Al and I spent a day in Northern Thailand interacting with elephants who were recently rescued from the abuse of riding camps, which are basically entertainment camps throughout Thailand that advertise ‘Elephant Jungle Treks’ and are notorious for capturing and abusing elephants, or ‘breaking their spirit’ to domesticate and train them solely for the purpose of logging or tourism.
The story about our elephant experience has a lot of moving parts, and started long before I ever stepped foot in Thailand. It is about the elephants, of course, but it also is a very personal story, and I view it as one that reflects so much more than just a single day spent with the most moving animals I have ever encountered.
I have loved animals since I was little. My family and I still talk about the time when I was 6 years old, and my parents took us to a restaurant in Florida that had stuffed animal busts hung all over the restaurant. I took one look at the dead animals all around me, sat at the table and cried. I then wrote a note to the manager (which I imagine was probably just a bunch of crayon scratches) begging him or her to please not kill animals anymore. I still remember the gentle smile the waitress gave me when I made my sister hand the note to her as she said kindly, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
I used to ask my parents to take me to the mall, simply because I wanted to go into the pet store and pick up every single ferret, bunny, bird and gerbil they would let me get my hands on. I asked for animal related-toys almost exclusively for every birthday and Christmas (your typical Littlest Pet Shop hoarder). I loved going to zoos and aquariums and animal parks whenever I could, just for the chance to see my favorite animals in the flesh. In third grade, our teachers made us draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I drew myself as a whale trainer, standing under a giant black and white Orca, wearing a blue wet suit with a whistle in my mouth, and one hand reaching out to the sky (an image I am sure that I got directly from Free Willy).
And here is where I think it all goes wrong. Although I wanted to be a whale trainer because I loved Orca whales, I did not seem to understand on any level that keeping such emotionally intelligent animals in captivity and training them for human entertainment was completely devastating to the development and emotional well-being of the whale. I probably thought these whales loved me just like I loved them. It is easy to dismiss it as being young, but from a young age, I was taught about animals in school almost exclusively through exposure to zoos, caged animals, how we utilize them as humans. Looking back, it is obvious that I genuinely did love animals, yet so many of my thoughts and actions towards them were clear indicators that I did not truly understand what it meant to actually treat animals with great respect and love.
I really believe that the majority of people on earth understand how amazing and important animals are, love them to some extent, and do not wish to see any harm done to them. But, I think somewhere along the way, we forget that they are not here purely for our benefit or passive entertainment, to eat or use for decorations, furniture, jewelry, or clothes, or to enjoy in confined spaces when it is convenient for us. As a result, many people view them as ‘less-than’ and treat them accordingly. We want to go to places like zoos so we can see them and interact with them because we love them, but we are doing it in all the wrong ways.
When you travel, you cannot help but see the destructive treatment of animals magnified in so many ways, on the streets and in cages everywhere you go. I wish that I could say being exposed to travel at a young age helped me to learn my lesson early on, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
When I first came to Thailand almost 8 years ago, I knew that I wanted to see and interact with Asian Elephants. Lucky for me, on my second week of our teacher training, the program I was training with organized for us to all go to an elephant camp. I had heard that some places don’t treat elephants well, and to be careful of where you went, but I chose to not look into it any further since I naively assumed that it was unlikely that these elephants would be the mistreated kind since it was being organized through my program.
At the camp, I watched as groups of elephants painted pictures of landscapes, played with a ball, and allowed us to ride them through the jungle. When they were not serving us tourists, they were chained to trees, which we were told was just for their safety to make sure they didn’t wander off. I didn’t see any obvious signs of mistreatment, but I wasn’t looking too hard, either. I remember thinking offhandedly how amazingly smart these animals must be to be able to do these kind of tasks. I cringe now when I imagine myself sitting there surrounded by parachute pant wearing travelers, being entertained by elephants, having no idea that they were tortured, electrocuted, beaten, and stuck with rods to be able to accomplish each and every carefully made stroke on their canvas.
Now I understand that no matter where you go in Asia, if there is an elephant camp that permits you to ride an elephant, or has them do tricks of any kind, this means that under no uncertain circumstances, this elephant has been abused. Here is an article that explains why this is in a little more depth: Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand.
