Call of the elephants: Local girl helps pachyderms in Thailand
CORNWALL — Eleven-year-old Cady Scout McKibben-Baier recounts how, during her “younger days,” she used to be interested in hyenas. Of course that was a loonnnnnng time ago, when she was in first grade.
Now in grade 6 at Cornwall’s Bingham Memorial School, Cady Scout is all about elephants.
“I started drawing elephants, and I just loved them, and then I got obsessed with them,” she said in an interview last Thursday.
It’s been a healthy obsession — both for her and for elephants. Cady Scout and her mom, Andrea Baier, recently returned from a six-month sojourn in northern Thailand, where they both spent a lot of time caring for around 40 ailing pachyderms at the renowned Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai province.
It was a cultural immersion adventure that also saw Cady Scout attend an international school in Thailand, while her mom focused on writing projects. They both learned a lot about Thai culture and the plight of Asian elephants, whose ranks have now dropped below 30,000 specimens, according to the Elephant Nature Park website.
Cady Scout learned first-hand that Asian elephants have been increasingly forced out of their habitat. While their smaller tusks make them less attractive to poachers than their African cousins, Asian elephants are sometimes used in circuses and in the logging industry in Thailand. Some are trained and disciplined with the use of sticks tipped with nails or a hook, noted Karen Glauber, a Middlebury resident and a frequent visitor to the Elephant Nature Park. Cady Scout and her mom were inspired to action after hearing Glauber and her husband, Don, make a presentation about Asian elephants at the Ilsley Library last year. The park has designated the Glaubers “ambassadors” for the cause of Asian elephants.
Karen Glauber is a retired speech pathologist. She sees her work on behalf of elephants as a logical extension of her former profession.
“It is my opportunity to give voice to the elephants,” she said.
Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary founded by Sangduen Chailert, also known as “Lek,” who continues to play a lead role in its operation. It provides around 250 acres of roaming space for a variety of elephants that share a common bond — some sort of disability inflicted by man or in the wild. Cady Scout and her mom paid four visits to the park during a stay that spanned January to June of this year. They saw, and cared for, elephants who were blind or had bad hips, damaged trunks and a variety of other ailments that would make their survival in the wild a dicey proposition
KAREN GLAUBER, LEFT, Cady Scout McKibben-Baier and Andrea Baier are county residents spreading the word about the dwindling number of elephants in Asia and Africa. More than 90 African elephants lose their lives every day to the illegal ivory trade.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
The duo spent a week in the park, volunteering with chores that included harvesting fruit and vegetables for the elephants’ meals, cleaning out their quarters (including copious amounts of dung), and unloading food trucks. And since an elephant can consume 200 to 300 pounds of food per day, it was a challenge to keep up with demand.
During off-hours, the volunteers often took time to watch the elephants lumber majestically along the fertile, leafy landscape. Five baby elephants born at the park were a particular hit.
“They are extremely protective of their babies,” Glauber said, explaining that the entire herd will encircle a baby if it appears to be in distress. A dangerous position for any human who gets in their way.
But beyond their sheer power and love for their young, Cady Scout was drawn to other human-like attributes she saw in elephants.
“Like humans, they can be affectionate, or sad if (another elephant) dies,” she said.
She, her mom and Glauber voiced disgust with the cruel tactics that some of the carnival and logging industry people use to train elephants. Andrea Baier noted that while an elephant’s skin is thick, it is very sensitive — particularly to whips and sharp objects.
“Love and food are the only things they really need to use,” Baier said of alternative, humane training methods.
And Lek is providing enough love and food for her entire herd of colossal cast-offs. She knows all of the elephants by name and has built an unspoken rapport with them, according to Baier. She has paid upwards of $30,000 to elephant owners to secure the release of their animals to give them a new lease on life at the nature park. Thankfully, Lek receives donations, grants and nature park admission fees to help subsidize these purchases and make sure there’s an ample supply of food. Consequently, the park has proved to be a major employer of farmers, veterinarians, guides, maintenance people, drivers and tourism professionals. It’s actually becoming a challenge to book a volunteer or overnight stay at the park, due to its growing reputation, according to Baier.
Indeed, people are willing to travel thousands of miles and shovel up hundreds of pounds of droppings for the privilege of spending some quality, up-close time with elephants, the local travelers said. Lek is hoping to find additional land on which to expand an operation that has also attracted other animals, including water buffalo, birds, and more than 400 dogs and 200 cats.
“She has developed an entire ecosystem in the hills there,” Glauber said.
Cady Scout shared her experiences with her Cornwall classmates on Oct. 14. Karen and Don Glauber will return to the park and will continue to speak locally about challenges that elephants face.
Cady Scout knows she won’t see elephants walking around the Green Mountain State, but that’s OK. She’s willing to travel.
“I can see myself going back to the Elephant Nature Park throughout my life,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
ANDREA BAIER, LEFT, Don Glauber, Cady Scout McKibben-Baier and Karen Glauber made a presentation last week to McKibben-Baier’s Cornwall elementary school class about the plight of elephants in both Asia and Africa.