I did my research into Edwin and there has certainly been a lot said about him in the public domain. Media organisations in many countries worldwide have featured Edwin, and the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), a non-government organisation he founded over 20 years ago now, in newspaper articles, documentaries and online articles, in many different languages. Around 10 years ago, Edwin featured on an episode of the Dutch television show, “The Reunion”, where his graduating class met up to learn what had become of their classmates. (Spoiler alert -he was the one who had been in a foreign prison!) He has been the subject of a biography, and I was delighted to be gifted a copy of the book. Edwin has even featured on a number of television shows in my home country of Australia.
I told Edwin that the purpose of this article, like all I write in the current People of Hua Hin series, would be to capture a current snapshot of who, precisely, is Edwin Wiek, and what makes him tick. So many well-known people have layers of defence I liken to the layers of an onion, that they have used to protect their private selves from the incredible scrutiny that accompanies even the slightest degree of “fame” these days. And Edwin has had a greater need than most for protection, given the private and professional attacks he has endured while undertaking his work. As a proud Australian, I would call Edwin a Wildlife Warrior, in the tradition of the late, great Steve Irwin.
In drawing this comparison, I note that Edwin and Steve both share a sense of mission, with a profound love and respect of all living creatures at its core, and both are prepared to make the needs of animals and their conservation the central focus of their lives. Much as I admire and respect what Steve Irwin accomplished in his life, which was tragically cut short, and what is still being done by the Irwin family both in Australia and worldwide to aid the preservation of habitat and animal species, I have to feel that Edwin has had the harder job.
Steve Irwin was an Australian, living in Australia, who very quickly achieved community respect for the work he was doing. Of course, it was harder to obtain the financial backing needed to buy up large tracts of wilderness to create animal sanctuaries, and harder again to start to sway public perceptions of the need to do so. Crikey, it was a tough job!
Edwin, in comparison, was Dutch-born, living in Thailand, having to use a foreign language to communicate with both the locals he encountered, and officialdom, which any foreigner in Thailand will know is in oversupply here. There are almost endless rules and regulations about what foreigners are able to do, which are interpreted by different people in authority on different days, seemingly able to change as frequently as the wind changes direction.
The main driving force for Edwin is his strong sense of justice, which when coupled with his tendency to say exactly what he is thinking in a blunt way that some might interpret as rude, has patently not been a factor found endearing to the Thai bureaucracy. Indeed, Edwin has had to face adversity, often from all sides at one, and all because he dares to care. It is a generally-held view that his wide-ranging work with animals in Thailand has seen him barraged because his work highlights inadequacies in animal welfare that some would prefer swept under the carpet. Luckily for Edwin, he is certain those days are over as he now has earnt the ear, and the Foundation has the consequent protection, of some very powerful members of the Thai Parliament.
It would be easy to assume that Edwin would see the establishment of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand as his greatest personal achievement, but this is not the case. Edwin is proud that he has outgrown the sadness and personal limitations he experienced as a child, with the divorce of his parents and a stint in boarding school. He had very low self-esteem and didn’t see a future for himself beyond perhaps becoming a salesman. Although he was academically gifted, he admits he was lazy at school as the work wasn’t sufficiently challenging. He did only the bare minimum he needed to achieve passing grades, then finished school and entered the Army as required. After his military service, Edwin, always the son with the rebellious streak, took a job with a fashion accessory company, one in direct competition with his father’s business. It seems the need to be working on a new challenge, on his own terms, was strong.
Among his strengths, Edwin lists his talent with languages which allows him to read and write a number of languages fluently, including Thai, and his flexibility. Although staff might say Edwin can at times be a bit of a hard task-master who likes things done his way, without too much complaint or questioning, he is not at all fazed by last-minute changes to plans, and is happy to rearrange commitments when necessary. Edwin stated that a Foundation meeting should have a clearly structured agenda and should last no more than 30 minutes. I was extremely glad these rules did not apply to the interview Edwin gave me for this article, where he was more than generous with his precious time.
Edwin faced my questioning with the indomitable spirit he displays in his daily life. He is a man who know himself inside and out, and is honest about where his foibles lie, making no attempt to hide them from my prying. Edwin wishes he had improved strength when it comes to saying no to alcohol. In his position as host to the overnight guests at the Foundation, a welcoming glass of bubbles makes a second or subsequent drink harder to avoid. Edwin also admits to a relatively short span of attention as he aims to use his time efficiently. The final weakness he admits to is his inability to deal with stupidity, in all its forms. Can’t say I blame him; tolerance is not my strong suit either.
