myself to nurse Boon Lott back to health.

Katherine Connor, used with permission
Source: Katherine Connor, used with permission

I slept beside him every single night, tending to his every need. I bathed him, massaged his legs, treated his wounds, sung to him, applied essential oils to help him sleep. I cuddled him, read to him, wrapped blankets over him when it got cold during the nights. I prepared his food and oral medication for him, played with him - I basically did everything any mother would do for her human child. I also designed the world's first Elephant wheelchair and built a hydrotherapy pool for Boon Lott. We would swim together every afternoon and this was a daily highlight for both of us.

Despite showing signs of great improvement and teaching himself how to walk again, Boon Lott's little body just wasn’t strong enough to cope with the many issues he was fighting. A second stumble broke Boon Lott's femur in his back, right leg and he caught secondary infections from his open bed sores and friction wounds. Eventually, Boon Lott stopped eating and he lost his fight with life on June 26, 2004.

Boon Lott was lying on my lap when his heart stopped beating. My voice was the last thing he heard. My hands stroking him and my tears falling on to his face, were the last things he felt, as he took his final breath. My final words to him were a promise. I promised him, I would go on to do everything in my power to help his kind. I promised him I would tell his story and that the world would know his name. People would know who Boon Lott was and what he gave us during his too short of a life. I promised Boon Lott, in the moment of his passing, with my arms wrapped around him and as I leant forward and kissed his forehead that I would always be true to him and mission he had recruited me for.

Katherine Connor, used with permission
Source: Katherine Connor, used with permission

Once I had earned enough money to pay for my flight back to the UK, I found a full time job and started fundraising. I established our UK charity and worked around the clock to secure as much funding as possible to open up BLES. Every single day, I could feel Boon Lott with me, guiding and supporting me.

Boon Lott's was established almost 10 years ago. Can you talk about your philosophy and how it may have evolved during this time?

Our approach is really, very, simple. Our approach is kindness. I treat all other beings, how I want to be treated—respectfully, lovingly and thoughtfully. BLES is an intimate sanctuary and we strive to meet the needs of every single individual in our care and listen to their wants. We lead by example and are proud to see our local community embracing what we do and how we do it.

The work at BLES is trans-species as well as trans-human cultural. Have you experienced similarities in learning how to navigate across species and cultural realms?

BLES is a sanctuary for everyone who comes here. We currently offer sanctuary to fourteen rescued Elephants, twenty six dogs, forty cats, two cows, three boars, two macaques, ten tortoises and one crocodile. We have a human team of twenty-five people and we welcome six guests every week, in to our home, to share in the BLES experience. Over the years, I have seen time and time again, how the Elephants we have saved go on to save people. Several members of my mahout team, have come to us, looking for work, broken and damaged souls. After a few weeks of being at BLES, I can see how some of the Elephants reach out and take in these individuals and guide them on a path of self-discovery and recovery. 

Katherine Connor, used with permission
Source: Katherine Connor, used with permission

Many of our guests come to BLES to escape the hardships of their lives at home. Again, I have seen several of our Elephants, gravitate to certain people and connect with them, healing them with their wise and soulful energy.

Neuroscience says how much Elephants and human share in common in their capacities to feel emotions, thinking, and experience the rainbow of what have been considered uniquely human experience. How would you describe similarities and differences between Elephant and human ways of thinking and values? Are there more intra-species differences—say, for example, among human cultures—than inter-species differences?

It is true that people often talk about how similar Elephants are to humans in their thinking. However, I personally feel that Elephants are capable of a much deeper level of emotional and social understanding than humans could ever be. It is difficult to articulate exactly why I believe this. I have seen so many examples of how compassionate Elephants can be towards each other. Elephants are one of the most tactile species on the planet, always offering reassuring kisses to each other and gentle touches of empathy. Their compassion knows no limits and I often talk about how I feel that human families dealing with domestic issues, or couples struggling to stay together, could learn and benefit from just observing how deeply Elephants, and in our case, unrelated Elephants, unconditionally care for each other. They stand by each other, protect each other and are faithful to the end. They are maternal and nothing is more important to them, than family. Our species could maybe, one day thrive, if we based our behavior towards each other, on how Elephants treat each other.

Katherine Connor, used with permission
Source: Katherine Connor, used with permission

One of the most common questions that people ask when they hear of the Elephant crisis is "how do I help"? What can you suggest to these people who may live in places around the world? What can they do that makes a real difference and that engages them in deep change?

Every single person has a voice and has the power to make a direct and positive change to the world around them. The situation for captive Elephants in Thailand is depressing and frightening. But we can all do something to turn this around. If you are thinking of traveling to Thailand or any other country that homes a large population of captive Elephants, please do your research and make ethical choices about where you are spending your money. The only reason Thailand has so many tourist camps where people can ride an Elephant or watch an Elephant show, is because they are meeting a demand. The Thais believe this is what we want to see when we visit Thailand, and so they force breed young female Elephants, rip the calves from their mothers at just a few months old, break their spirits and brutally train them to dance, paint, play football, throw darts, spin a hula hoop—the list of degrading and physically damaging tricks is endless.

Katherine Connor, used with permission
Source: Katherine Connor, used with permission

People traveling to Thailand have the power to influence real change for the Elephants. Refuse to ride the Elephants, refuse to watch the shows—ask to walk beside the Elephants, to stand and take photos of the Elephant and pay money for this experience. If more people do this, our pleas for a more humane world for the Elephants will be heard.

People not traveling to Thailand can educate themselves about the plight of captive Thai Elephants and give talks, write articles and raise much needed awareness. I am such a big believer in using our voice for the voiceless...The Elephants and other abused animals of the world are relying on us to save them. We cannot let them down.

On a more personal note, how has your work with Elephants changed or influenced you?

I have learned so much about who I am as a person, from being around Elephants. I have learned how to forgive and how to be a good friend to those in need. I am calmer and so much more accepting of things I would not have tolerated before. I owe the Elephants and other animals that have found their way to us over the years, so much. I am a happier and better person because of them. Many of the animals we take in, come to us for healing. Through helping them, we help ourselves and there is an unseen, unbroken circle of love and acceptance that flows throughout BLES. I am so proud of that.

Finally, what is your vision of the future inspires your work? In other words, what would you describe is the best way for humans to live that supports Elephants in their journey to regain self-determination and healthful psychological and social lives?

Katherine Connor, used with permission
Source: Katherine Connor, used with permission

My vision for most of the Elephants who come into our care is to release them onto land that we have secured and protected for them. I hope one day to see our rescued Elephants living out in the forests as wild Elephants again. I want to see them thriving and I hope to be able to ask the mahouts where one of our released Elephants are and for them to answer me back with a genuine, "I don't know."