When I told friends I was vacationing to Thailand, the typical response I got was, “Oh my gosh! Are you going to ride an elephant? Take lots of pictures!”
Little did my friends know that they were inadvertently telling me to partake in animal abuse and torture.
Here’s the scary part — My friends are part of the majority of people that think it’s okay to ride elephants.
If you Google Thailand tourism, you’ll find dozens of websites, photos and advertisements with smiling tourists, riding on the backs of elephants. And, when you travel to Thailand, you’ll see tourism brochures promoting this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
You might be asking yourself — How can I, a 150 pound human, possibly hurt a 10,000 pound elephant?
You can because of the elephant’s anatomy. You, a 150 pound human, can cause severe damage to an elephant’s spine and you can even break his/ or her back.
I know this because I visited Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which rescues and rehabilitates abused elephants.
Life Before ENP:
Before they were rescued, some of the elephants at ENP were forced to do logging. What does that entail? Hauling logs in the jungle. It’s hard work that often causes devastating injuries to the elephants, like broken bones.
Other elephants were rescued from trekking camps. Elephant trekking, or elephant riding, has long been on the Thailand traveler’s bucket list. These camps will often sell the experience as a way to get closer to elephants, while conserving the endangered species. You pay for your ride, and that money goes back to the camp, which takes “care” of these elephants.
Let me be clear. These camps do not “care” for the elephants. A wild elephant would never allow a human to get on his/or her back. The camps “train” the elephants to do this, by literally breaking their spirit in a trained method called “the crush.”
As Darrick Thomson, with Elephant Nature Park, explains to me, “They put them in the crush, and depending on the elephant, they’ll be in that crush for a few days or much longer. It depends on the stubbornness of the elephant, or the strong will of the elephant, until it reaches its breaking point. The elephant submits to the methods of abuse, which is typically the hook and they become afraid of the hook. They perform tasks based on that fear.”
When you’re at these camps, you’ll often notice the trainer’s carry bull hooks. These are most likely the same hooks they beat the elephants with during “the crush.”
Life at ENP:
What makes Elephant Nature Park different? And, how do you know a good elephant sanctuary from a bad elephant sanctuary?
I am an investigative reporter in Fort Myers, Florida so I am constantly researching, but anyone can do the research.
You research hotels before you fly. You research restaurants before you eat. Why not research the animal sanctuary/ zoo/ or park you plan to visit, before you give them your money?
ENP has been involved in dozens of rescues. The park provides a natural environment for elephants, dogs, cats, and buffaloes.
Click here to learn more about ENP’s elephants.
My husband and I got the pleasure of meeting many of these elephants, including Mae Jan Peng.
She was born in 1943. Her owner retired her to ENP in January 2009, after a long life of logging and trekking work.
Today, she always wears a flower in her ear. Her mahout puts the flower in a hole in her ear every day, to cover a scar from a hook.
The Life of a Mahout:
At ENP, elephants are not forced to interact with visitors and they’re not forced to do tricks.
They wander the grounds. They play. They eat. They live.
You’ll notice each elephant always has a man by his side. This man is called a mahout.
The elephant grows up with his/ or her mahout. They live together, sleep together, and eat together.
The mahout talks to the elephant, and the elephant listens to the mahout. Likewise, the elephant communicates with the mahout, and the mahout listens to the elephant.
I was in awe of this friendship.
The mahout would murmur a few words, and the elephant would know what he/ or she wanted.
While I was at ENP, I would often ask each mahout if I could pet the elephant he/ or she was walking with. Each mahout would look at the elephant, and based on the elephant’s current mood, he/ or she would tell me if it was okay to touch the elephant.
The mahout’s never forced the elephants to do anything.
If the elephants wanted a bath, we could help give them a bath.
If they wanted to eat, we could help feed them.
But if the elephant wanted to be left alone, we left the elephant alone. That was that.
ENP is not a petting zoo, and these elephants are not pets.
An elephant never forgets:
You’ve probably heard the saying “an elephant never forgets,” but did you know it’s actually true?
All of the elephants at ENP come from long lives of animal abuse. They remember the torture they endured, they remember the people that beat them, but somehow, these gentle giants have forgiven humans.
Somehow, these incredible creatures allowed me to feed them, bathe them, and touch them.
My final thought: If you love them, hug them — Don’t ride them.