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Laos Training: From Paper to People

By Sarah Bonser-Blake

Laos Training: From Paper to People

Wild Welfare’s Animal Welfare Field Manager Sarah Bonser-Blake and Director Simon Marsh ventured to Laos in November to conduct the first ever in-person training for our e-learning programme. It was a valuable learning experience for all involved, and quite an emotional one too. In this blog, Sarah explores why the practical roll-out of the programme was such a special event…

 “I barely stopped smiling as we witnessed lightbulb moments and genuine excitement over the animal welfare concepts we were talking through.”

– Sarah Bonser-Blake, Animal Welfare Field Manager

The unknown always makes me nervous, and whenever we plan a Wild Welfare training trip, there are a lot of unknowns. When it came to our visit to Laos, we grappled with unanswered questions and had to prepare for a lot of firsts. It was my first time in Laos, both personally and professionally. It was also the first time we were trialling the in-person training programme based on the Wild Welfare e-learning course. The online, self-led course is made up of eight modules on animal care and welfare principles and aims to support long-term changes in attitudes towards animal welfare. 

The idea to create a training event out of the course, guiding users through it and including practical training on-site had been formulating in my head for three years. It very much felt like a pipe dream until all the components started to come together. 

I was excited about the potential for the programme to have even more of an impact on animal welfare education than the stand-alone online content. Helping animal care staff to understand the why behind animal management techniques was important and using practical examples to back up theoretical knowledge was the perfect way to solidify that understanding. What worried me though, was the fact that we had never done it before. 

I wasn’t sure how the learning material would translate to in-person presentations or how we would organise the practical activities we were dreaming up. With just a few days to go before I headed over to Asia, we were still frantically trying to organise logistics but thankfully we had incredible support from the Free the Bears team who were helping us to host this trial run. They patiently answered all our questions and provided a lot of practical assistance as Simon and I  journeyed to their site in Luang Prabang and began the five-day course.

Once we started, I barely stopped smiling as we witnessed lightbulb moments and genuine excitement over the animal welfare concepts we were talking through. Getting attendees from multiple animal care facilities in the same room meant a lot of opportunities for informal learning too. I will never forget the surprise on a bear veterinarian’s face when an elephant carer started describing the way in which one of their elephants demonstrated tool use. The vet was so fascinated, all he could do was lean in, completely enthralled and ask for more details.

As we got into the rhythm of the course, running theoretical training in the mornings and practical exercises in the afternoons, the discussions – held in a mix of Lao and English – became longer and more animated. We asked the participants a lot of questions to trigger critical thinking and sometimes one topic could take us down a rabbit hole of debate and discussion. Witnessing new networking connections and friendships forming between the group was incredibly gratifying. 

Being back out in the field after two years of lockdowns came as an invigorating tonic to me. Not only were we able to witness authentic reactions to our learning content, but we also visited some of the animals who our training would ultimately impact. We were introduced to many a beautiful bear during the trip, their inquisitive noses pointing skyward as we said hello. There was a large male whose white triangle of chest fur has been turned orange due to his animated digging in the baked earth of his enclosure. The fact that he had such fantastic opportunities to dig and explore his environment after a life in a bile cage was a stark reminder as to why animal welfare charities like Free the Bears and Wild Welfare exist.

As the five-day course came to an end, we handed out certificates to everyone for completing the full programme. The group were full of joy and laughter, but also pride at what they had achieved as we wrapped up our time at the facility. I couldn’t help but get a little emotionally struck by how well it had all gone. Not only had each of the attendees learned more about how their care actions can impact animal welfare, but they had shown me that this ambitious plan I had dreamt up on a piece of scrap paper three years prior was actually having a positive impact on this group of people, and the animals in their care. As I handed out the last certificate, that fact really hit me in a poignant way.

From the first day when we learned everyone’s names, to the last goodbye we said to the bears before we took the bumpy route back down the mountainside, the week in Laos had shimmered with heat and hope. It would have been nice to bask in the glow of the programme’s success and relax a bit before we left but the reality was that we were about to do the entire thing all over again in Vietnam. Onwards and upwards!


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