Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Friday, March 17, 2017

Thailand Elephant Sanctuary with Jennie of the Jungle Part 1

Photo by Jennifer Ilene
In November of 2015 I made my first trip as Jennie of the Jungle, taking wildlife-loving clients to work with elephants at an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. And the experience was simply amazing. I learned a lot about a new country and what it takes to be responsible for the experiences of others, and learned that confidence is the key to getting what you want out of life...

I arrived in Bangkok after dark, got a cab from the airport and thought I was headed to the studio I had rented to spend some time preparing for one of my clients who would arrive three days later. Little did I know, this cab driver (and most of the other ones, too) did not have any idea where he was going. He turned around and asked me the address multiple times (which I had given him in writing and in Thai, no less!). He ended up coming to a complete stop on the freeway and backing up until he reached the on-ramp he didn't mean to enter. As semi-trucks came straight for us at a startling speed, I thought I may never live to see the next day, let alone to meet my client. But oncoming traffic patiently changed lanes as they probably wondered who the crazy driver going backwards on a freeway was, or maybe they are used to that in Thailand. That's what I liked to think.

After an hour of driving and getting nowhere, the driver finally let me use his phone to dial the number of the person I was renting the studio from. "Oh, you didn't get my email?", said the guy incredulously, "I sent you an email yesterday..." while I was in transit to Thailand... "telling you I had another renter who rented the studio for a longer period than you did so I gave him the property instead." He didn't say this in so many words, but instead mumbled some excuse about how he hadn't realized that you weren't supposed to rent out properties for under 30 days in Bangkok, which is absolutely not the case. I had had this studio booked for months!!! He gave me the address to his alternative hostel, which he would let me stay the night in for free, while I looked for other places to stay. It was a damp room in a house with no bathroom and no air conditioning. The internet was spotty, so I had a friend book a place on Airbnb.com and headed out the next day hoping it was going to be acceptable.

The house turned out okay, with only one room having A/C in which I (and eventually my client)
huddled during the hottest parts of the day when temperatures soared over 100 degrees F. After the arrival of my first client, we spent an additional day in Bangkok and then headed to the train station to buy our overland train tickets to Chiang Mai. We got spots on the overnight sleeper car train, a 12-hour journey through pastureland and villages, in which we got up early and stuck our heads out the window to watch the sun rise. The conductors shot us curious glances as we walked up and down the train cars in the dark trying to find the best spot to watch from. Though the doors to the cars were propped open (safety being waved aside), we were strictly shooed away from sitting on the exit steps and watching the scenery pass right in front of us. We were content with our open windows and the wind on our faces as the sky lit up with pink and yellow and the world came into view.

Twelve hours and a breakfast of runny eggs and sugar-water flavored with orange later, we arrived in Chiang Mai. We were shuttled to our hotel to spend the day by the pool trying exotic items from the restaurant menu. The next morning, we made our way by tuk-tuk to the Elephant Nature Park office to take care of paperwork before being driven a few hours into the hills to the project. The Elephant Nature Park is at this time the only legit elephant sanctuary in the country. Lek Chalert, who founded the sanctuary, purchases as many elephants as she can from other, non-legit "sanctuaries" and individuals who use the animals for entertainment or work purposes, and puts them in her sanctuary to live out the rest of their lives free to do what they want and to roam around willingly. She often rehabilitates them, as most come on the brink of death or seriously maimed (elephants are not treated well and not valued in Thailand in general). She has a cultivated relationship with every one of her elephants, and they all show her their continued appreciation to this day, as she wanders in and out of her herd, receiving kisses and affection from even the most closed off of elephants. She is the only one who is able to have this kind of relationship with the elephants, as these animals are intelligent and hold memories for life. They know they have been saved by her and have bonded with her as their savior and protector. It is incredible to see the love they have for her as she lets them kiss her with their slimy trunks and she weaves in and out from under them. One of them follows her around like a baby, even though he is nearly fully grown!

