Connie Speight, 86, recently became a grandmother — to an elephant. Singha is the firstborn of one of the 12 Asian elephants Speight has rescued during the last eight years. Ever since Speight “fell out of [her mother’s] womb,” she has loved animals, elephants in particular. When visiting Bangkok in 2003, she saw an elephant in very poor condition and became outraged. Tourists were paying to feed the pachyderm bananas and sugarcane. The elephant had been trained to just stand still, which is extremely painful because of their sensitive footpads. In fact, vibrations from traffic and street noise made it impossible; her owner punished her.
Since then, Speight has dedicated her life to rescuing Asian elephants; that same year, she founded The Elephants Umbrella Fund using her own money. Word of Speight’s mission got out, and people started to donate. “But I could always use more donors,” she said. The very first elephant that Speight rescued cost $6,000; the last two cost $21,000 each. Seven years ago, the organization received 501(c) status, which makes it exempt from paying taxes; every single penny donated goes to the rescue of elephants.
Elephants are a true passion for the small but strong-minded Speight, who takes on a challenge every fifth birthday. “When I was 78, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have many years left, so I better start doing stuff besides blowing out candles and eating cakes.’”
The Elephant Umbrella Fund currently rescues elephants in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia — all of which might not have “a single wild elephant less than 20 years from now.” Elephant poaching is a big problem in Asian countries — as well as exploiting elephants for labor. “[Poaching] is not only loss of life but also loss of gene pool,” Speight said, and in Asia is merely punished with a “slap on the wrist” because their laws are weak, she continued.