What Elephants Taught Me About Travel

It’s been a little over a year since Tim and I spent a week
volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand, but it’s a week
we still think about often. Over the past year we’ve been thrilled to see
several of our friends also visit the ENP, and whenever we’ve heard that
friends are spending time in Asia, we also let them know what we’ve learned
about elephant tourism in the region. In particular, we encourage our friends
and acquaintances to avoid riding elephants and to not support companies that sell elephant
rides.

The
reason behind this wasn’t something we’ve always known. In fact, many years ago
Tim and I rode an elephant – an experience that felt sad that very day (we just
didn’t quite know why). It is not natural for elephants to give rides to humans,
and trainers typically resort to violence and abuse to teach them to support
having a human on their backs. Additionally, when elephants are bought and sold
in the tourism industry, they are often separated from their herds and
families. Elephants form very emotional and connected relationships with one
another, so this separation is very traumatic for them.

The Elephant Nature Park strives to restore former tourism
and logging industry elephants to a more natural state of living and forming
relationships among one another by rescuing (buying) elephants from these other
companies. Typically, they are only able to rescue them once the tourism
company or logging company doesn’t want them anymore (in other words, the
elephant is injured, old, or sick and cannot perform the job duty anymore), but
there have also been cases where the ENP has been able to reunite babies with
their mothers and
long lost friends with one another.

Speaking out about this hasn’t always been easy – some
people have viewed this as just a way to try to ruin someone’s vacation or rain
on their parade. Recently, I saw on Facebook that an acquaintance of mine had
just spent a day riding an elephant in Bali. I commented on the photo in what I
thought was a respectful, caring way to explain the context of elephant rides
in Southeast Asia and to encourage her to learn more about it. I’ve always had
a generally positive impression of this person, a former coworker of mine, who
I knew to be friendly, good at her job, and really in to yoga. I even said that
I’m sure she wouldn’t have participated in elephant riding if she had known,
and ended the comment on a friendly note. I had every reason to think she would
respond to this new information with compassion.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. The next morning I saw that she
had “defriended” me on Facebook, in addition to deleting my comment. The
deletion of the comment upset me most, since now others who were commenting on
her picture with things like, “This is the coolest thing you’ve ever done!”
would not know the truth about how these practices harm elephants. As for
defriending me, she and I were not close previously, so I consider it no
significant loss. It does, however, hurt my feelings, and paint a different
picture of the type of person she is than what I had thought previously.

Why wouldn’t someone who had a good experience with a close
encounter with an elephant want to learn more about how to protect them?
Wouldn’t any decent person want to know the truth? And wouldn’t any decent
person want to know if they did something harmful so that they don’t do it
again?

I thought a lot about these questions that day. Not all
people travel to learn more about the world around them and how to better
respect it. Some people travel to merely check experiences off of a bucket list
and to get the perfect profile picture so that they can receive praise from the
social network on how cool they are. I’ve met a few people like this, and I
often ask myself before posting on social media or going on a trip, what is my
motive for this adventure? Tim and I aren’t exempt from sometimes seeking out
the validation of ego candy, instead of the more genuine validation of the soul
that comes from meaningful connections with people and animals around the world.
But I try to safeguard against that as best I can.

That same day, my heart a bit heavy from all this, Tim and I
exchanged messages on Facebook with Ashley, an acquaintance of Tim’s who
decided to take her own trip around the world this year, and she and I have
connected on Facebook due the shared passion for travel. I knew Ashley had been
planning to volunteer at the ENP this fall, and had seen on Facebook pictures
she had posted of her time there so far. Her pictures were by and large, of
course, pictures of elephants. But reflecting back on mine and Tim’s time
there, I couldn’t help myself and I had to send her a kind of odd request.

I asked her to go to the Cat Kingdom, where rescued cats
live in the park, as well as to the dog pens, where rescued dogs lived, to see
if the two cats I spent so much time with last year, as well as the dog, Parry,
Tim had gotten close with, were still there.

That morning she sent us pictures showing us who she’d
found. While we aren’t certain that the cats she saw are the same (though they
look nearly identical), we do know that she found Parry and sent us some pics
of him. Tim and I were so happy and appreciative to Ashley for the chance to
see some of our furry friends doing well over a year later.

Photo of Parry, November 2015, courtesy of Ashley M.

I had to think, what a contrast of interactions I’d had with
Ashley and my former coworker. Both were about travel, and both about animal
welfare. One was warm and compassionate, the other much colder.

There are many types of travelers out there – backpackers,
luxury travelers, family travelers, solo travelers, etc. But everyone is either
traveling to win the admiration of others, or traveling to admire the world. I
hope to always be the latter.

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