If any there is one word to describe Katherine Connor, it is matriarch. Katherine founded Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, a home for abused and retired elephants, in 2005. Her compassion and devotion does not stop with her 13 elephants. This mother of two guides and cares for an extended family of staff, mahouts, dogs, cats, and visitors. In this interview, Katherine speaks about an important project, the Star Medical Clinic. Interview Oct, 2010

EMF: Tell me about your project to build an elephant clinic at BLES.

BLES is an elephant sanctuary that takes in overworked, abused, and neglected elephants. We can take in elephants that are emotionally broken, and we can heal them. Right now, we can’t take in elephants that are physically broken because we don’t have the medical facilities available. We have always planned to build a clinic as a part of our sanctuary so that we can offer medical aid to our elephants and to the elephants in neighboring villages. It’s needed. There is a gap here. Elephants die because they don’t get the sufficient care that they need.

EMF: Where will the clinic be located?

Last year, we were lucky enough to secure land to build the clinic. The land is 2 km away from here. We wanted it slightly separated from the sanctuary because we don’t necessarily want sick elephants interacting with our healthy elephants.

EMF: Why is it important to have a clinic near BLES since there are two established elephant hospitals in Lampang, just a 3 hour drive from here?

The hospitals in Lampang are overrun. The vets don’t get enough support. They have too much work to do. And that’s why when one of my elephants is sick or injured, and I call for a vet, I have to wait at least four days before a vet can get out here. And that’s just not good enough. It’s not their fault. It’s because they genuinely have too much of a work load. If we had a clinic here, we’d have an on-site veterinarian and we’d also have sufficient equipment like an ultrasound, an x-ray, an overhead crane… When the vets come with the mobile vet clinic, there is only so much equipment that they can bring with them. And a lot of times, they decide that the elephant needs an x-ray, so they need to take it up to the hospital in Lampang. If we had a clinic here complete with x-ray, ultrasound, and everything else, then we could save time, money, and stress for the elephant, the owner, and the vet.

EMF: How difficult is it to transport an elephant up to Lampang?

It is really difficult. The trucks are insufficient. It’s incredibly dangerous. The elephants get very stressed. Sometimes the journey is too much, and the elephant dies. We had an elephant last year who died on the way to the hospital because it just couldn’t handle the journey.

EMF: Will you offer treatment to elephants outside of BLES? How many elephants are in the surrounding area?

Yes. In the neighboring villages around here, there are at least 30 elephants. The majority of those are working in the illegal logging trade. A few of them are used to beg around the markets. And, a remote few are just kept in the forest, chained, and not working because their owners love them like a part of the family. They don’t want to sell their elephant, but there is no work for the elephant to do. And BLES wants to be able to offer every single elephant in every single situation some kind of chance. An opportunity.

EMF: After the clinic structure is built, will you continue to need support to help pay for medicine, supplies, and staff?

Absolutely. The more support we get, the more help we can offer to the elephants in need.

EMF: Will you have an on-site veterinarian?

I have a yes and no for that answer. I would like to, but I hope there won’t be enough work to keep the vet here full time. However, one of the biggest projects I want to establish when the clinic is up and running is a free spay and neutering program for the cats and dogs in all the villages. So, our vet will have to be experienced in general practice as well as elephant practice. We will also offer support to buffalo and cows. For the local people, we will establish workshops, maybe once a month, where the locals can just come, observe, and learn. And hopefully, they will want to grow up to be vets, doctors, mahouts, or something to help.

EMF: Why did you decide to name the clinic the Star Medical Clinic?

Star was our baby. She was the first baby elephant to be born in this village in this area. Although this village has always been a traditional elephant village, they’ve always used the elephants to log. So, they only ever brought in adult elephants and discouraged them from breeding. They didn’t want babies because they couldn’t work the babies. Back in those days, it’s really important to remember that there was no tourist trade because logging was still legal.

Star was born here. And, she was, to sum her up in one sentence, she was a wild, free spirit. She was unfairly taken from us. She was killed in a freak happening here. In the two and half years that she blessed us with her life, she touched hundreds and hundreds of people. She was a very special elephant. Now, every elephant, every animal is special in their own way, but Star twinkled. She really did. And, when she died, I made her a promise, just like I did to Boon Lott when he died, that I would not let them be forgotten. I would not let them become just another statistic, just another dead baby elephant. Boon Lott was special. The world knows about Boon Lott. Star was special. The world will know about Star because we’re going to name the clinic after her.

EMF: Other than treating sick and injured elephants, creating a spay and neuter program, and providing support for local people what other benefits do you hope that the clinic will bring?

One thing I do want to mention about our clinic is that we will have something that is not available at either of the elephant hospitals, and that is a recovery, herding area. I’m a huge believer in order to heal your body, you have to heal your mind and your heart first. If I’m sick or injured, I want to be comfortable. I want to be relaxed. I want to be able to eat when I want to eat, sleep when I want to sleep… I really feel that elephants are exactly the same. They will have a fenced off area where they can walk, graze, feed themselves, and exercise. And, it will be private from the sanctuary because like I said, we don’t want sick elephants interacting with our healthy elephants just in case anything is contagious.