In Thailand there are many problems about animals, which have only recently been addressed by the government. In 1988 when animal lover Marianne Willemse first arrived in Thailand to retire, she found herself busier than ever. First it was the thousands of street dogs that roamed Bangkok. Luckily at that time the Governor was Khun Chamlong Srimuang who was well known for his compassion towards all living beings, so Marianne's first mission was to help establish an animal shelter on land donated by a temple. Eventually almost 3000 dogs were moved there, as well as cats and some farm animals.
The governor was a vegetarian, so sometimes he would rescue an animal on the way to slaughter. This suited Marianne very well, as she had stopped eating animals in 1983 when she saw a pig being killed in a most brutal manner. However living in a congested city did not suit Marianne's lifestyle, so she moved to Chiang Mai in 1990 with an entourage of 19 dogs and 12 cats. Immediately she started to work at Chiang Mai Zoo as a volunteer animal welfare officer. On her first day she was presented with an 8 months old orphaned elephant to care for. The baby followed her everywhere her duties took her. One day they met a lonely rhinoceros whom had recently lost her mate. The two animals showed great interest in each other, so Marianne asked permission for the elephant to move in with the rhino. Their 'love' story can be read in; My Mother is a Rhino, a book available at Asia Books.
During that time there was an even bigger problem with poaching of wildlife in Thailand than there is now. Baby animals could easily be bought at the local markets for a few baht. When people got tired of them, they ended up in boxes on the zoo's doorstep. There was no budget for them so they ended up in cramped cages behind the clinic, where many died. Marianne started to bring them home for better care. After 5 years at the zoo, Marianne had 56 wild animals at her house, including a bear.
Teddy the bear arrived in 1993, just 2 months old. He grew up running free with the dogs in the garden. However when he was a year old and the size of a St. Bernard, it was time to build a large enclosure for him, just to keep him safe. Although extremely friendly, thinking he was a dog himself, some people would not hesitate to harm him if they thought they were in danger. At that point, Marianne left the zoo and moved all the wild animals to go stay at a resort in the countryside where she continued to conduct animal welfare programs for schools. After a few years, unfortunately the newspapers and television discovered "the woman who kisses bears" and suddenly the resort was swamped with curious people who expected to see a circus performance.
The programs came to a standstill, as the manager was busy collecting gate money, none of which went to the animals. Dozens of unwanted wild animals were dropped off. Water buffalo and cattle were bought by devout Buddhists and donated to Marianne. They wanted to gain merit by rescuing them from slaughterhouses. Unfortunately donations to feed the animals were very few, so it was time for Marianne to go into hiding, before things got further out of hand. She was then offered a large area of land in Mae Rim district by a wealthy real estate developer. The Thai army came to help move the over hundred animals to go stay there. As soon as the animals had settled in the villagers came to ask for bear bile and leopard cat skins! Marianne realized she had moved into an environment where much education was needed. She engaged the help of local monks and started programs for the village children. But although the children were fascinated with the animals, they were unable to pass on the knowledge to their parents.
The people were so poor that they lived off forest products. They ate bugs and snakes and had no concept about compassion. Often late at night, there would be people coming onto the property to try to steal the animals. Staff had been threatened with guns. Finally, July 4th 2001, Teddy the bear was poisoned and his caretaker killed. A few months later a bush fire was started which swept across the land and killed many animals. The police and many monks came to help move the rest of the animals to a safe location. Now, 3 years later, the animal sanctuary is supported by over 170 members, both Thai people and foreign who understand the importance of animal welfare. In the past year, 60 dogs and 30 cats have found new homes through the project.
Soon the sanctuary will move again to its final destination in the mountains, to be near the handicapped elephant center, Elephant Nature Park, where 17 rescued elephants presently roam free of hooks and chains. A whole valley has been set aside for animal projects. There will be a school to learn about animal care and how to communicate with animals set up by Irwin College UK, a dog rescue center set up by Dr.Jittisak's Street Dog Foundation from Bangkok and a vegetarian guesthouse run by members of the Bearhugs Club.
There will also be plenty of grass for Marianne's many cows, sterilized bulls and buffalo to eat. Finally Heaven on Earth is in sight. Visitors are welcome to the project. Donations are always needed to help support the animals, which include goats, geese, ducks, chickens, monkeys, civet cats, guinea pigs, dogs and cats. All rescued from cruelty or abandoned. Memberships are welcome.
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