Why You Should Never Ride an Elephant

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Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-11: Phuket
  • Days 12-15: Koh Tao
  • Day 16- Bangkok
  • Day 17: Chiang Mai
  • Days 18-24: Elephant Nature Park
  • Day 15: Bangkok

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: August 1-29, 2014

Our Odyssey:

Tim and I once rode an elephant at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It was a simple ride, just around a circle a few times, but we could see something in the animal’s eyes that did not look happy. While I cannot speak to what the training practices are at the Circus World Museum for these elephants, I do know now what they tend to look like in Thailand and why regardless of training practices, elephants don’t belong anywhere but running free in their natural habitat.

The Elephant Nature Park just north of Chiang Mai, Thailand is a sanctuary for rescued and injured elephants who formerly worked in the tourism or illegal logging industry. In an effort to incorporate some kind of volunteer work in to our trip, we decided back in February to schedule a week volunteering at the park during our time in Thailand. At that time we knew vaguely that riding elephants for fun or attending circus-style shows support a type of elephant imprisonment that we did not agree with, and we knew we would learn more about the larger picture of the situation of Asian elephants in Thailand by working there for a week.

We learned it was actually worse than we had imagined. While elephants in the wild are protected by Thai law, domesticated elephants are considered livestock and therefore have no legal protection against cruelty. Because elephants can make their owners a lot of money in the tourism industry, elephants are trained to give treks to tourists, to put on painting shows, to perform circus tricks, etc. This training often involves beating and harming the elephant, using hooks through their ears to direct them, intentionally blinding one or both eyes using a slingshot, whipping them, and keeping them in chains most of the time. When these elephants are injured to the point where they are unable to work, they do not typically receive proper medical care and are disposed of by their owners (if they are not forced to continue working anyway). Alternatively, elephants in the illegal logging industry suffer foot injuries (including stepping on landmines on the Burma/Thailand border) that impact them the rest of their lives- which, for an animal that can live over 70 years, is a long time.

These practices led the nature park’s founder, Lek, to dedicate her life to rescuing elephants from these situations. Lek is an astounding woman. She comes from a poor hill tribe in northern Thailand and was the first in her village to attend university. She had no money when she started her foundation, but her vision earned a generous donation from a Texan named Bert that allowed her to purchase enough land to start her sanctuary. Now, the sanctuary has 39 elephants, hundreds of rescued dogs and cats, water buffalo, peacocks, monkeys, and probably some other animals we did not even see.

There were about 30 people total volunteering the same week as us, and on our first day we were given a tour of the grounds by one of our three volunteer coordinators. We were introduced to some of the elephants and allowed to feed them melons and bananas, which they would grab out of our hands with their trunks. Those trunks are pretty nimble tools! We also “bathed” the elephants in the river, which is more for our benefit than for theirs as they are perfectly capable of bathing themselves, but they don’t mind it and it was nice to be that close to the elephants in the river.

After our tour around the park we checked into our rooms which were very basic- ours was essentially open air with a raised tin roof and mosquito netting over the bed.

That night, the shaman from the local village and several wise women came to the elephant park to bless our work. This was a very interesting experience that involved having the shaman pull our “bad luck” into basket, brushing us with holy water, and giving us good luck in the form of white string bracelets. All the while he would chant in his local language (I don’t know if it was Thai or a language of the village) and splash us intermittently with holy water. This was a fascinating peek into the beliefs of the people in this region- a mix of Buddhism and mysticism.

The next morning we began our first full day of work. We were divided into three groups and each group was tasked with a specific job for the morning and afternoon. Our morning job was cleaning up elephant poo. Pretty gross and stinky but not too hard, particularly in comparison to the afternoon job of planting bamboo trees. That afternoon a woman named Jodie, who seems to be Lek’s right hand woman, gave us an overview of safety practices when around elephants as well as some of the gossip about the relationships elephants create. For example, one older elephant named Meadow, who has suffered injuries to both of our back legs, came to the park as a loner- she did not like interacting with other elephants and kept to herself. There was another female elephant about her age that would stand in her vicinity though not too close because she was also a loner. For months they both hung out near each other without actually ever becoming friends. One day, a helicopter flew overhead. When this happens, the ground vibrates and elephants can’t ID where the noise is coming from, and the elephants panic a bit and cluster into their perviously defined herds. Since Meadow and this other elephant (who is nicknamed Pamela Anderson because of her figure) had no herd, they flocked to each other in their panic and have been best friends ever since. They now do everything together. They even support each other emotionally- when Pamela Anderson’s boyfriend died suddenly, Meadow stuck by her side comforting her while she lay on the ground in mourning.

