Want to help elephants? Read this inspirational interview with volunteer Diana Edelman at Save Elephant Foundation.

Article previously published on NBC Petside.com

Have you ever wondered what it’d be like to quit your job and move abroad to rescue animals? Diana Edelman from Maryland did just that. A year ago, fed up with her PR job, 33-year-old Diana decided it was time to follow her dreams. She always knew she wanted to help animals, and that desire took her to Chiang Mai in Thailand.

A few months ago, Diana participated in the rescue of an elephant named Lucky, who had spent three decades entertaining circus goers and was going blind from the spotlights. Diana now works for Save Elephant Foundation (SEF) as a social media and public relations volunteer and helps founder and director Lek Chailert with rescues. Here, she talks about rescuing Lucky and what we can all do to help elephants.

Please tell me about how you went from being a publicist to a volunteer rescuing elephants in Thailand. 

I’ve worked in the PR industry since I was 18 years old. A few years ago, I realized I didn’t want to do PR for something I didn’t believe in, so I started a travel blog, d travels ’round,on my 30 life crisis that became popular. When I quit my job in February 2012, I e-mailed the founder of SEF, Lek Chailert, and told her I was planning to move to Thailand and mentioned I would love to work for her foundation. From there, everything just fell into beautiful place. I relocated to Thailand in July.

Were you scared to make the move?

Sometimes you just have to trust yourself to leap and know you will land on your feet because, even if it doesn’t feel like it at first, you definitely will. It isn’t about being brave, it is just about trusting yourself and knowing your dreams are worth living.

What inspired you to help elephants?

I have always loved animals. One day I read Water for Elephants and was so touched by the story that I decided to go and spend time with elephants. I found Save Elephant Foundation’s Elephant Nature Park (ENP) and immediately applied as a volunteer at the project outside of Chiang Mai. SEF and ENP not only protect elephants and other animals, they also provide sustainable tourism and help locals.

Tell me about Lucky the elephant’s rescue.

SEF’s founder Lek heard about Lucky a few months ago. After receiving a donation from a couple in Canada, she was able to begin the rescue efforts. Lucky was a famous performing elephant for nearly three decades and was blinded by the spotlights. To rescue her, we took a team down to the Surin province and worked directly with her owners. It took us 20 hours to get down there, a couple of hours to prepare the truck for her, a few minutes to load her onto the truck, and then 24 hours to drive her from Surin to Elephant Nature Park and release her there.

What’s your most memorable moment on the rescue?

There are a few! At one point in the middle of the night, myself and another staff member were riding in the back of the truck, perched on a wooden bench about half way up the bed of it. As we drove through the night, I just kept staring at Lucky against the glow of the nearly full moon. All I could think was how truly lucky she was and wondered if she could tell that she was free.

Perhaps the most emotional part of the rescue was when we pulled into the park. Driving to the medical clinic to let her walk off of the truck was a beautiful thing. The entire staff of the park, along with the visitors and volunteers, had lined up on the platform and around the clinic to welcome her. Seeing them smile, wave and cheer really touched me. We’re all in this together, and it was such a powerful feeling to see all of these people who cared so much for her release.

How is Lucky doing now? Have you made friends with her?

Lucky is doing very well! She has quite a few friends now. The family herd has accepted her. She is very social and likes to mingle with many of the park’s 30 plus elephants.

What do people most misunderstand about elephants in Asia/Thailand in particular?

People tend to operate on the idea that if an elephant seems “happy” then it is, and there is no abuse. What people don’t know is that every single elephant at every single tourist attraction in Thailand and the rest of the region has been put through horrific torture to become captive and accept commands from their owners. Then, for the rest of their lives, they are constantly being threatened by repeat abuse when they work. Many places do not provide proper living conditions for these animals—not enough food, water, shade, mud, rest from working, etc. Also, riding is very bad for the elephants. The benches they put on them are heavy and can damage their backs when people add to the weight. Elephants’ backs are not made for riding.

How is Save Elephant Foundation helping Asian elephants?

SEF is helping Asian elephants by not only rescuing the ones who need it most, but by educating visitors and locals on how elephants can live without abuse. At ENP, there are no bull hooks used. Lek operates on the idea of love and positive reinforcement to get elephants to listen, and it works. The mahouts at the park have special bonds with the elephants, and it is a beautiful thing. SEF also works with local villages to make the lives of their elephants better by offering volunteer projects in their communities. People come in, get to see the elephants (who don’t have to work), and give back to the community.

What surprised you most about what you are doing now?

If you asked me two years ago where I would be and what I would be doing, I probably would have said writing books and working on my blog and freelance career from a cafe in Spain. So, I am surprised by all of it. I never knew how much of a passion I had to make the world a better place, and am fortunate that I discovered it and can now be able to help where I can with the foundation, and more importantly, Lek.

Do you have any advice for people who want to get involved with elephant rescue?

The best way to get involved is to volunteer with a reputable organization that truly provides a sanctuary for elephants. Meaning, no bull hooks or weapons to control them, no circus shows, no rides, no elephant paintings.

SEF runs numerous volunteer projects. For those interested in the flagship program, Elephant Nature Park, the cost is roughly $400 USD and is a week long. The cost includes room, board, and three meals a day, and all of the proceeds go directly back to the park and the animals.

What do you see yourself doing in the next five years?

I will stay here as long as I can. Being here, working for Lek, is such an incredible blessing. I will continue to work on my site and freelance and eventually publish a memoir about my 30 Life Crisis.

Catch up with Diana and all her volunteer adventures on d travels ’round. Find out about volunteer opportunities with Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park here.

Published by Lavanya

Lavanya Sunkara is a writer, animal lover, and globetrotter based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Architectural Digest, Fodor’s, Forbes, USA Today and many more in a career spanning ten years. She covers travel, eco-lifestyle, culture, pets, and wildlife conservation.

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