Saturday, April 08, 2006

From California to Hendrix to Thailand

From California to Hendrix to Thailand


By Marli Kaufmann

Hendrix Senior


CONWAY, Ark. (April 7, 2006) -- The endangered Malaysian sun bear has the sharpest claws in the entire bear kingdom.  I can’t help but think about this as I contemplate how to release these bears into their outdoor enclosure, where I’ve just scattered fresh mangos, jack fruit, and rambutans for their dinner.


The bears are supposed to eat outside, but in order to get them there, I have to slide back a gate that is fastened with a clip. The problem is that the clip is within reaching distance, mauling distance, of those huge, sharp claws. I take advantage of a scuffle going on between the two bigger bears, hurriedly grab the clip, pull back the gate and release a torrent of fur, teeth and claws into the previously serene enclosure.


From a safe distance, the bears seem almost endearing. When a sun bear finds its favorite food, it rubs it on top of its head. The biggest one, Paan, is lying on his back, rubbing the skin of a mango across his forehead.  I lean against the cage and smile, wishing I had my camera, remembering why I was so anxious to come back to work here.


When I transferred to Hendrix College from University of California-Santa Cruz two years ago, I couldn’t have envisioned myself doing this.  I left my old school because I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything there.  I could see myself graduating in four years with a degree and nothing else to show for my four years.


Moving to Hendrix turned out to be a good change.  Here I had the education, the outside experience, and the growth that I hadn’t experienced in Santa Cruz.  In the spring semester of my first year at Hendrix, I heard about a volunteer grant opportunity from the Hendrix-Lilly Vocations Initiative office.  I would normally never apply for something that required so much initiative, but I decided that it was at least probably worth attempting.


I found out on the Internet about a volunteer program that sends volunteers all over the world. The program in Thailand, a wildlife rescue center, was what interested me the most.  I submitted the proposal to the Hendrix-Lilly program and was frankly shocked when it was awarded to me.


I was excited about the prospect of working with wild animals, but I was probably just as excited to travel around the world by myself.


The center that I volunteered for, located a few hours south of Bangkok, houses  primates, bears, elephants, civets, an ostrich and even a tiger. Most of the animals at the center have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, where they would have been sold as exotic meat, been used as part of a tourist attraction, or been kept as a pet. 


For instance, it’s very common to see a tourist posing with a baby gibbon in the markets, paying the handler a fee for the picture. Unfortunately, the easiest way for a handler to get a baby gibbon is to shoot its mother and the entire family in the wild. Once the handler gets the baby, it’s often feed amphetamines in order to keep it awake, alert and more attractive for potential customers.  It’s a miserable life, and unfortunately for many gibbons, it’s also a very common one.


Edwin Wiek founded the center, the Wildlife Friends of Thailand ( as a response to this problem.  He was a Dutch businessman working in Thailand, and one day he was given a pair of monkeys whose owner could no longer care for them.  He came to care for the monkeys and decided that he didn’t want them to be kept as pets, but rather as much like wild animals as possible.


The animals that now arrive at his center come from mainly two scenarios: someone will keep a wild animal as a pet, and when it reaches maturity it becomes too difficult to control and the owners must surrender the pet, or Wiek will rescue an animal from a hotel, restaurant or a market where it is being used to attract tourist dollars.


The tiger at the center, Miew, is a good example of a resident of the center.  He was found chained up at a gas station, where the owner was using him to attract business.  He was only ever fed chicken scraps, and because of this, his central nervous system never developed properly.


When he was first brought in, Miew couldn’t move and his owners figured he would die within a few days.  Edwin began a successful rehabilitation program with him, and today he can walk and is as healthy as he can ever be.  Because of his handicap, Miew can never be released back into the wild, but he is at least guaranteed a place at the center for the rest of his life.


During my first summer in 2004 at the center I took care of an orphaned baby gibbon, I witnessed the rescue of an Asiatic black bear from a poacher’s trap, and I protested for animal rights in Southeast Asia. It was not at all what I had anticipated when I decided to go, but once I left, I knew I wanted to go back.  It was no longer about the experience for me; it was now about how I wanted to help them.  As soon as I got home I tried to search for ways to go back.


Luckily, the Your Hendrix Odyssey program, a newly formed curricular initiative on campus that encourages experiential learning, was offering to fund student projects. My advisor, Dr. Carol West, and I submitted a proposal for my 2005 summer spent volunteering with animals in Thailand.


There are six categories that you can apply under when you request Odyssey funding, and I briefly considered the “Service to the World” category before I settled on “Professional and Leadership Development.”


That was a big move, because it meant that I was going to Thailand to learn skills that would help me with my future career, meaning that I was now serious about changing my vocational path. I was an English major when I first went to Thailand, and when I got back I took some biology classes to see if that was were my interest lay. I found out it wasn’t. It was difficult to sit in class, learning about interactions between cells when what I really wanted to do was interact with actual animals. I’m still an English major, and I enjoy it, but what I’m passionate about is my work with animals.


I was lucky to be funded by the Odyssey program, and I spent another summer working at the center.  The kind of work at the center is dirty, exhausting and never-ending.  I would spend my time cleaning, feeding or scrubbing, and more often than I’d like to admit, I would accidentally walk too close to a gibbon cage and watch as a delighted gibbon grabbed a fistful of my hair.


I knew all this before I came back a second time, but the difficulty of the work isn’t what I think about when I think about the work that I do.  I can probably explain it best this way: when I was first there, I took care of Jack, a baby gibbon whose mother had abandoned him when he was just two months old.  I was his surrogate mother, which is a poor substitute for a gibbon, but Jack bonded with me for the few months that I had him. I fed him, put him to bed and let him cling to my shirt as I went about my day.


Leaving him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and seeing him again was one of the things I was looking forward to the most when I went back a second time.


Jack had been moved to the juvenile cage, and when I saw him again he was busily running around with the other gibbons his age. I approached the cage and waited to see what his reaction would be. He was in the midst of swinging from rope to rope when he saw me and came over to scrutinize me. He gazed at me for about a second, then turned and started chasing a female gibbon around a pole.


It was bittersweet, but ultimately I was glad that his reaction was so detached. I want him to think that he was always raised by gibbons, and I want him to be less interested in humans than he is in interacting with his own species. Selfishly, it would be easy to want him to cling to me and have our relationship be like it was, but it’s better for him that he’s grown past it.


That is what I feel my work is about. Making the lives of animals better isn’t about me, and though it makes me happy, strangely, it’s the happiness I get from knowing that an animal doesn’t need me anymore.


People always tell you that you are lucky if you can find work that you love. I also think it’s important to be open to the potential that what you will love doing could be miles away from where you originally started. I’ve been lucky to find that work, and though it has taken me from California to Arkansas, Arkansas to Thailand (twice), and back again, I think it was probably the way that I was supposed to find it. It would have been simple to know exactly where I wanted to go, graduate, and go out and do it, but maybe, like with Jack or transferring to Hendrix, the easiest thing wasn’t necessarily the best thing for me.


(Editor's note: Marli Kaufmann, who has been a student writer this semester in the Hendrix Office of Communications, has written numerous features and news articles for the college over the past few months. We think this personal account of her Hendrix Odyssey is one of her best stories. Upon graduation in May, she hopes to find a job in animal welfare. We'll miss her and wish her well as she continues her life's journey.)


Media contact: Judy Williams, 501/450-1462,




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