After my experience at the elephant camp, I moved on and went about my life, forgetting about the elephants for the most part. Until last year, when Al and I were starting to plan this trip, I began to think a lot more about my time in Thailand, and the day I spent at the elephant camp.
I felt an overwhelming pull to come back and use my money to put towards a program that helped rescue and rehabilitate elephants from the same type of camps that I had participated in years prior. I knew that I could have just donated money, and I didn’t need to go all the way to Thailand to do it, but I also knew that it wouldn’t be enough. I felt such great remorse for how ignorant I had been before, and how I had inadvertently contributed to the horrible treatment of these brilliant animals. In a selfish way, I also wanted reassurance with my own eyes that there were people and programs out there which were actively doing good.
When I first came here in 2009, I was the worst kind of traveler. There is not a more accurate way to put it than that. In my mind, I was just here to have a good time, and to see some cool stuff. I was the kind of traveler who thought only of themselves, and thought very little about the type of impact my choices and behaviors had on the world.
I considered this a lot when we were planning our trip. So much of what we were planning and booking was centered around making sure we were traveling as responsibly as possible. We made sure to choose destinations and activities where we felt we could contribute to something positive, even if it was something as simple as where we spent our money. This is not something that I gave much (if any) thought to when I was younger.
I traced back through my mind from 2009 and 2016, and tried to pinpoint just exactly what happened to cause this change. I had cared before, but not to the extent that it shaped my life decisions; it was more in a passive way. If someone were to ask me in 2009 as I sat the elephant camp if I loved or cared about elephants, I would have said yes, even though my actions were directly opposing that. But things had changed. When did I start caring so much more about everything, and why? I saw that there was one single change I made in my life that had the greatest impact on who I am as a person now, although at the time I had no idea how much it would change me.
I stopped eating animals.
Go ahead, roll your eyes, but it is true. The day I became a vegetarian started a chain of events in my life that lead me to become what I believe is a more compassionate, curious, and caring person. I started paying more attention to everything, starting with what I put in my body. It was more than just saying out loud that I loved animals and the environment, but it was making an active personal choice that literally put ‘my money where my mouth’ was.
It started with animals and food, but that was only the beginning. I started paying more attention to how the decisions I make, no matter how big or small, affect everything and everyone I love. I started to take more responsibility for my life and my choices. I stopped pretending that other people with more money, power, and influence will fix things, and recognized that I have to do my part to participate and help wherever I can. And I genuinely became so much happier.
That decision led me to learn so much more about the world around us and deepened my love for animals to a completely new level. And that is when I started to really understand what I had previously missed about elephants, and realized the unforgivable things we are doing to them all over the world.
Because it turns out, elephants are really really amazing and spiritual animals. Most of us already know these facts, but it bears repeating. I learned how intelligent they are, and how playful they are. Each elephant has its own distinct personality. They are insanely social animals, who do everything they can to protect each other, especially when it comes to their young. They feel fear, happiness, hope, sadness, and especially grief. They bury their dead, and hold actual funerals for them. When a matriarch of a family dies, it can be detrimental to the rest of the heard, who relies on her for direction and her great knowledge through age. It’s also true that they remember everything, which is why they are known to actively fear and avoid specific humans who have caused them pain, but still trust those who have shown them love.
I also learned that elephants are about 15 years away from going completely extinct in the wild. This is because of poaching (apparently people think that having a trinket made of ivory is more valuable than the actual elephant) and loss of habitat. Without them, we lose a great equalizer in our ecosystem. Without them, we lose what I believe is such a gift on this planet, and with it, so much of the good of what makes us human. It makes me think of the quote from the documentary Ivory Game where one of the men who is fighting against poaching says,
What have we become if everything we value, everything we care about, we consume?
Outside the threat of extinction, Asian elephants are all at risk of being captured for tourist camps, and loss of habitat. Luckily, we learned western tourists are for the most part, becoming much more aware of the horrible treatment of elephants, and choosing not to participate in these type of establishments. The program we chose had a family, four of which had been rescued from abuse in riding camps.
We got to see the elephants, feed them, interact with them, and swim with them. Al and I were both speechless at how much presence these animals had.
We both still talk about how we will always remember the moment the elephants came stampeding down the hill, running full speed towards us roaring and trumpeting, anxious to get their trunks on the bananas we were holding.