Trying to remain positive, both in the hard times and the good, has not always been easy. The Covid pandemic stretched the Foundation’s budget to breaking point on many occasions as international tourism ceased with border closures and income sources dried up as a direct result. At that time, Edwin had over 100 staff, both Thai and foreign, as well as about 800 animals who were reliant on the Foundation for their day-to-day existence. I suspect that there were quite a number of sleepless nights involved, but for Edwin there were also lessons to be learnt. He learnt to take a more philosophical approach when things seem to be getting out of control, he learnt that at times you need to let it go. If Edwin were able to give his teenage self some cogent advice, it would be to suck it up and keep going, one day at a time, as you will undoubtedly reach the other side. It still can be hard advice to follow for Edwin, particularly when he and the team aren’t able to restore an animal to health and have to pick the time to end its suffering. The period of time between making this decision and it being carried out holds insufferable pain for any animal lover.
Throughout his more than 50 years on this planet, Edwin has felt that things were getting better, year by year. But he credits the explosion of the social media phenomenon with people’s increasing dissatisfaction with themselves and their lot in life. Edwin is regularly amazed at the capacity of people to be genuinely cruel on social media. In fact, he gets annoyed when he sees utter nonsense being presented as fact on social media and is compelled to call it out, suffering frequent bans as a consequence.
Edwin has zero ambition of sainthood and was not reticent to tell me about the less favourable things he has done. He once walked away from a friend who had problems Edwin was unwilling to take on, a decision he regretted immensely when the friend decided to end his life. And, even worse, according to Edwin, was intentionally lying to people who cared about him. Edwin is able to reflect on his actions, admit his errors of judgement, and learn from his mistakes. In this, Edwin is the epitome of true growth and humanity.
Like everyone I have interviewed, Edwin still has things he wants to do. He knows he doesn’t take enough personal time to enjoy with his partner, having a day off, a lazy breakfast followed by a movie in bed, or even treating themselves to his favourite Sunday brunch at McFarland House. Home is his favourite place on earth, where he can awake to the sounds of the gibbons singing and the elephants trumpeting. But he’d still fancy a gap year, something he didn’t have for himself as a younger man. He has a vision of spending extended periods of time on a yacht, working on the conservation of marine animals, perhaps even with the chance to rekindle his love of diving, which he hasn’t been able to do for quite a while now, probably as a result of trauma he experienced whilst volunteering in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami.
Concerns about mortality have become more real to Edwin very recently. He values his health and wellbeing, but the first death of a family member of his parent’s generation a year or so ago, and then the death of his younger brother, have encouraged Edwin to think more closely about the future. He expects he could be able to continue in his multitude of roles for another decade, but has no illusion about being irreplaceable. Edwin has a pair of highly skilled “seconds-in-command” in Tommy and Pep and a strong team of valued and dedicated staff, some of whom have worked for the foundation for over 15 years. He understands the benefits of creating a positive work environment for staff that will allow him great staff retention rates. Edwin makes people happy and comfortable by welcoming them, showing his appreciation for what they do and sharing both their laughter and their pain. He cited a Dutch saying, “A shared pain is half the pain.”
Edwin was reluctant to name his favourite animal or even type of animal. He likened it to being asked to choose a favourite child. Yet he was able to tell me how specific animals in his care have had a profound impact on him personally. Friday, a monkey Edwin rescued back in 1999, and who lived happily until 2021, will always have a special place in Edwin’s heart, since he was the initiator of Edwin’s passion for wildlife rescue. He credits Canoe, the chimpanzee, who spent 32 of his 35 years in the one cage, with reshaping Edwin, with his anger, his intelligence yet his capacity to still give love to certain people despite the appalling treatment dished out by human hands.
Edwin’s resilience is perhaps the quality I admire most in him. Edwin told me he had learnt resilience from an employer he had early in his work life, a man he called Pinky. He described Pinky as an elderly, small, somewhat hunched Jewish man who always had a small bag of diamonds in his trouser pocket so he and his wife could escape from any threat at a moment’s notice. Both Pinky and his wife had endured the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp, separately, as teenagers, and were not going to ever have their freedom removed again. Freedom is very precious to Edwin too, and he believes it is undervalued in modern Western society and we should be cherishing it. And just like freedom, Edwin thinks we all undervalue the simplicity yet fundamental importance of a glass of fresh water. Like still water, Edwin runs deep with his thinking.
Edwin has a maxim, and it is a good one. “The only difference between a dream and a target is the existence of a plan”. If you would like to help with Edwin’s target, whether through visiting the Foundation’s animal sanctuary, volunteering or making a donation, visit wfft.org.