Combine a little serendipity and throw in an elephant or two and you have the makings for a grand adventure. Just ask Ann Eshelman.
Ann, who retired in 2008 as a public defender for Oneida, Vilas, Forest and Florence counties hasn’t been doing much loafing since she walked away from her busy attorney days. In fact, just the opposite. Only a few short weeks ago she made her way to Botswana, where she “vacationed” at an animal sanctuary by helping feed and care for such exotic animals as cheetahs, rhinos, leopards, giraffes and birds.
But it was her love of elephants that prompted her to seek out an adventure back in 2011; that and a cold and depressing winter.
“I was sick of the cold and getting sort of depressed,” Ann said. “I was thinking of going on a vacation but wanted to go where I could be useful. It was serendipity that I found a little blurb for the Elephant Valley Project in Thailand on my computer one day. I did more research and decided that’s where I wanted to go.”
This was a big leap for Ann, who admittedly isn’t much of a traveler.
“I just decided that maybe getting out of my comfort zone would be good for me,” she explained. “I’m not a particularly gutsy person so actually I sort of surprised myself.”
The Elephant Valley Project is in Cambodia located in Mondulkiri Province. It is situated in the land of the Bunong tribal people and the rescued elephants at this sanctuary are a big part of why these natives can remain in their homeland.
“All around this village the Chinese have come in and cut down all the trees,” said Ann. “But the Bunong people did not let the Chinese have their land so it remains wild. The elephants provide an income for the tribal people who help take care of them and provide their food from the jungle.”
The sanctuary was needed for sick and tamed elephants that were abandoned after they were no longer needed to drag timber out of the jungle.
“These sanctuaries are needed to keep them safe,” said Ann.
Since this haven was basically located in the middle of the jungle, creature comforts are few. Ann slept in a grass hut every night that proved to be quite a scary experience.
“One of the things I couldn’t get over were the spiders,” she said. “They were big and every where, even in my hut. I tried to get to sleep before it got dark out because their eyes actually glow in the dark. It’s very creepy.”
Ann spent a lot of her mornings gathering banana leaves from the jungle to feed the elephants and then bathing the beasts in the afternoon. She also had plenty of time to observe these giant creatures and came to appreciate them even more.
“Many afternoons I would just sit near them watching,” she said. “I took up sketching them which was very relaxing.”
One particular elephant, Buffy, came to be very special to Ann.
“I felt bonded to her,” she said. “We became good friends.”
Ann found traveling to such an exotic place a real eye opener. The climate alone was new to her. Constant humidity and temperatures in the 80s and 90s made life move slow and she had no concept of Asia’s monetary system. And sometimes she got caught up in the language barrier. Despite this, she found the adventure more than worthwhile.
“It’s hard to explain what you feel like when you go to a land that is so foreign to you,” she said. “It makes you super attentive to everything around you. And it makes you think about your own life and what is out in the world.”
Ann found her experience in Cambodia so satisfying she decided to take another adventure in 2012, this time to South Africa to the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Here she would have a chance to work with African elephants and interact with other jungle creatures.
And just this past March she traveled to Botswana where she got to work with a wide variety of creatures including cheetahs, rhinos, leopards and giraffes.
“Unfortunately there is a lot of poisoning going on in Africa,” said Ann. “That leaves a lot of animals either orphaned or sick or worse, dead.”
Here Ann got to taste a common dish, wildebeest.
“They eat a lot of it in Africa,” she said. “We also fed it to the carnivores.”
Ann admits her recent adventures have left an indelible mark in her heart and she’s grateful that there are places in the world where she can go and help, and interact with such magnificent wild creatures.
“To be able to touch and get to know such wild creatures in really very humbling,” she said. “There’s a lot to experience if you aren’t afraid to get out of your comfort zone.”