Updated: Apr 1, 2020
This is not just your typical travel story of how I went to another country saw some elephants, got the perfect Instagram worthy photo and went home -- this is about my journey and what I’ve learned.
I started out just like you, I grew up loving elephants, seeing them at the zoo and just being in awe. In fact, I loved them so much that all I could think about was how cool it would be to ride one, one day. What could be better than riding an elephant?!—Such a great experience? A way to show people how much I love these creatures, right? ...actually WRONG.
I think as humans we are very ignorant and don’t always think about how our actions affect others, or in this case animals. We love these amazing creatures so much that we want to do something like get up close and personal with them and take a picture to show off to our friends; it has just become a norm. That is exactly how it started for me, I loved elephants + I saw so many pictures of friends I knew either riding elephants or playing with elephants on social media that I didn’t think twice, I just thought yes, that’s exactly what I want to do!
Though, along the way my mind was changed when I excitedly told a friend while I was studying abroad in Spain that my next adventure would be riding an elephant because of how much I "loved" elephants. I will never forget the look on her face when she told me, “You should do more research, riding elephants is horrible for them.” That blew my mind! After hearing that, that was all I needed. I honestly did not do much more research, I knew my intention was to never harm an elephant so therefore, I no longer wanted to ride one. Instead I decided I wanted to go to either Africa or Thailand and volunteer at a conservation/ rescue center.
Nearing the end of my college career, my boyfriend and I decided to make that dream a reality as a graduation present to ourselves. We did not really have preference of whether we wanted to go to Africa or Thailand, we just wanted to find the best program possible that both helped elephants but was also hands on with them. After endless research we found that Thailand was our best bet and decided on Elephant Nature Park.
We did not know it then but we were in for the adventure of a lifetime.
We packed up our bags and went to Thailand for a little over two weeks and spent majority of that time doing two programs that were part of the Elephant Nature Park. This is where you will see that I am too, one of the ignorant human beings that I called out in the beginning of my story. I say this because going into this trip I did want to help the elephants but I also wanted to take those instagram "perfect" pics of bathing the elephants or hugging their truck to show all the people back home. I remember telling my boyfriend on the plane, "don't forget we have to take as many pictures as possible."
However, that was the exact opposite of how our trip started out, our trip was incredible but it was not all smiles. The heat and humidity in Thailand is unreal-- we landed in Thailand at 1 am and stepping off the plan and feeling how strong the humidity was that late at night literally took my breathe away-- I knew I was in trouble. So the heat was definitely an obstacle, especially while sleeping in a room with out air conditioning. Also, the act of volunteering at a conservation is not just playing with elephants and taking photos, it’s hard work which includes: cleaning up elephant poop, clearing areas in the fields where the elephants left food when they were done eating, and unloading trucks full of pumpkins or watermelons to help prepare food for the elephants. For me going into this trip I knew the heat would be a challenge and that volunteering would be a lot of hard work, but I think I painted a brighter picture in my head of what it would be like-- which included a lot more playing with the elephants than cleaning up after them and actually helping them.
I remember being frustrated at the beginning thinking, “This heat is even worse than I thought it would be. I picked this program so we can be more hands on with elephants and I haven’t even touched one yet.” Though, that is when it all changed, I met Lek Chailert and her husband, Darrick Thomson two of the most kind and passionate hearted people I have ever met. They taught us so much more than I ever expected to learn about the elephants at the sanctuary: their history, what happened to them, who they are now and their personality-- it was eye opening. They are true examples of what it means to be humble and loving toward all that is around you.
**Warning: content below may be graphic and disheartening as it shows elephant abuse-- though, as Lek told us as we were watching videos similar to this at Elephant Nature Park: We can't turn a blind eye to the abuse, we must see and understand all of it in order to help these creatures and educate others!"**
I walked in to Elephant Nature Park thinking, “yeah it’s bad to ride elephants, that is why I am here helping them.” I walked out with a broken heart for these elephants and an eagerness to inform others -- all that kept going through my head was, “if only more people knew the way these animals are abused they would never dream of supporting this.” I know at this point your like okay..so what did you learn?
The truth is, I learned more than I have room to put in this blog, but I will show you the most important things I learned in hopes this will ignite a fire in you like it did me and that you will want to tell others what I am teaching you.
As you may know, elephants are abused in many ways, riding them is one and I will tell you why. In order to ride an elephant they undergo an extreme amount of torture and most mahouts put a box on their back as you can see below that people sit on or climb into-- this box weighs hundreds of pounds especially when multiple people are sitting in it. Although elephants are big, their bodies are not made to support all this weight and therefore not only does it cause them pain but it damages their spine.
Another way elephants are abused is by logging. Mahouts force elephants to pull large logs on unsteady surfaces-- this is a machines job not an elephants. This strenuous work causes pain and stress on the elephants body, not to mention if they fall it can easily break their ankles and most times their injuries are not cared for because they are forced to continue working. Although logging is now illegal in Thailand, it is still an issue that elephants face.
There is also street begging and forced breeding. Street begging is having elephants wander the streets in large cities for entertainment purposes where they are in danger and can get hit by cars and even suffer from nerve damage in their feet because of the hot pavement. They are not meant to be walking on city streets to entertain others.
Forced breeding is another issue where female elephants are abused and chained up in order to breed with a male to have a baby repeatedly. This is a problem because they are over breed and sometimes male elephants are aggressive and attack the female elephants causing injuries like a broken hip that again does not get properly cared for.
Photos below demonstrate street begging in Thailand and Inida where it most often takes place and an elephant named Medo who was rescued by the Elephant Nature Park and suffers from a broken hip that was never healed properly after being forced to breed.
