On May 3, our group of 43 students and chaperons went to see an elephant park outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. After escaping the city in our motorcade of grey Nissan conversion vans, we entered the park and parked in the dirt lot. Then after disembarking, we looked to our right and a monster came into view.
The first event of the day was the elephant talent show. I assumed cheesy tricks would ensue, and so I was more interested in looking ahead to the elephant ride. But the show would impress. (I’d be impressed before the official show even began.)
We walked into the stands facing the open, dirt pit below. Yet much of this was ignored in lieu of the up-front sight before us: four elephant riders who had parked their beasts in the dirt pit right up against the stands to greet the arriving audience.
So close they were, the audience was encouraged to interact and photograph.
At first hesitant, a few brave souls stood next to the warm giants. Soon others followed. Most of our students and chaperons would take part in the posing, which included some elephant tricks right off the bat: their trunks to hug (and kiss) the people, and remove and put back a person’s hat.
At first thought, no way will I let it kiss me with it’s big, wet, yucky nose.
More incredible was getting to feel the trunk. I thought it might be maneuverable as I put my hand around it, but it was all muscle and I had zero control. I pet its massive head, the helmet skull just below the rough, thick, taught skin and thinly laid, but wire-thick hairs protruding and jumping right back into place after my hand sifted through them.
I could have spent several minutes getting to know this animal. But the show must go on.
Before these introductory round of pictures ended, I found a bench space a few rows up and next to one of our more curious 14 year olds, a bright Hmong girl named Bee. Soon after I sat to her left, she noticed during all the laughter and cheesing poses, that off to the left was an elephant chained to a post.
“Why is that one tied up like that?” she asked with concern.
I looked over and stared at this animal larger than all the others.
“I don’t know,” I responded. “Behavior issues. Or maybe it’s just not needed for the show.”
Bee then looked ahead to the trainers still directing their elephants to pose, and she took note of their instruments: a stick which at its end had a small, flat, curved piece of metal coming to a point.
“Do those things hurt the elephants?” she asked with yet more concern.
Another chaperon of our group, a middle-aged Caucasian woman sitting directly in front of us, turned to address Bee’s concerns. “Those things are rounded at the tip,” she said. “They aren’t sharp.”
I wasn’t so sure. But more important than the blade’s sharpness was the bigger issue in play.
“Bee,” I said, “There are actually some people who take issue with the treatment of elephants for these shows and in zoos.”
Judging by Bee’s face, I think this was one of those moments where a young person, assuming themselves to always securely be on the side of good, realized that the line isn’t as defined as they once thought. And thus, that good people can find themselves on the other side of it in the eyes of others.
I continued. “Morals aren’t always black and white. On issues like this, we have to decide for ourselves whether we’re okay with elephants trained and on display.”
Bee had no problem with the show, but did their riders have to jab them? And why did that other elephant need to be leashed to the post?
After a few minutes, all the riders retreated their elephants for the show to begin.
From the middle of the sunny, dirt field, the elephants bowed in line as their names were given–at the direction of their trainer; and at the amusement and joy of the audience.
The joy would continue.
I had heard an elephant’s memory was strong. But I didn’t know that memory and training could get these animals to dance, kick soccer balls, and paint.
When I had heard that painting was to be part of the show, I assumed that the elephants would brush a few random lines.
I was floored, and the Chinese people in attendance (about 2/3 of the audience) were on their feet to be the first to buy the art. The park offered it at a price for which I regret not jumping to my feet as well (about $10).
Rather, one Chinese guy hopped up, raised his arm, and yelled and was awarded the elephant painted by the elephant. The other paintings went soon after to other Chinese customers.
After lunch, it was time for the elephant rides.
From a wooden platform, we 43 broke into twos and threes to hop atop the back carriage while the riders straddled their elephant’s neck.
Watching this, Bee asked about the weight on the elephant’s backs. “Doesn’t it get heavy for the elephants?”
Then, near our platform, yet another elephant was tied to a pole. And unlike the previous leashed elephant, this one didn’t just stand there. It tried walking away–repeatedly, futilely. It took a step, the slack in the chain tightened, and the elephant stopped abruptly as its chained rear leg held back. This caused the beast to relax and reset back toward the post.
But then it tried again. Step, chain tighten, halt, relax. Step, tighten, halt, relax. Step, tighten, halt, relax.
It did this the entire time we waited for all the students to mount the elephants, and I’m sure it continued thereafter and had started sometime before. Whether this was the workings of a saddened, broken elephant mind or simply that of an animal not smart enough to realize its situation, I don’t know. But the continued, useless effort troubled me.
Then it was my turn to hop on my animal to carry me to our day’s end. It took me and the middle-aged teacher on a jaunt through the shallow river and along its banks, seesawing in its saunter as we enjoyed the elevated view of the beautiful, green, hilly Thai terrain and this intimacy with this amazing mammal.
In the days since the elephant park, I have caught a couple of articles arguing that these places are wrong. One headline on an animal activist site stated:
Other articles/organizations represent this sentiment, and I’m sure we’ve all heard before that elephants in zoos and circuses amount to animal abuse.
But I don’t believe these parks and animal respect are mutually exclusive.
Unlike what the article above indicates, these parks don’t represent a right or a wrong. Different trainers will treat their elephants with varying amounts of physical demands and training. To call the institution of elephant parks abusive, one must ignore such nuance within.
Second, what’s considered right or wrong changes over time. We may look back and see these parks as abusive the same way we might one day look back and think of jails as being so. Calling this treatment abusive, period, is direct and useful to make a call to action or stance, but it’s also a vision narrowed in on certain acts in this place and time–with no respect paid to past nor context.
Though I did see treatment I questioned, I also know that Westerners do a good job of placing ideals on others. It may be ideal to not have these elephants ridden–certainly ideal to not chain them up. But these parks help the elephant species in a time where their numbers are threatened. And they help an economy and a people in need.
If there were no parks as some argue should be the case, then these animals might be poached and the economy worsened. While no one wants to see animal abuse, it seems we’re in a time where these parks are the elephants’ ally.
They are their ally by keeping their numbers up and people’s appreciation for them high. Regardless of the tricks–which the people here loved–I was thrilled just to be able to touch and be next to one of earth’s most magnificent species.
If not for these parks, I wouldn’t have had this chance to appreciate them in such a way.