Bears kept as pets, monkeys that used to pick coconuts, and elephants zoos can’t afford to feed: a Thai sanctuary is taking in abandoned animals despite struggling financially after nearly a year of coronavirus restrictions battered the tourism industry.
“My biggest concern now is that we have 850 animals that need the best care possible,” Edwin Wiek, the gregarious founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), told VICE World News. “It’s just a matter of when the country opens up. If it takes until June or July it will be a disaster for us and other industries.”
With under 100 reported deaths from the virus, Thailand has avoided the extreme human toll that it has taken on other countries. But in a place that used to get 40 million tourists a year, the economic impact has been devastating.
It has hit zoos, animal tourist attractions and wildlife refuges hard. Operators cannot afford to pay food and expensive veterinary bills. Wiek, a Dutch national who has worked in the country for decades, said he is aware of at least four zoos that are in the process of shutting down for financial reasons, including those with tigers and elephants.
Before the pandemic took hold, the foundation, which was established in 2001, had set up a lodge to help fund operations. But tourism has dried up and they have lost 80 percent of their funding.
In a fundraising stunt to raise awareness in July, Wiek spent four days and four nights in the small cage of a former captive chimpanzee named Canoe.
Canoe had been locked in the cage in the center for Bangkok alone for 32 years as a tourist attraction and was the subject of an ultimately successful animal welfare campaign to free him.
While Wiek was in the cage he live-streamed it on Facebook and YouTube. The video was a hit and they made $30,000 in four days, enough to fund operations for a month.
“I kept waking up. I never realized how much noise elephants make when they sleep,” Wiek recalled. “One was snoring so loud it kept me awake for hours!”
Despite financial challenges, the foundation has taken in more than 200 animals since the pandemic started.
It takes four tons of food a day to feed all the animals at the sanctuary, which include elephants, gibbons, macaques, otters, bears, chimps, pumas, pigs, a cassowary, jackals, civets, orangutans and a slow loris.
Wiek maintains the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of the same problem the foundation has spent the last 19 years fighting against: the human exploitation of wildlife.
“How much more evidence do we need?” he said. “These zoonotic diseases, these diseases that can come over [to humans], these coronaviruses, there will be much more as we go deeper into the forest.”
The sanctuary, three hours south of Bangkok, is on 186 acres of land in Phetchaburi province, an idyllic setting akin to a sprawling safari park.
The day begins early. At 6:30am, the foundation is bustling with activity. A dozen staff and volunteers are busy separating fruit and other food into bowls for the 850 animals in their care, the first of three feedings they will need to do this day.
The fruit is loaded onto a wheelbarrow and makes its way first to a section housing many monkeys and apes, some former performers at tourist attractions where they were forced to do tricks or pose for photos.
There is a group of sun bears previously kept as pets. One named Deena was rescued in 2010 from a tiny cage no more than 10 square feet in southern Thailand.
One of the newer animals is a cassowary, a large, flightless, and occasionally aggressive bird closely related to the emu. Named Bernie, it was previously hit over the head by terrified local residents after escaping from a temple. Now Bernie has to be fed by hand due to injuries sustained in the attack.
Some of the gibbons at the sanctuary were kept as pets, or used as props to entertain tourists. They now live on a cluster of islands and are brought food by boat.
In the afternoon, Sen, a monkey thought to have come from a coconut farm based, needs surgery for a hernia. Some farms in Thailand have kept monkeys as pickers. But a boycott of a coconut milk brand this year from Western retailers has led to a debate over how widespread the practice is in the country.
Critics say the monkeys are chained up and forced to pick hundreds of coconuts a day. Sen, who is believed to be 15 years old, was rescued in August after spending most of his life working on a coconut farm. His teeth were shaved down in a painful process allegedly used to prevent injury from bites while working, according to Sherry, a veterinarian at the sanctuary.
Taking care of him is not straightforward. He needs to be sedated before removal from an enclosure. A technician loads up a blowgun with a sedative dart. After 30 minutes and several misses, Sen is loaded onto a truck and taken to the clinic.
After the surgery, the veterinary team moves on to elephants who need minor treatment. Many of the elephants at WFFT were, for decades, forced to give rides to tourists at elephant parks, a highly controversial practice that animal welfare groups have condemned.
A 60-year-old elephant named Boon Ma carried tourists around in an elephant camp. But when the number of visitors declined during the pandemic, he was put to work pulling logs on a farm. There is also Thung Ngun, an elephant rescued this year from former tourist hotspot Phuket.
Since the pandemic, four elephants have been sent to the sanctuary.
Thomas Taylor, the project director at the foundation, said celebrities who visit Thailand should not take photos of their elephant rides and post them on social media platforms as it normalizes the practice, which can involve years of painful training from a young age.
In 2017, for instance, the boxer Floyd Mayweather posted an image of himself on Instagram standing on top of an elephant on a trip to Thailand.
“It’s a thing that’s been done for centuries, thousands of years, humans riding elephants and maybe in some instances they [were] needed as beasts of burden. But we have machines and things that can carry us now,” Taylor said.
As the day nears its end, Wiek goes to visit Canoe. The two have developed a special bond.
He sits on a rock next to the enclosure and feed him snacks as Canoe pulls at the hair on his arms, a grooming technique that might be used on other chimps.
In a few weeks time, other chimps will be brought to WFFT and Canoe, after 32 years, will not be alone anymore. But funding problems still linger.
Looking back on the time he spent in Canoe’s cage, Wiek said he was willing to duplicate the stunt.
“I’ll do it again if I have to,” he said.