My client, Jennifer Ilene, is a talented animal photographer who travels to conservation orgs, sanctuaries, or zoos, and takes photos with models and animals. It was my mission to earn myself a photo shoot with these incredible beasts - but how to go about doing that? This was my first trip after starting Jennie of the Jungle, and I had neither the confidence to ask for a shoot, nor the bravery to approach Lek. Because Lek is the "Jane Goodall of Elephants", and in my eyes, one of my biggest heroes. I had actually met Jane Goodall not long before this trip, when she stayed in the hotel I was working at during her talks in Colorado. I found out she was staying under a fake name and couldn't end the day without meeting her. She was and will always be my number one heroine. I sent a note with the housekeeper and a prepared goody bag for her with coconut water and ethical chocolate from our hotel shop telling her how much I appreciated her and have modeled myself and my own work much after her. She ended up coming to the front desk to introduce herself and chat with me for a bit. I was so star-struck that I couldn't think of anything to say, even though I had so many questions for her. I was disappointed that I couldn't muster the courage to engage in deep conversation, and vowed to not repeat this situation with Lek.

So, after a lecture on elephant treatment in Thailand and an undercover video Lek worked on for two years documenting elephant abuse and explaining WHY we need elephant rescue and elephant sanctuaries, I pursed my lips and approached her with the passion that I felt for her cause and my own passion for the plight of all endangered animals on this planet. We talked for nearly an hour! It turns out that I know many people that Lek has known and has worked with, including individuals from other conservation orgs that I had worked with around the world, and artist Gregory Colbert, who photographs tribespeople and their animals in remote regions around the world. I explained my new business to her, and told her I would like to take on her project as part of Jennie of the Jungle, and work together into the future. She was so inspired that she granted me permission for a private photo shoot with the elephants whenever I wanted! I left that conversation with a new sensation - that I had accomplished something great, and with this confidence, would continue to do big things.

At 7 in the morning, Jennifer and I went out to meet my elephants. I shot with three elephants, in the river and on the bank, while the clouds sat puffy and bright in the sky, and the surrounding forest was bathed in morning light. The experience of being close and connecting, in a way, with these elephants, was absolutely incredible, and the resulting photos reflect the beauty of those moments. I want to thank both Lek and Jennifer Ilene, for this amazing experience and the resulting photos, which will be used to promote conservation of these animals.

My favorite of the series

Dancing with an elephant

There is no feeling like connecting with these gentle beasts

One of the many rescued cats at the sanctuary
Lek let me kiss one of her elephants for my good friend who has a terminal illness

Friday, September 9, 2016

Portrait of a Bird Trainer

Meet Aron Smolley, Senior Bird Trainer at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This lucky duck has been working at the Aviary for the last five years. He has worked with many types of birds, including toucans, parrots, vultures, roadrunners, hawks, eagles, owls, crows, cranes, and more! Here are some of the bright birds he's currently working with...

Zazu, the wrinkled hornbill
Grunt, the colorful king vulture
Precocious kea parrots
Tropical turaco named Kambo
Aron and the Aviary contribute to conservation efforts on a daily basis by using education birds to inspire curiosity and love in those who visit. A love for the natural world and its animals is important in instilling a desire to protect it. Aron not only cares for the birds at the Aviary, he is also responsible for creating and presenting the Aviary's bird shows, which focus on educating visitors about the simple things they can do to protect the environment, birds and their habitat. Some of these topics include recycling and stopping the use of pesticides.
Aron and Rousseau educating some promising young birders
Phoenix the falcon putting smiles on faces

Grunt making a grand bird-show entrance
To put on successful bird shows, Aron and his team must train the birds on a daily basis. This means he gets to spend A LOT of time with them!

