Local Personalities: Martin Smith

by Dr. Iain Corness

Martin Smith is Mein Host at the Old Speckled Hen Pub in Jomtien, and a man who has spent more than half his working life working with elephants. That includes such backbreaking work as shovelling elephant poo! He is also a man who managed to sell elephant poo souvenirs for profit.

His father was in the Commandos and the family lived a nomadic existence, with postings all over the world, including a stint in Singapore, a country that stuck in the memory of young Martin, with the heat and the smells conjuring up all kinds of excitement.

After returning to the UK, schoolboy Martin was unsure where he was heading career-wise, but his biology teacher knew, informing Martin’s mother that he would work for a Safari Park. As he grew older, his father tried to interest him in the Services, but by that stage Martin also knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to work with animals.

He followed the biology teacher’s idea and began knocking on safari park gates. The knocking was partially successful and he was promised an interview with the Royal Windsor Safari Park when he was 16. At 16 years he presented himself, only to find that they had upped the age for their personnel to 18. To fill in the two years he went to Agricultural College where he immediately said he wanted to work in the dairy and pig units. There, one of his jobs was to put the rings through pig’s noses. “It’s to stop them rooting and digging,” said Martin after I showed my ignorance of porcine jewellery! And apparently pigs are nice gregarious animals.

As soon as he had turned 18 he was back at the gates of the Royal Windsor Safari Park. They rewarded his devotion by giving him a job. He had always dreamed of working with tigers and cheetahs, but was thrown in at the deep end with elephants, that being the only vacancy. “From there I never looked back,” said Martin. “After that I didn’t want to work with any animals other than Asian elephants.”

He was still very young and had dreams of one day becoming a game warden in the Serengeti. However, reality was much removed from that. “I was really a security guard in a safari outfit, making sure the customers stayed in their cars, and the animals stayed in their enclosures.”

His next career move was to John Aspinall’s Port Lympne zoo, a privately run outfit in Kent in the UK. This was an establishment that encouraged people to get in with the animals. Martin stuck with elephants, admitting that this was partly because of his poor eyesight. “With smaller animals I couldn’t see them coming, but elephants were big enough for me to see them moving!”

Up till this time, Martin was a young lad with no worries. Life was one round of enjoyments after another. There was no need to be serious in the UK of the ‘Swinging’ 70’s and 80’s. But that hedonistic round ended in 1984 when his best friend, another safari worker, was killed by a bull elephant and Martin found the body. “After this I became serious about animal husbandry.”

He was then sent around the world by Aspinalls to study elephant management. This took him to the US, Singapore and Thailand to study handling methods and enclosures. The answer was total zero handling, with studies showing that male elephants would look upon the ‘keepers’ as rivals and would therefore eventually attack their adversary one day to gain supremacy. Martin was called upon to design the elephant enclosure in the UK, a structure that he remains very proud of, complete with its hydraulically acting gates.

However, the UK was losing its attraction after he had experienced life in Thailand, and in 1990 he came over and spent six months with Phairat Chaiyakham at the Elephant Village just outside Pattaya, having been sponsored by a charity foundation run by movie stars Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. When the sponsored six months ran out, he was not ready to return to the UK, and worked in an import/export furniture outlet in Bangkok for 12 months. Even then he had not run away from his love of pachyderms. The outlet was called The Elephant House!

He returned to the UK to find that there were no openings for elephant keepers and ended up taking a job as exhibitions coordinator for Garrards the Crown Jewellers. This involved world travel, and lugging heavy trays of jewellery, and was a long way from Thailand and elephants. He stuck this out for more years than he wanted, but he was working to a plan - a plan to have enough money to set himself up in Thailand at the end. “I didn’t want to come over here to live on B. 5,000 a month as an elephant bum.”

Five years ago he returned to Thailand, going first to Nong Khai, looking at running a guest house, gaining some experience in the direction he could see himself heading. After there it was to Pattaya where he ran a bar, before finally getting himself set up in the Old Speckled Hen Pub at Jomtien. There he can also indulge himself in one of his other loves - motorcycles, and his pub is now a meeting place for all types of family style motorcycle riders and enthusiasts on Friday nights.

However, he has not forgotten elephants and would like to get involved in elephant conservation, a field that he believes needs further involvement from Thai authorities as well as NGO’s. The elephants on Jomtien Beach Road are just symptoms of the ongoing problem that the decrease in logging and subsequent lack of work for the elephants has produced. “Elephants are part of Thailand’s heritage, it’s a shame that there’s not more being done for them.”

Oh, the elephant poo souvenirs? They cost 5 pounds each and were mounted! You can ask Martin about them yourself.

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