It is not every day that one meets an expat woman who has decided to settle in Thailand and dedicate herself to this country’s most revered creature – the elephant! But that’s exactly what Michelle Reedy has chosen as her mission in life.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Michelle spent her early years working in retail. But her real passion was animals, so in order to find suitable work she returned to the classroom to acquire a degree in zoo keeping. She spent the next ten years at Melbourne zoo looking after various animals, though her dream was to care for elephants, but no such position was available for her at that time. Michelle first learned about the elephants of Ayutthaya in 2001 when the Melbourne zoo was trying to acquire some of these amazing animals. This immediately spurred her interest and she wasted no time coming to Thailand on an exploration trip to study the opportunities of working with elephants.
She continued to visit annually and in 2006 Michelle eventually found employment in Ayutthaya’s Royal Elephant Kraal village (established in 1996) to work with Khun Laithongrian Meepan whose family was planning to set up a program for retired elephants, which meant creating a system suitable for these aging pachyderms.
“Wondering how an Ayutthaya family became interested in caring for elephants, I was told that they bought a young elephant for their daughter’s fifth birthday 25 years ago, and soon realized that elephants need space, an area of their own,” explains Michelle.
“Ayutthaya is historically and culturally connected to elephant rearing and training, evidenced by the old kraal structure – kraal is a Dutch word for corral – that still stands at the northern edge of the city. Caring for elephants was in a way continuing the old tradition of this city-kingdom.”
Michelle tells of the early challenges, having to understand the temperament and behavior of these animals. She and her coworkers quickly learned that male elephants can be dangerous and hard to manage, especially when on must, and can be handled only by their mahouts. The project now cares for 80 elephants, including females and babies. Michelle is very enthusiastic about her work, which she shares with her life-partner Ewa Narkiewicz.
Although Michelle is the trained animal caregiver, Ewa has been a great supporter. Dedicated workers, mahouts, the owners and the elephants all live together in the same compound. “They are all regarded as part of a large family,” says Michelle. “It is good to be together. Elephants are social creatures who like to have connections and enjoy company.”
They are indeed very social creatures, with each elephant having its own Facebook page where followers can track its development.
Michelle’s arrival in Ayutthaya in 2006 was one year after the Phrakancha Foundation for elephants was set up. She realized that for the program of caring for retired elephants to succeed, plans for the future had to be devised. Thus began the Elephantstay program, Michelle’s brainchild, enabling people to stay in the village and learn to care for elephants.
Adult elephants, many of which are retired and do not earn an income, eat 150-200 kg each a day. It’s a diet comprising pineapple plants that have been harvested, grasses, hay, banana trees, sugar cane and corn. Fruit is given sparingly due to its high sugar content.
Today, the Foundation’s elephants can be seen carrying tourists near the ancient ruins of the temples of Ayutthaya, decorated in their old Ayutthaya style finery. They have also participated in special royal Thai ceremonies, paying homage to H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej at his funeral rites two years ago as well as H.M. King Vajiralongkorn’s coronation ceremony in May. These beautifully bedecked elephants could be seen kneeling outside the walls of the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Michelle values her work with elephants, saying it is an attempt to save these much loved animals from extinction, as their numbers dwindle. “We continue the fight for the future and survival of the elephant.”
For information: Elephantstay Prakochaban Foundation