It was one of the most heart stopping moments; to stand in the mud holding a banana in my hand as a family of elephants ran directly at me. I would say it is comparable to how you might feel the first time you see and feel the power of a large whale breeching out of the ocean for the first time.
We were able to feed them, touch them, and just simply watch them. Al and I both agreed we could have spent an entire week, just sitting there observing the elephants. You can feel how strongly they are bonded to each other. You can tell they are acutely aware of everything that is going on around them.
At one point, the mother elephant was laying in the mud (which we were told is like sunscreen for elephants) and noticed her son had run out of her line of vision. With one swift movement, she rose upward from the mud. Suddenly, everything froze and felt almost as though the earth was splitting in two as a giant land mass rose through. As soon as she was upright, she took off running to be with her son, and shortly after, the rest of the herd followed suit.
They headed to the nearby waterfall, where they rolled around and played. The two kids wrestled with each other, and particularly enjoyed rolling their head backwards under the force of the waterfall as the grandmother dipped her trunk in and out of the water to spray them all from above. This entire time I was standing off to the side, just watching them in amazement.
Part of me still couldn’t help but think, I shouldn’t be here. They just want to be together without all of us crowding them. None of us should be here.
As wonderful as our experience was, it still wasn’t without faults. I had that nagging feeling that the elephants retained some fear towards the caretakers, who still used training calls in order to direct the elephants and address them. They were still being surrounded by tourists, and you could see that over time it became tiring for the elephants, particularly the baby.
There were other participants of the program there who quickly grew restless with the elephants after they felt they had grabbed enough selfies with each elephant. Many tourists made stupid comments about and towards the elephants, and it took everything in me not to karate kick them square in the chest, off the hill and watch them roll into a nearby ditch. I wanted to stay calm for the elephants, after all.
I struggled with this quite a bit while we were there and afterwards. I was so determined to spend time and money with a good organization, but I started to wonder if it was still a painful and stressful experience for the elephants, and if my money spent here would have been better off donating to a wildlife fund that supports the effort to keeping elephants wild.
I spoke with one of the caretakers and drilled him with questions about the treatment of the elephants, their organization, where the elephants came from, and where they were going. He told me that they try to save as many elephants as they can from elephant camps (they had a few other locations), but it is extremely difficult without funding. It is a very costly business to take care of elephants, and they rely strongly on the tourist’s dollar to keep these elephants in a safe place.
This is why I believe they allow for some leeway and let tourist interact with them in a more excessive way than is really needed, believing this is what the tourists want. Without their money, they would either die from lack of food, or be forced to return to a riding camp where they are abused and mistreated, yet fed. I unnecessarily blurted out that I’d rather be dead than live a life of torture in chains, to which the caretaker agreed.
In that sense, our money going to these places does make a difference. Although these elephants will never be wild, it is a positive step towards giving them a life of peace beside their families. I did give my feedback to the organization on what I believed they should be doing better, as there was a lot of room for improvement when it came to educating the program participants on how to interact with the elephants.
Luckily there are many more sanctuaries popping up around Thailand, so there are an increasing amount of options for tourists who want to interact with elephants in an ethical way. However, there are also some places that advertise themselves as ‘sanctuaries’ for these elephants, yet permit riding, so we just have to be really careful about doing our research and choosing the right places.
At the end of the day, we were allowed to freely observe the elephants as they ate. About an hour passed by (that felt like a minute) and Al and I realized that we were the only two left with the entire family. We spent time approaching each elephant from a distance and looking into their eyes while mentally (and sometimes verbally) telling them how beautiful they are, how thankful we were for them, that we loved them, and how sorry we were for what was happening to them all over the world. We promised we would do our part to help however we can.
The whole experience was a positive one, yet still a difficult one. We really no longer need zoos or captive situations to learn about conservation with animals, now that we have access to endless technology. I thought about myself as the little girl who cried at the restaurant and desperately wanted to be a whale trainer, and I think she would agree with me now when I say that watching these animals move freely in their natural environment is a much better way to love them, and beats interacting with them in captivity every single time.
I think back to the stupid decision I made in 2009, and I understand now that I had a long way to go (and still do) when it comes to growth. None of us are perfect, and we never will be, but it reminds me it is more important that we learn and move forward from our bad decisions and mistakes than to spend too much time dwelling on them. It also makes me keep a phrase that has been running through my head a lot lately at the forefront of my mind: When you know better, do better.