I chose to spend my Thanksgiving holiday by “volunteering” at the Elephant Nature Park.
I was picked up by a van at my guesthouse and rode with ten other tourists from Canada, the U.S., Brazil and the U.K. for an hour and a half to the sanctuary.
Once there we were given a safety talk and went to watch the elephants from the viewing platform in the main building.
The elephants knew that feeding time was fast approaching, so some of them were already lingering around the building, hoping for early handouts. At 11:30, the klong klong klong of a bamboo being struck signalled food!
We were allowed to feed them by handing them pieces of their food: watermelon, pumpkin, corn, sugar cane, pineapple, and banana. Each elephant has its food parceled and weighed into a basket.
The personalities of the different elephants was amusing. One of them took a piece of food (a wedge of pumpkin, a six-inch length of sugar cane, ten bananas, still in the peel), backed up, put the food in its mouth, and came forward again for more.
Some of them clearly had a favorite food, taking but then dropping the pumpkin immediately but gobbling the bananas. Sweet Jokia, who is blind, stood patiently, mouth agape, trunk curled back, as soon as she smelled the food.
Her story, like most of the elephants there, is heartbreaking. While working as a logging elephant before logging became illegal, she gave birth. Her baby rolled down a hill and died. Heartbroken, she lay down and refused to work. Her owner shot one eye out with a slingshot and the other with arrows, forcing her to get up and earn her keep.
She was rescued and came to live at the park, where she is free to just be an elephant. No more begging on the street for money from tourists, no more needing to haul tourists on her back for hours every day on trekking tours. She does not have to be forced into a breeding program, producing baby elephants, which are cuter and earn more money than adults. She will not have to do tricks, like the elephant which was rescued from a Sheraton hotel, where its job was to greet hotel guests by trumpeting and leading them around the grounds with her trunk wrapped around their wrists.
Jokia and the other lucky elephants can live with the others, forming small groups, caring for the infants, eating, roaming within the bounds of the park, bathing in the river, and meeting tourists like me, who pay money to help support the enormous costs of running the sanctuary.
Each elephant has a mahout, who is with her or him constantly, to be sure she stays out of trouble, away from the flower garden, far from the crops of the farmers from neighboring villages. No hooks are used with them. Voice command and the occasional firm tap with a hand, plus a lot of love and tolerance, are enough to maintain control.
Mae Perm, the first elephant to find freedom at the park, adopted Jokia. Now they travel together and are constant companions. I fed Mae Perm and was immediately struck by her gentleness. Many of the elephants pulled the food from my hand, wrapping their amazingly strong trunks around my hand and squeezing, but she grasped everything with gentle grace and patience.
I think she was also the elephant whose side I was scratching when they went to bathe in the river after lunch. The water was cold. Most of them stood for just a minute or two in the river, while tourists doused them with bucketsful of chilly water.
I had a brush but had put it down to take photos, so I simply used my hands to rub her side. She must have enjoyed it, because she stood there and leaned against me. I was afraid she’d fall over and crush me, but of course, they are in control of themselves and have no reason to harm me.
One of the elephants (I think it was Mae Bua Loi) had a disfigured rear right leg and broken hip due to first a logging accident, then later being forced to be bred with an enormous bull elephant. When he mounted her, he broke her back. She limped along slowly and was probably in a lot of pain.
I heard from a long-term volunteer there (many come to stay overnight or for several weeks, helping with the care and feeding of the elephants) that her walk had improved considerably over a year’s time, so that was a hopeful thing.
We had to watch a documentary that showed how the elephants are broken in as youths. They are trapped in a cage where they can’t move. Men, and boys who are copying them and learning from them, beat the elephants for three to seven days, until their fighting spirit has broken and they listen and try to obey. Naturally, the elephants put up a mighty fight. The men use nails on the end of bamboo poles to stab the elephants’ feet and inner ears, where they are more sensitive, as well as beat them with sticks.
Since I had been to the park four years earlier and already seen the abuse, I turned away, still crying, so I wouldn’t have to watch. But I could hear the agonized screams of the elephants as they were tortured.
Because logging is now illegal in Thailand, the 3000 domesticated elephants that used to log are forced to work in other ways to bring in money for their owners. But logging is still legal in neighboring countries, such as Burma, where most of the mahouts at the park are from.
Many of the working elephants suffer from landmine explosions, mental and emotional problems, and starvation, in addition to just being forced to work no matter if they feel like it or not.
Not all owners are cruel, but the reality is that it takes a lot of money to feed and properly care for an elephant, and money and jobs are hard to come by. Most do what they can to get by, and when money is scarce, the elephants suffer.
The fact that those elephants that are rescued are able to live a life of peace at the sanctuary is a blessing. I thought it was only appropriate that on the holiday reserved for giving thanks, I reminded myself of some of the ways humans could make a difference for the better in the lives of these animals.
There is no humane society in Thailand. Domesticated elephants have no laws to protect them and are treated as livestock, abused or starved at will. My massage friend here said she often has called the police in Chiang Mai, asking what can be done to stop the begging elephants she sees pass the shop every night. They swear at her and tell her to mind her own business.
So my Thanksgiving Day was full of sadness and joy, despair and hope, cruelty and love. I gave thanks for the volunteers and people who help the elephants (and the stray dogs and cats that are fed and cared for, fairly well, here.) In the spirit of the holiday, I counted my blessings and was grateful I am in the position to help, with the money I spent to visit the park, as well as by spreading the word and helping to educate and enlighten people.
If you would like more information about the park or any of the elephants, including the three babies–too cute for words!–, visit The Elephant Nature Park Website.
May we all be free to roam, eat, and bathe in the river!