The Elephant Park: Potentially Harmful, Certainly Incredible

 

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.

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From around the corner lumbered and bobbed the great grey beast, putting a smile on my face for seeing something so remarkable and typically only on TV.

 

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.

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Elephants took donations, too.

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At first thought, no way will I let it kiss me with it’s big, wet, yucky nose.

It would.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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When I had heard that painting was to be part of the show, I assumed that the elephants would brush a few random lines.

Not so.

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Yes, it signed its own work.

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).

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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.

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Note to elephant park: auction the paintings. You’ll raise way more money.

***

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.

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Our student awaiting his ride speaks with a rider atop his vehicle.

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.

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View from my ride.
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Other tourists

***

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:

If You Love Elephants, Don’t Ever Ride Them. Here’s Why.

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.

 

8 Responses

  1. Katherine

    Bee was right to be concerned, and I don’t say this as an ‘activist’ I say this as someone who works with elephants. I understand your compassion for a culture that uses elephants as a means to make money, but dominating them and offering rides is not the only way, just the easiest. There are several parks throughout Asia that still make money off of tourists visiting their elephants, but it’s done in a human way. No riding, no bullhooks, and no performing or painting. All of these things require an elephant to be trained to do, the only way to train them to repeatedly do these behaviors day after day is through extreme dominance. The elephants do not need to be physically beaten in front of tourists because that tool they carry around is a constant reminder of what their handler can do to them at any moment. Look up Elephant Nature Park or Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary is you would like to see a humane way to keep elephants and still have tourists involved. It is a trend that is spreading (thankfully) but doesn’t happen overnight because it is much more difficult to train an elephant through positive reinforcement and praise than it is to just beat them into submission. As for elephant rides, even if the trainer is gentle, the chair causes significant physiological damage to an elephant. That part of their spine is not made to support any weight. The chairs cause damage to their spines, which result in other joint issues. They also suffer from wounds from the ropes or chains that are used to secure them, around their necks, limbs and rectum. None of this is harmless, but we choose to not look closely because it means we can’t do something we desire, which is ride an elephant. I hope you take the time to look at these other facilities and see the enormous difference and maybe even share what you learn by doing so.

    1. Thank you, Katherine. Your thoughts and suggestions are great.

      It’s about coming up with the best ways to appreciate elephants without harming them. Some kind of domestication seems necessary for this type of elephant tourism to work. I believe the article I linked to said people should only do safaris. But while safaris are amazing, I’d never get to pet one of the elephants. And to me, this was an important and powerful intimacy with these amazing animals. I also think the painting was remarkable and a great way to increase people’s appreciation for elephants. Is it possible to train them to paint without harming them?

      I looked up Boon Lott’s. Perhaps you’ve shown me the answer. That park looks great. Thanks!

      1. Katherine

        Hi Brandon,

        Unfortunately, no, there is no way to humanely train an elephant to paint like that. It is one thing to give an elephant a paint brush and let them throw paint where they want. It is quite another to have them painting detailed and exact pictures. Think of it in these terms, you can teach your dog to sit, and give paw, but what do you think it would take to teach him to give paw to a certain height, move it one inch one way, then two inches next, and 1/2 inch the other way after that, and so on and so forth, until you have a complex sequence that takes several minutes to perform? Yes, elephants are much more intelligent than dogs, but positive reinforcement training is no different than clicker training in dogs. You can get them to do many things, but not intricate repetitive behavior any time you demand it. There are times when elephants don’t really want to cooperate when using positive reinforcement training, and that’s ok, we try the next day. That doesn’t exist in facilities like this. The training is done through negative reinforcement and takes extreme amounts of repetition to learn. It is often done on younger elephants and is not only physically brutal but very mentally taxing as well. They get frustrated, which results in even further punishment. If you think back to watching them paint, I’m assuming you will remember a mahout being directly at their side through the entirety of this process. This is the elephant’s reminder that they can cause pain at any moment if the elephant does something that is wrong. Some will hang their hook loosely on their ear as a reminder, and other will hold a nail in their hand, at the back of the ear, and poke or apply pressure if they show even the slightest sign of hesitation or resistance. Unfortunately, all of the ‘show’ behaviors you see- painting, hola hooping, playing basketball, doing whatever tricks they have them do, are all trained through barbaric means of punishment and repetition. Elephants are ridiculously smart, you can teach them to do almost anything, but they are also independent and emotional species that are not going to want to perform these every hour of the day, every day. The only way to have that happen is to force them to. It’s a harsh reality, but it’s the truth.

