Working With Rescued Animals in Northern Thailand - Part 2: A Lesson on Finding Meaning and Purpose
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If you want to find the grittiest entrepreneurs, look for those that build in the jungle.
For many plants, animals, and insects, the jungle is a paradise flush with the ingredients necessary for life to flourish. Yet that’s not the case for us soft-skinned folks. The jungle is inhospitable. It will quickly and unapologetically reclaim whatever small patch of land you’ve attempted to claim for yourself.
Extreme heat, dehydration, typhoons and falling trees, jungle-borne disease, and plenty of poisonous critters can make life undesirable. Yet some people choose to build out their dreams in the jungle. And they do so, despite the knowable and unknowable obstacles that they will face, because they must. Because, if they don’t, they know that their purpose in life will be unfulfilled. So, they move forward resolutely in pursuit of the thing that they feel compelled to do — as if the universe were conveying a necessary message through them.
A couple of everyday heroes
Lek Chailert and Darrick Thomson from Elephant Nature Park are two of the brave with a lionhearted commitment to building in the jungle. Not because they enjoy the daily punishment, but because they have no choice. The jungle is the home of the animals they seek to protect, and they’ve valiantly sacrificed themselves because, to them, it isn’t a choice. It’s what they were put on earth to do.
They run an animal sanctuary that houses and rehabilitates hundreds of dogs, cats, horses, goats, and buffalo, in addition to the dozens of elephants in their care. But it hasn’t been smooth. There has been plenty of difficulty along the way.
As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, Lek’s story began with her Shaman grandfather receiving an elephant as a gift for saving a young boy’s life. Lek bonded deeply with the baby elephant. It ignited a fire in her that burns even more intensely today.
When Lek was a young woman, she made the choice to launch head-first into rescuing elephants from the shabby conditions that she observed as the normal state of doing business in her native country.
Elephants, once revered as sacred within Thai culture, were now used as slave labor. They were ripped from their natural habitat, tortured, and then forced to do what their human captors wanted. Often, that meant shuttling naive tourists around as a sort of circus-act-meets-taxi, carrying people on their back for 10-12 hour stretches at a time. Or, they were converted into pachyderm bulldozers, moving massive felled trees as part of the logging industry.
Lek knew this was wrong. She went against the grain and fought for the elephants and their right to live a free, natural life. To do so meant that she would not only have to resist the blowback from those that financially benefited from holding elephants captive, but she would have to go head-on with her own government which had historically sided with the commercial industry established around elephant captivity.
She has been arrested and threatened with legal punishment multiple times for interfering in the ongoing abuse of elephants. There have been countless threats against her and the foundation that she has built called Save Elephant Foundation.
Perhaps most gut-punching, she was disowned by her family on public television in Thailand. They chose to separate themselves from Lek, in a most widespread and humiliating way, because of what she stood for — the preservation of the sacred species and their natural environment.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
Still, she persisted. It’s awful to imagine where the elephant population in Thailand would be today if she had not.
A chance encounter
Nearly two decades ago (I don’t have the exact timing), a firefighter from Toronto came to visit Elephant Nature Park. His name was Darrick.
The visit to Lek’s park changed Darrick’s life.
First, he began to fall in love with the elephants. He could see the pain and wisdom in their eyes. He felt a deep connection with them. After all, we share a bit of the same operating system in the form of a large, complex mammalian brain. Our physical forms may be different, but at the level of the fundamental need for love and connection, we are the same.
Second, Darrick began to fall in love with Lek, the great protector of the elephants. After spending more time together, she fell in love with him in return.
And, as if through divine design, their pairing brought together the perfect set of skills required to create the legendary sanctuary that they have co-created.
Lek is the “great mother” to all animals. Her heart is pure and the animals can sense it. She leads with love in all aspects of life. Not just with the animals, but with the naysayers in the captive animal industry that sought to shut her down. With lots of love, respect, and patience, Lek has managed to convince many of them to convert their elephant tourism businesses and abusive animal practices into Lek’s style of animal preservation, which is not only more lucrative from a business standpoint, but is kind and generous to the elephants and allows them to return to their wild nature. Lek is the shining beacon of love. Without her, no one would have been able to convince the industry, her country, and the rest of the world that the way forward is with lots of love and bananas.