 Matilda the red-tailed black cockatoo learning commands

These baby West African crowned cranes, Jasmine and Tiana, are learning how to keep up!
Relaxing is a skill, too! Aron with Rafiki the Northern ground hornbill

I asked Aron to tell me what he likes best about his job, and to elaborate on some of his best moments at the Aviary. Here's what he said:

"Other than all the behind-the-scenes stuff I do on a daily basis, my main role at Tracy Aviary is to connect people to the birds on a personal level. I present the bird show twice a day, and the emphasis is on getting the birds as close to people as possible, with as many interactive experiences as possible. We strive to give people information that cannot be found in a book or through a Google search. Most of my bird show dialogue consists of stories about the individual bird as well as making connections between birds and our every day lives. I tell people little things they can do (or stop doing) to help birds in the wild, I show them how to find them in the wild, and I demonstrate for them why they should care.

When not performing shows, I am mostly out and about on aviary grounds, with one (or more) birds, letting the birds show off their natural behaviors, whether it be flying, climbing, running, or swimming. My goal is to give people unexpected intimate experiences with the birds in an informal setting. These are my favorite types of encounters, the ones that surprise people. I love to see their eyes light up when I approach them with a friendly bird that they can hold, feed, or take a selfie with. 

When you work closely with the birds, you start to pick up on their individual personalities and of course you become very attached. I work with a wrinkled hornbill, Zazu, that will perform his entire show routine while carrying a grape in his beak that I gave him at the start, and he will give it back to me before exiting. He will insist that I take the grape from him or he will not move on to the next step and the show will be delayed. 

My personal favorite bird at the aviary is our aplomado falcon, Phoenix. He is trained to fly to a glove, no matter who is wearing the glove. In the bird show we call a volunteer on stage to put on a glove and fly the falcon. I once called a 5 year old child on stage to hold Phoenix. 4 years later the nine-year-old approached me with his parents and said that he has a framed photo of me, him, and Phoenix hung on his wall. When he grows up he is going to be a bird trainer and teach people to protect birds. 

One of the most emotional experiences of my career/life was losing our golden eagle, Nizhoni, last year. I had just returned from my first trip to Belize, and made it back just in time to hold her in my arms when she passed. It was one of the hardest things I had ever been through, but I was extremely touched by the outpouring of support I received, even from people I had never met. I was getting facebook messages and emails from people that had Nizhoni at their Boy Scout events and weddings, people that had bumped into me and her out and about on grounds - I even got a black and white photo sent to me from one of her original handlers more than 20 years ago. She inspired tens of thousands of people, and I had the honor of being the last person to work with her in a very long line of trainers. Her spirit lives on in everything I do.

I once ran into a blind man at the aviary and allowed him to feed, and then hold, Inca, our red-billed toucan. The blind man said out loud that she was beautiful, that he could feel her beauty in his hands. I think about this interaction all the time, because I agree that she is beautiful but I find it to be profound that someone could appreciate her beauty without seeing her brightly colored bill and exquisitely complex feather details."

After visiting
Belize and its rainforest, Aron decided to move there to work with the Belize Raptor Center. They will be organizing their first bird show program, of which Aron will take the lead. Conservation education is important in tropical countries, where most of the wildlife and bird species of the planet reside. "As much as I love Tracy Aviary, I am heading to Belize because I feel that this is where my mission is needed more. I see vast potential in the conservation community down there and I want to be a part of it. I hope that our efforts will inspire people around the planet to protect our natural world and keep it safe."

Thank you, Aron, for all of your education efforts and hard work throughout the years, and for being an advocate for the planet. The birds love you!

Monday, April 18, 2016

2 Weeks of Yoga and Healthy Eating in Ecuador

I'm so excited! I was just asked to lead a Yoga and Wellness Tour through Ecuador by my friend who owns FairTravel4u. This is exciting for me because, not only do I love Ecuador, I have been practicing yoga for almost twenty years. I've also studied health and nutrition for quite some time - so everything about this trip is going to be fantastic.

Here is the information for the trip. It will take place March of 2017, and I must find 10-20 yogis to bring with me.

Ever wanted to do yoga in the Amazon? On the beach? In the Andes?

Then join us on our

 2-week Yoga and Wellness Tour through Ecuador

Practice daily guided yoga and healthy eating while exploring the beautiful country of Ecuador. With two yoga sessions per day, along with meditation, massage, reiki, canoeing, and horseback riding, you are sure to be regenerated in both body and spirit.

