The Unbound Project
Sangduen “Lek” Chailert is founder of Elephant Nature Park in Chang Mai, Thailand, a 250 acre sanctuary for rescued elephants and other animals. In a short film by the Unbound Project, Lek talks about her work: “When I started to work with elephants, I know it’s not easy because to work against the big huge giant benefit and money from the tourist industry. I’m not against that, to go and say that is against everything, but I’m just against the cruelty.”
And the cruelty is relentless: training wild elephants to be ridden by tourists is a brutal process that involves taking babies away from their mothers, confining them in small spaces, like cages or holes in the ground where they’re unable to move, starved and beaten with clubs pierced with bullhooks. The process is known Phajaan, or “the crush”. Every elephant used in the tourist industry has been broken in the same way.
Lek’s story is just one in a series of shorts, articles and images at Unbound Project, a multimedia documentary project celebrating women like Lek, who work, often at great personal cost, at the forefront of animal advocacy, both past and present. Finding out about those working now gives a sense of what can be achieved - and what still needs to be done; chronicling those in the past reminds us that animal advocacy is a dynamic, evolving movement, in which women - often downplayed - have played key roles.
Unbound is the brainchild of Jo-Anne McArthur, the award-winning photographer whose images of animals speak volumes about their complicated relationships with humans. Her portrait of Pikin, a young gorilla, won the Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 2017. In the picture, Pikin, captured for bushmeat, clutches her gently smily rescuer Appolinaire Ndohoudou as they travel to a sanctuary.
The picture is a glimpse of the alternative relationships we could have with the animals on our planet; not ones of abuse and neglect, but of mutual respect, of compassion, even of love. These are some of the emotions driving the remarkable women whose stories feature on Unbound. “Unbound was set up because, everywhere I travelled, there were women [working for animals],” muses McArthur.
Research confirmed her impressions: “Between 60 to 80 per cent of those doing animal advocacy in Europe and North America are women. I wanted to celebrate and highlight their work - and to inspire other people.” Too often, she says, people believe that they don’t have the time, the money, the expertise, the knowledge to help animals - with the result that millions continue to suffer. Unbound aims to challenge those notions.
“The purpose really was to inspire other people. For instance, there’s a feature on lawyers and veterinarians. I want people to read these articles and think, ‘wow, I didn’t realise I work in animal law’ or ‘I didn’t realise I could use my work as a neuroscientist to help to help get animals out of laboratories.’ Or even, ‘I wanted to be a millionaire - and I can use some of this money towards animals.’ And so yes, I do hope that this project will inspire people to follow in the footsteps of these inspiring trailblazers, these innovators.”
So the site features Zoe Weil, founder of the Institute of Humane Education: “If we nurture compassion in children and provide young people with the knowledge and skills to create meaningful positive changes, we will witness the unfolding of a more humane, just, and healthy world for all beings.” And it also includes Caroline Earle White, who launched the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1867 when animal rights were barely an emerging concept.
There are - so many - more. Marianne Thieme is a founding member of the Dutch Party for the Animals, currently serving as the Parliamentary Leader for the Party (“After the liberation of slaves, women, giving rights to children, the next logical step was to consider the interests of animals seriously, to look beyond the interests of our own species”) The Black Mambas are a formdiable all-female anti-poaching unit which patrols South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park unarmed, relying instead on keen observation, a visible presence and relationships with their neighbours over force (“We are sending a message to young women that they must stand up and do things for themselves.”)
One of Nepal’s most vocal and visible advocates Sneha Shrestha runs a shelter for stray dogs outside Kathmandu. When people ask her why she doesn’t euthanise paralysed dogs, she replies: “My father was paralyzed for 17 years. We never thought about euthanizing him. [The only difference between him and the dogs is that] my father could speak. And he explained to me that he wanted to live. Maybe these dogs also want to live.”
Lek - which means ‘tiny’ - has devoted her life to ending the abuse of elephants in tourism and other industries such as logging. And she does this with an open heart; formers handlers are employed to take care of the very animals they once abused. “We can’t work alone. We have to say, we can’t hate people. Doesn’t matter if they hate. We have to show our love. You cannot speak with stranger. You can speak with friend.”
The film shows show Lek, who is indeed tiny, walking amongst her giant rescued animals; sorting through their food with them, caring - and being cared for: “One thing I love about elephants is the positive energy that I receive from them. They forgive. They never forget, but they forgive.” Wisdom and compassion is palpable from every corner of Unbound but there is one quote that unites them all, from author Arundhati Roy: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
By BEL JACOBS