Animal Aide Adventurer

Kathy Snyder, vacation volunteer…

They say an elephant never forgets. They might be right because at least one retired Redding nurse can remember an elephant who didn’t forget. When Kathy Snyder returned as a volunteer to the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, she looked forward to reconnecting to a baby elephant she had befriended there nine months ago.

Upon arrival, she sighted the herd across the compound and called out a name. “Thong Ee!” She wasn’t quite ready for the reception she received. “She raised her trunk and she trumpeted and ran to me,” recalls Snyder. “They’re pretty quick when they’re young.”

She had to step back to buffer the impact from this baby, already nearing five feet at the shoulder and rushing a half-ton of excitement straight at her. But the reunion was painless. “She wrapped her trunk around my waist and curled me up against her leg. I ended up with my back against her and my face underneath her ear,” Snyder says. “That’s how an elephant hugs you.”

She hugged back the way you hug an elephant, embracing Thong Ee’s trunk. “I was overjoyed and sobbing because she remembered me,” Snyder says. “She gave me a lot of love.”

The Elephant Nature Park is a Thai animal sanctuary dedicated to rescuing Asian elephants from entertainment venues or a life of labor, captivities Snyder openly calls “slavery.” She says that after they are done performing tricks or finishing a 12-hour shift for a lumber company, captive elephants are chained down. And that’s their lives, as long as 50 years.

Snyder’s volunteer service overseas did not begin by saving elephants, however. She found the elephant park during a volunteer mission in Cambodia with Mission Rabies, an international organization that vaccinated dogs in remote villages. “I saw this as an honorable mission. More than 60,000 people die yearly from rabid dog bites,” she says. “I was saving human lives.”

She started this new life while still maintaining a career as an emergency room nurse at Mercy Medical Center. One day she decided that wasn’t enough for her. Having loved animals all her life, she sat down and searched online for “animal care.” Thus began a five-year lifestyle of flying abroad to volunteer during vacations from her Redding nursing job, two weeks to a month at a time.

Eventually, Mission Rabies’ parent organization, Worldwide Veterinary Services, asked her to join their campaign to spay and neuter dogs in Botswana and Zambia. She said yes. “We’d go out to the villages and do the surgery right on the tailgate of a truck or a picnic table in the bush,” she says. “I’m capable of assisting with spays. I can do neuters on male dogs by myself. I can also neuter monkeys.”

Snyder saw an easy transition from human care to animal care. “Being a nurse and having medical and surgical experience, you just naturally gravitate to animal care,” she explains. “Everybody has a femur and the same internal organs. Sure, different places, bigger or smaller, but it’s not that big a jump.”

As grueling as they can be, she doesn’t see her volunteer duties as work. “In that last month I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked, and it was all for free,” she says. “It’s pure happiness, absolute fun. The reward is the work. It keeps you going.”

Snyder, born and raised in Redding, has loved animals for as long as she can remember. Her favorite animals were horses, which she began riding at age 8. She says the towering height of a horse was no problem for her. “You just grab the mane and swing yourself up – bareback,” she says. “I rode all over town.”

A few years out of high school, she joined the Air Force, where they trained her to be a nurse. After serving for two years in Las Vegas, she left military service and returned to Redding to work in the hospital where she was born. She lived on her ranch, with animals, in Cottonwood. It was nearly three decades later when she began carefully planning her vacations around overseas volunteer animal care service, and after a couple of years, she decided one month a year was not enough. “In 2017, I retired. I sold my ranch. I sold everything I had.”

This gave her the freedom to spend more time abroad neutering dogs in remote regions of the world for Worldwide Veterinary Services. “In the last five years I’ve worked in nine countries,” she says. “My last mission was in Fiji. On March 19, three days before I was to leave for Australia, they closed the borders because of COVID-19.” Reluctantly, she came home.

Today, like most people, Snyder is sheltering in place. “I live at my mother’s with two dogs,” she says. “I’m very annoyed I have to stay home. I love being a nurse, and I love animals, and I get to incorporate both overseas.”

So she waits, like most people, for the world to return to normal.

Meanwhile, she dreams of going back to the Elephant Nature Park in Cambodia. “Rescued elephants get to live the rest of their lives in the park. They get to be elephants again,” she says. “If they want to roll in the mud or swim in the river or hang out under the trees and not do anything, they just can do what they want.” 

By Richard DuPertuis
Photos courtesy of Kathy Snyder

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