Experience sunrise sessions overlooking lakes and mountain valleys and surrounded by a chorus of birds. Practice ocean-side Kundalini as waves rumble in the distance. Enjoy the smell of fragrant flowers and chatter of insects as a meditation session in the jungle carries you off to sleep.

The tour starts in the Andes where you will stay in a peaceful mountain lodge overlooking the largest freshwater lake in the country. Then we will take canoes into the Amazon where we spend a few days in a jungle lodge, searching for birds, exotic flowers, and river Caiman. From there we visit the coast and stay ocean-side, passing local villages and rustic communities along the way. And we end our tour in the sacred valley of Vilcabamba, also known as the Valley of Longevity, some of whose inhabitants are said to be over 120 years old.

The Wellness Tour includes many of your healthy meals during the trip, all lodging based on two participants sharing a room, guided jungle and mountain tours with a naturalist, English-speaking guide, all four in-country flights, two yoga sessions per day, meditation sessions, two massages (one with reiki), and all group activities during the trip.

Dates: March 4-18, 2017
Price: $2500

For a detailed itinerary and more information, visit


call/text: (720) 473-0657
email: info@jennieofthejungle.com


We will be heading to the Andes as soon as we debark the plane, staying at a lodge in the mountains with a view of a Volcano and the largest freshwater lake in Ecuador. From there we head into the Amazon jungle - entering by boat to our island lodge on a large lake. We will be able to see exotic birds, monkeys, coatis, capybaras, insects, frogs, butterflies, Amazon dolphins, caiman, and much more! We will have plenty of time around our yoga sessions to explore and wildlife watch.

From the jungle we will travel to the coast, where we will do our daily yoga overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We will take a tour through the surrounding valleys where we will interact with small, local communities who still thrive off of fishing and growing fruit. We will have a beach bonfire (weather permitting) and a full body massage.

Then we will head back into the mountains to a lodge complete with beautiful gardens and the largest yoga studio in Ecuador. There we will practice Kundalini, meditation, and air yoga, as we overlook scenic valleys and rolling hills. We can birdwatch from the platform and see other critters as we travel by horseback or hike through the valleys and cliffs toward local waterfalls.

And all of this while eating healthy! What more could you ask for?

So if you'd like to join us, get in touch! Promise it will be well worth your while. Because of the rich beauty of the seldom-touched countryside and forests of Ecuador, and the politeness of the people, it has remained one of my favorite countries in the world. I'm always excited at the opportunity to return.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Weird Animals You Didn't Even Know Existed

After a brief hiatus while traveling without internet in Thailand (blog coming soon!) and then getting my laptop stolen, I am back with a new blog!

Now I believe I know about A LOT of animals - ALLLL the animals, to be exact (or so I like to think)! But I'm humbled and brought back down to Earth when someone tells me about a species that I wasn't aware existed. You can bet I go right to a computer and look it up in order to learn everything I can about it (and pretend I knew about it the whole time).

This blog is dedicated to some of these unusual creatures - and count yourself lucky if you've heard of any of them!


"I don't even bother looking in the mirror anymore."

("Serow Capricornis sumatraensis" by Melanochromis) 
The serow ranges throughout parts of Asia, India, and the Himalayas. They are basically temperamental, solitary, and sometimes fuzzy, goat-antelopes. Both males and females have beards and small horns, which I imagine makes mating/dating a tough game.

Tinder profile: "Hi, my name is Serowphina, my beard is 19 inches long (beard pic sent separately) and I love to pee on things! Swipe right - I'd love to mark you as my territory."

The serow is endangered, and is often hunted for its meat and body parts, which are used in local medicine. Apparently, it is believed that the broth obtained by boiling a serow head is a remedy for arthritis. So drink up!

You know you wanna....

And lastly, admit you wanted to see the beard pic....

All 19 inches, baby!