Elephants that can paint pictures-- wow they are so intelligent right? Wrong. Elephants are insanely intelligent creatures, but they do not have the knowledge to paint a picture. They are heavy abused in order to paint these pictures and put on a show.
Note: the mahouts in the photos below seem like they are innocently standing near their elephants while they draw the pictures. Though they are in fact holding a very sharp object (nail or tack) to the back of the elephants ear directing them which way to paint and the elephants out of fear of being brutally abused again follow their instructions.
Same with circuses-- they are the worst of all; to perform in circuses elephants are tortured, kept in small areas when not performing, and are beaten if they do not do the tricks they are asked to do or if they mess up during a show. Elephants are not made to do tricks or stand on one foot and twirl or any of the other horrible unnatural acts they do-- it is extremely dangerous for them and often leads to painful injuries all for the sake of entertaining humans.
Who would have thought there are so many ways to torture such a beautiful animal? As disheartening as it is to hear these things and see these images, I have learned it is important to understand the forms of abuse these elephants have endured because sadly it goes way beyond just riding elephants and in order to empathize with these creatures you must hear and see the pain they have went through. However, at the same time I am not saying these are the only issues they face because there are even more that I have not listed like deforestation, poaching, etc.
Think all of this is bad? This is not even the tip of the iceberg. I know you may be thinking, these things are horrible and elephants are such big creatures, why don’t they just stop these people from abusing them like this? I thought that too. That is where my heart breaks in telling you about the crush box, in Thai called phajaan which means “breaking an elephant's spirit.” Often times when elephants are captured from the wild the mahouts kill the mother and nanny elephants and take the baby. They then put the baby elephant in a crush box where it is chained up for seven days or as long as it takes often times with no food and little water. The baby elephant is then beaten with a bull hook (as seen in the picture), behind the ears, on the head, between their toes (most sensitive parts of their bodies), until they are bloody and have no fight or spirit left in them. They become so terrified of the mahouts they will do anything: act in circuses, draw paintings, pull logs, let people ride them, etc. just to stop the abuse.
These photos are examples of the crush box. See short documentary video here.
This is the first time I had ever heard of the crush box, or seen documentaries of how elephants are treated in the crush box. I was shocked that I had not known such a cruel thing existed and had been so ignorant to think elephants like having multiple people ride on their backs or that it was so cool they could paint instead of acknowledging that they are wild animals and that none of that is normal. The part of this that hurts me the most is that we did this, we chose that as humans we are superior and could do this to animals that can't speak up for themselves just for the sake of work or entertainment. What's worse is that all of this has just become a norm that people do not even think twice about.
At Elephant Nature Park, I met elephants that were blind, missing an ear, had scars, had broken ankles that never healed properly, had a broken hip that never healed properly, etc. I heard their stories and then watched them be free like they are meant to be. I am in awe of the Elephant Nature Park, not only do they let volunteers come into their park but they educate them and teach them. Lek stated that their main goal is not to get people to donate but to educate them so they can educate others, she believes if people know better they will do better.
I am humbled to have been able to help out in a place that lets elephants be elephants and just lets them live (no fences, only positive reinforcement, no chains or hooks of any kind). A little background on the Elephant Nature Park is that they started out like any other sanctuary letting people pet the elephants and bath them, though they started realizing that in doing that it was more for the volunteers than it was for the elephants. They do not need to be bathed by humans, they know how to bath themselves and oftentimes prefer mud as Darrick told us. They also acknowledge that these animals have been performing and touched by humans their whole lives. They do not need thousands of volunteers to touch them-- we need to respect them enough to just let them live. Thus, the Elephant Nature Park is mostly hands off, which as we all know I found frustrating in the beginning but after learning from both Lek and Darrick and hearing their passion for these animals, I grew to really understand and respect being hands off. I realized that it was not my right to touch the elephants just because I wanted to. Now I will not say we did not touch the elephants at all because we are human after all and there were times we would pet them when we were walking with them or feeding them but overall it was very hands off.
I came into this adventure with all these expectations of bathing an elephant, hugging them, playing with a baby elephant and left not wanting to touch them out of respect and loving them enough to let them live- and it's funny because I was not the only one who left feeling this way.
Above are some pictures we took while we were on this incredible trip. I hope you learned something from my story and will take parts of this story with you and educate others.
I found that through learning about what these elephants have went through, I also learned more about life. I learned to think twice about how my actions or the things I do impact others, just because we have normalized keeping animals captive or using them for entertainment does not mean it's right. The more you open your eyes to this the more you will see it is not only elephants that are treated poorly but a lot of other animals as well.
Elephants as well as other animals are not here to be tortured in order to entertain or work for humans… just let them live!
I have posted both a short video about the Elephant Nature Park and a link on where to find the documentary movie “Love and Bananas: An Elephant Story” below.
The short video features Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park who I mentioned above and shows you more about Elephant Nature Park.
The movie is a documentary/ story that recently came out about the Elephant Nature Park and one of Lek's journeys rescuing an elephant named Noi Na where Ashley Bell (actress) tags along. It is truly an outstanding documentary that gives an inside look into the journey of saving elephants.
Short Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFiC19t-ZXo
Love and Bananas An Elephant Story: https://www.stan.com.au/watch/love-and-bananas-an-elephant-story-2018 (You can watch it by starting a free 30 day trail on STAN--just remember to cancel after the 30 days)
Note: I do not take credit for all these photos-- they were both a combination of my own photos and photos I found on google to illustrate the truths behind the elephant work and entertainment industry. I also had no part in making the videos I have linked in the blog, I included them as I feel they add to my story. All facts stated in this blog are true and came directly from what I learned after hearing both Lek and Darrick speak at the Elephant Nature Park and watching the documentaries they showed us.