The idea of travelling to Thailand conjures up many romantic and exotic images – from the frenetic streets of Bangkok, to gilded temples and giant Buddhas, to palm-fringed islands, and of course, elephants, Thailand’s national symbol. All of these scenes in one way or another make the “Land of Smiles” a bucket list favorite for many, including our family. This summer, we’re heading to Southeast Asia for three weeks, with most of our time being spent in Thailand.
One activity we won’t be doing, however, is riding elephants – or seeing elephants dance, paint, or engage in otherwise non elephant-like activities. As unfazed as this gentle giant may appear with a human on its back, the distressing truth is that elephants that are tame enough to carry people have had to endure abusive training to behave that way.
Call me a party-pooper for denying my children this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but all it takes is a few minutes of research to uncover the cruel tactics that are regularly used to prepare elephants for life as a tourist entertainer.
How to Make an Elephant Paint
Elephants in Thailand were once the workhorses of the logging industry, until logging was banned in 1989. Out of a job and expensive to keep, many of these elephants literally ended up on the streets or in the tourist trade. Unlike the earlier mahouts, or elephant handlers, who grew up around these majestic animals and inherited their profession, many handlers today have little knowledge about the nature and survival needs of elephants. They have themselves or families to support, and using elephants to entertain visitors is a reliable source of income. Who can blame them for wanting a slice of this lucrative market?
The sad reality is that making an elephant people friendly and obedient requires an arduous training process that involves chaining the elephant to a confined pen, jabbing it constantly with a sharp instrument (if you saw the bull hook scenes in the movie “Water for Elephants,” you know what I’m talking about), and leaving the poor animal without food and water for days. The goal is to break the elephant’s innate “wild” spirit so that it can be trained to do what its handlers want and what tourists like to see.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Wild animals are by their very nature “wild”, and thus not necessarily safe with humans, especially those without years of hands-on experience. For an elephant to be able to paint a self-portrait in front of a cheering crowd, or to calmly carry multiple riders on its back, they have to be taught to do so. Tourists might attribute this ability to sheer intelligence; after all elephants have very large and complex brains and are recognized as being among the smartest mammals on earth. But painting? Intelligence can’t be the whole explanation since art is not something elephants naturally do in the wild. Would you force your child, just because he’s a good learner, to be a tight rope walker in the circus if he doesn’t also have the aptitude and desire?
A More Humane Alternative
With this new perspective, I was determined to find an opportunity for our family to still see and interact with elephants in Thailand, but in a way that supports their humane treatment. I enlisted my daughter to do some research, and within 10 minutes she came back with a place called the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. ENP’s sprawling preserve, surrounded by a river and forested mountains, is home to about 30 injured and abandoned elephants – as well as over a hundred dogs that were rescued in the aftermath of Bangkok’s devastating 2011 floods. In addition to offering unique opportunities to visit the park and even volunteer for extended periods, ENP is committed to educating visitors and locals alike about the plight and needs of Asian elephants.
As far as I can tell, ENP is one-of-a-kind. Their elephants do not give rides, paint pictures, or perform tricks. They do what elephants do best – play in the mud and socialize with each other. When we visit ENP this June, we’ll be able to get “up close and personal” with members of the herd, by touching them, feeding them, and bathing them in the river. My family couldn’t be more excited for this truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Learn about Elephant Nature Park for yourself, www.elephantnaturepark.org, and check back here in July for a written and photographic report on my visit.
“The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind.” Aristotle on elephants