The world's rarest antelope, the Hirola resides in Africa and is critically endangered. It is often called the Four-Eyed Antelope due to its large preorbital glands

"Call me four-eyes one more time and I'll cry pheremones on you."

The hirola doesn't receive much media attention, unfortunately, and its long-term future is far from guaranteed.

This might be the only sad, gay hirola left in all the world.

A sanctuary has recently been built in Kenya that has been surrounded by predator-proof fencing. Breeding of the hirola there is going well so far. 

"Whelp, guess we HAVE to have sex now. Dang."

To support hirola sex, you can donate here.


The saiga antelope is the derpiest antelope in existence, boasting a large humped nose that hangs over its mouth. The nose is flexible and inflatable to help it breathe clean air during dusty summers and warm air during cold winters.

"You wish you had a giant sea cucumber on your face, too. Derp."

The saiga lives in Russia, Mongolia, and some more places around that area, and is critically endangered as well. 

"If only my nose wasn't in such high demand!"

If you've ever watched Star Wars, then you've seen a saiga. Lucky you!

"I wasn't always this mean. I was born in the savannah-ghetto and am a recovering grass addict."

Threats to the saiga include over-hunting, demand for the horn (again with the Chinese medicine thing), habitat loss, severe winters and summer droughts. Hopefully this nose will prevail and the saiga will live long and prosper (err...wait...).


The pudu is the world's smallest deer, and quite possibly the cutest thing, ever. Destined to replace your ugly dogs and cats, the pudu resides in South America.

"Everything on me is tiny!"


There's the regular pudu, and then there's the EVEN SMALLER pudu!

Yer killin' me, homes!

Pudus are solitary animals and only pair up to mate. And, get this, the pudu barks when in fear, and bristles its fur and shivers when angered. There is absolutely nothing I'd like to see more than a tiny, barking, shivering mini-deer!


Pudus mark there territories with piles of pudu-poo (aka poo-doo) around the perimeters. That's probably the only thing that's not cute about them (and even that is debatable). 



It's a mouse! It's a rat! It's a pig! It's...Dumbo?? This can only describe the jerboa, a special pig-mouse-elephant hybrid in the rodent family.

Sticking with our Star Wars theme...

But seriously, these guys are oddly cute. Who can resist a giant pair of fuzzy pig-mouse-elephant ears?

"I heard that."


Jerboas are big-time leapers, which live in North Africa and Asia, and have hind limbs that are at least four times as long as their forelimbs along with long tails that add to their balance. And without further ado, I present this video of jerboic cuteness. Though it does not look super-healthy, this pygmy jerboa is certainly adorable. Hopefully it was a rescued jerboa and is still alive somewhere in the desert today, jumping happily after an unsuspecting dung-beetle...

Banded Linsang

What do you get when you cross a giraffe, a cat, and something with really large sexual anatomy? The Banded Linsang!

"Hey, my eyes are up here."

This animal spends most of its time in trees in the forests of Borneo, Thailand, Malaysia, and Sumatra, and is part of the civet family. A civet is a sorta-kinda cat that is a much fuzzier, less long-necked, angrier version of the Linsang.

"%^#* you!"

In fact, the most expensive coffee in the world is produced by the civet cat. Deep in the forests of Asia, the civet cat forages for juicy ripe luwak coffee beans and eats them. As they move through the digestive tract of the cat, they undergo chemical changes and fermentation. The bean itself is not digested and comes out in the cat's poop. Some smart people decided to process the bean from the poop and sell the resulting coffee. It has been described as having an "elusive musky smoothness" imparted by the cat's anal glands. Excellent.

Now that's something I'd spend $50 a cup on!


If you pick up a gram of this "special" coffee, you will pay upwards of $300. Since I know you're all ready to fly out the door to make this purchase, just be sure the coffee comes from a sustainable source. Otherwise you might not only be supporting disgusting coffee, you might be supporting civet cruelty (factory farms) as well.

"So much poop, so little time."


I pride myself on styling this blog after cracked.com. If you haven't visited them yet, prepare to laugh and check it out. Or visit my previous cracked.com-like owl blog here