  2. Katherine, thank you for sharing your insightful and informative reply with us. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Sometimes I speculate about what the world might be like, if only mankind had not been introduced into it. Man’s insatiable desire to control, and benefit if possible, from every aspect of the environment is so unsettling.

  3. Katherine

    Just because you don’t see a mahout use a hook, doesn’t mean he doesn’t harm the elephant. Think of it this way. If you beat a dog with a rolled up newspaper for barking or defecating on the floor, and you do it numerous times, that dog will cower in fear any time you pick up a newspaper and begin to roll it. You don’t have to hit him, he knows what could happen. An ankus has the same relation to elephants- they will forever associate it with brutality and fear.

  4. Kathy

    I own a safari company in Tanzania so, like Katherine, my knowledge and experience is slightly more than the ‘average joe’. In fact, Katherine has done such a superb job of educating and advocating, that I will not even attempt to top her thoughtful and painstaking comments. I will, however, state a few indisputable facts (whether ANYONE chooses to acknowledge them as facts or not..!).

    * Elephants do not, and will never, belong to humans in any way, shape, form, or sense of the word.

    * Subjugation and (attempted) dominance (call it ‘training” if you will) is an ATROCITY.

    * Any form of “tourism” that exploits and, yes, abuses ANY living being is shameful, ignorant, and thoughtless. And any attempt to justify and manipulate such behavior is, well – just that.

    * Elephants are, in my opinion (and scientific research is in the process of supporting this belief), evolutionarily superior to human beings. We have much to learn from them and rest assured, that education will not come with elephants enslaved by chains and a mahout with a hook!

    * Lastly, (and it is not my intention to be unkind), the very concept “petting” an elephant is patronizing and condescending..

    1. Do you view elephants as different than dogs, cats, or other animals many people enjoy owning, training, and petting?

      I’m curious as to whether you believe all animal ownership is wrong or whether you consider elephants to be unique.

      1. Interesting question, as I have often mused about my lack of interest in “owning” / “having” a “pet”. I include these words in quotation marks because even if I were to embrace the concept, my intentions and words would differ. I should note that even when referring to animals that reside / exist with human beings, I call them “companion animals”. The answer to your question, Brandon, stems from a belief, and even a yearning, that ALL living things can, indeed, live side-by-side or at least, in harmony.

        This issue must be considered very, very carefully because certain species of dogs and cats (etc.) have been ‘domesticated’ and, as a result, would now be relatively helpless in the wild. Does that relieve humans of responsibility, however, or does a conversation about ‘domestication’ bring us ominously close to words and ideas like “subjugation” and “dominance”?? Please note that we can sugar-coat the entire discussion with pink bows on groomed ears and phrases like “man’s best friend” all day long – but does doing so really change what we are doing – and have done since modern man walked the Earth?

        This conversation, whether we choose to focus on elephants, dogs, cats, or ferrets is only a microcosm of a much, much bigger picture. In the history of Planet Earth, evidence clearly exists that actualizes five mass extinctions. Without going into the details of the overwhelming numbers of now-obsolete species, the fact remains that we are headed for a sixth mass extinction – and it is being caused by modern humans!

        Maybe I should take a moment to digress and lead us back to the elephants in Thailand…? Because chains, hooks, dominance, and domestication are all simply points on the spectrum that will eventually lead to extinction! In closing, I would like to point out, too, that I continue to use the term “modern humans”, because in the scheme of time, it really didn’t take us very long to eradicate our human brothers from this Earth, i.e., Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc.

        At the very least, we must increase our own awareness, educate ourselves, and strive to halt the annihilation of which WE are the perpetrators!. For that reason, I am grateful for people, like you, who facilitate and encourage these conversations.

What say you?