Darrick is the builder, tinkerer, and foreman. He can jungle-engineer anything into creation. Give him some duct tape, bubble gum, and concrete and he will McGyver the shit out of something. Nearly every structure at Elephant Nature park has been built, designed, engineered, and rigged up by him. He’s built housing, giant paddocks capable of keeping Jurassic-park-sized creatures, and even designed and constructed specialized trucks capable of moving male bulls which can weigh upwards of 10,000 - 12,000 pounds. It’s not that he doesn’t bring the element of love that Lek does, which he certainly does. But he is the brawn that Lek’s tiny stature required to physically bring the park to life.
The two of them are a remarkable pairing; a main course of love matched with a side of grit and stick-to-itiveness. Sprinkle in some cosmic juju and you’ve got Lek, Darrick, and a modern-day miracle that Noah and his arc would admire.
Go it alone
“On this path let the heart be your guide.” ~ Rumi
Together, they launched into the void, driven by their love for the animals, the natural world, their fellow humans, and each other.
You know you’re on the right path — the path which is yours — when you pursue that path despite the objections and obstacles. I suppose that’s the entire point of this post.
We often make the mistake of picking our life path at the level of intellect. But that’s the wrong tool for the job. The cerebellum shouldn’t be used for picking our purpose. The life path we pick should be led by the heart. Then, once you have pushed forward on that path, you can occasionally turn to the head to intellectually navigate the obstacles you encounter. Choosing to give the elephants the best life possible was a choice they made from the heart. Figuring out how to scrap together the funds and resources to do so is something that the intellect is best suited for. It comes down to knowing what tool to use, and when.
Something beautiful and unlike anything else on the planet has arisen out of their love-led life. Darrick has a bond with elephants that is just as deep as Lek’s love for the gentle giants.
Here is Darrick calling Kham La, a mother elephant he is most attached to. They greet him with enthusiastic trumpeting and surround him with their towering bodies — a protective stance borne out of mutual love.
And here is Darrick talking with me and the other volunteers about the motherly instincts of the elephants. (Watch until the end for a heart-melting surprise.)
On meaning and purpose
We’ve been gifted through some form of a higher power with a biological machine capable of dreams. It’s the 2-4 centimeters of mysterious matter that constitutes the outer layer of our brain, which we know as the layer that distinguishes us from everything else in existence (that we’re aware of.)
When we learn how to use it in combination with our hearts, great things can happen. The heart leads the way toward your dreams and the head figures out how to make them happen.
It’s on this dimension that I think everyone gets it wrong when giving advice on life direction. Some say, “Follow your heart. Discover your passion.” Others say, “That’s terrible advice. You can’t create a sustainable living off of passion alone. You have to be smart and make the right choices.” I see a partial truth in both and that the appropriate approach is a blended system. The heart can answer the question “What do I do and in which direction do I go?” and the head can answer the question “How do I pull it off in a way that will sustain me?”
My time with Lek, Darrick, and the animals showed me that this is the way. Mind and heart can come together to enable our purpose and profit. It has inspired me on the level of the pursuit of my own creative interests. I write, not because I want it to be a successful business, but because I feel the need to express some things that are chiefly important to me. And, at some point, I’ll switch the cerebellum on to find if there’s a business model that will support it. We shall see!
Until then, thank you for being one of my readers.
What inspires me right now
Let me introduce you to Marc Rebillet aka “Loop Daddy” — a musical genius. He creates songs in real-time as a one-man band, in his apartment, while dancing in a robe and/or underwear. It’s a unique expression of comedy + music that I’ve never seen before, and it’s fucking brilliant entertainment. This is what freedom and enlightenment look like. A true artist.
Launch into the void, my friends! Discover what your art is and create it. Often, the anxiety and dislocation we’re feeling inside are our true selves looking to come out. Give it the oxygen and daylight it needs and deserves. And then observe as your inner disconnection dissolves.