The second day was a bit easier work wise- we unloaded a truck of watermelons in the morning and in the afternoon we made a path with concrete and rocks, which was actually a lot of fun and inspired some DIY ideas for when we get home. By far the highlight of my day, however, was visiting an enclosed yard called the “Cat Kingdom”, where many kittens and young adult cats live in a cat paradise. While most people would probably swoon over the baby kittens (and admittedly I did too), it was two young adult cats who stole my heart. A white cat with orange and black markings crawled into my lap and just sat there purring for about a half hour. At that time, another cat, this one a brown and black tabby, crawled up into my lap as well, and began cleaning the first cat. It was absolutely adorable and so sweet to see how the tabby cared for the other cat. To make me fall even harder, this tabby looked just like my first cat Ginger, who I got when I was 7 or 8 and who died shortly after my 16th birthday. I was, you could say, a smitten kitten.

The next morning Tim and I spent the morning at the dog shelter on site. Most of the 400 dogs here were rescued during severe flooding in 2011. Tim fell in love with a shy little guy named Parry, and I am pretty sure if we both didn’t plan on traveling for work when we get home, he would have ended up adopting him. After walking and playing with dogs, the whole volunteer group took a trip into the town to visit the local school. The school appreciates the visits from the elephant park volunteers because it exposes the students to native English speakers, giving them a chance to practice. A lot of what they learn in the school is focused on practical skills for earning money (cooking, customer service, leading rafting trips down the river, jewelry making), but they also study English and we got to color and talk with some young children who were working on learning the English alphabet.

That afternoon we were excused from working in order to go on an elephant walk- basically walking through the park with one of our coordinators and learning more about the elephants and observing them. We got to see several of the baby elephants, including one of the babies bathing in the river with his tribe. It was really cool seeing them play in the water and blow a shoot of water out of their trunks and on to their backs to wash off. Afterwards, I stopped by the Cat Kingdom again to visit my two favorite cats, and my little tabby cat crawled into my lap right away!

The next day was another leisurely working day. The morning was spent “cleaning up the park” which was mainly just raking cornstalks into piles and watching elephants some more. We were done pretty early so I spent the rest of my morning back in the Cat Kingdom- and this time there was a poodle there! I still do not know what he was doing there, but I brought Tim back with me later that day so he could play with that adorable fluffball.

In the afternoon we got to meet Lek herself and go on an elephant walk with her. It was really impressive seeing the relationship she has with her elephants- she trusts them completely and was just sitting on the ground surrounded my several adult elephants without any fear that they would step on her. Lek also gave us a talk that evening about how she founded the park and her inspirations for doing so. She was a very good speaker despite her broken English, and after hearing her for an hour or so Tim and I both had fleeting thoughts of becoming vegetarians.

That night Tim and I splurged and spent $4 each on an hour long Thai massage. It was phenomenol- they stretch your joints and muscles out, manuevering your body into all sorts of stretches. I think that maybe this is why contortionists are often Asian (kidding of course).

The next day, our last full day of volunteering, was spent cleaning up elephant poo again and then unloading a melon truck. In the afternoon we went on another elephant walk and visited my cats. That night, our last in the park, we had a special dinner with traditional northern Thai food (unfortunately I can’t really tell you what it was) and students from the school came to perform traditional dances and music while we ate. Afterwards, Tim and I got yet another hour long massage, this time for our feet, and then played cards with some of our new friends from the week.

On our last day, before heading back into the city of Chiang Mai, Tim and I visited his dog Parry and my two cats one last time. This was admittedly pretty sad for me- I had gotten a bit attached to those kitties. But overall we were excited to head back into civilization and out of our stinky elephant-poo-shoveling clothes. We also plan to take what we have learned and experienced back to our community- by educating our friends and others about the impacts of elephant tourism, and by finding out more about how the elephants at the Circus World Museum are treated and kept.

And now we are back in Chiang Mai, doing laundry and relaxing, finding it hard to believe that in just a few days we head back to the United States for three weeks for my best friend’s wedding…yikes!

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