ELEPHANT NATURE PARK: A PSA (IT GETS PREACHY)
One of my most memorable days I've had so far took place at Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary for abused, disabled, and 'retired' elephants located about 60 km north of Chiang Mai. I mean, people, it was so great that it deserves a post on it's own. It gets a bit dark though... so from the words of Samuel L. Jackson, "hold on to your butts".
I've planned almost nothing for this trip but one experience I knew I needed to tick off the list was: 1. Elephants 2. Around me 3. Preferably me on top of one. Back while I was in Australia, I remember a friend of mine telling me she was going to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary when she arrived to Thailand. That's right up my alley so I made sure to keep a mental note.
To be honest, I hadn't heard much about the 'Elephant industry' in Thailand other than being familiar with the concept of elephant riding tours, and also being aware that elephants are now an endangered species because people are the fucking WORST. It turns out that the tourism industry has been a contributing factor to this statistic. (So... We're all guilty.)
When I arrived to Chiang Mai last week the first thing I realized was the number of activities you can do here! So much WOW! I took a picture of this poster in the taxi.
Monkey school, tiger kingdom, ox cart riding, and elephant riding (shooting is a pretty cool activity too). Something about seeing this made me upset. I am hoping that by 2016 we understand that taking a picture with a chained up tiger is inhumane right? If you don't think so you can get the fuck out of here. (Note: This is when I get judgmental). However, I never thought that riding an elephant can be in the same ball park. What really struck me was when I began seeing many of the elephant tours advertising such things as, "NO RIDING" "NO CHAINS" "FEED AND BATH" "ELEPHANT SANCTUARY". Which is great if that means these elephants are actually being looked after in a safe and healthy environment. I did some research about reputable companies in the area and I came across this great article on the Lonely Planet website (you should read it if you want to). I won't get into the ethics much BUT to summarize: many captive elephants are abused, malnourished, and what came as a surprise to me (contrary to what I saw in Aladdin); unable to support an excessive amount of weight on their backs. SO wtf, right?
The reason I decided to go on this tour was knowing (well, hoping) that a lot of the proceeds go to support the elephants. After my experience, I was 100% reassured. It was HARD though, dudes. On the drive to the park I already felt broken. They showed us a video on the process of "breaking an elephants spirit", a process called Phajaan, where an elephant undergoes weeks of emotional and physical abuse in order to be trained by their mahouts (aka trainer). It was shocking. It made me think about how Dumbo should've been way more sad so we can learn a fucking lesson from it. I don't know why I'm making all of these Disney references... but there will be at least one more.
When we got to the park I was immediately in awe by the property. It's 250 acres of open space surrounded by luscious hills and a river flowing through it. Elephant friggen paradise. The first thing we did after arriving was feed the elephants. They came around the corner in a herd knowing right well what was in store. It was a little aggravating at first seeing some dickheads (children) withholding food just so they could awkwardly grab on to the elephants trunks. I really wanted to tell them, "Um, can you stand behind the line and calm the fuck down? Thanks." But then I'd be the dickhead. Fortunately, these were the people that were too nervous to be very close to the elephants when we were in an open space so it made room for the others. HA!
For the whole duration of my time there I was humming this tune:
Told you there would be one more reference
We spent the day going around the property being introduced to the elephants and learning about their disturbing pasts. The first group of females we saw and interacted with were 3 blind females. A couple of them were blind solely due to being overexposed to camera flashes. We met elephants that were originally brought to the park barely able to stand, skin and bone, riddled with infections, and some that had been disabled because they had been hit by cars when they were working with street beggers. Seeing how docile, sweet, and now looking as healthy as ever was incredibly heartening.
Something that I found very comforting whilst visiting the sanctuary were the staff and volunteers attitude and knowledge. Everyone who was working / volunteering at the park was busy either tending to the elephants, cleaning, or preparing food for the gentle giants AND the people- the lunch buffet was unreal.
Each small group of visitors had a guide and this person knew all about each elephant. This is especially important since they knew their temperament and whether or not it was safe to interact with them. The park has over 70 (72?) elephants but not all were ready for human interaction. A lot of the male elephants were kept in a separate part of the park since they could be more aggressive and it's the best way to avoid the chance of having any babies pop out (ugh men, right?).
It was really sweet to see the elephants with their keepers. Every elephant seemed to have a Thai by their side and they were talked and called to like they were wee dogs. I saw a man playing fetch with one of them… it was adorable. Speaking of dogs, the park also had a dog and cat project, housing hundreds of stray cats and dogs, many of which were rescued during the flood. It doesn't end here. We also saw roaming water buffalo. I forget where they came from, but they were also rescued. They all lived in harmony.
The highlight my day is when I saw a little baby boy elephant. This guy was so cute. He was walking with a herd of big ladies, drifted behind a bit, saw a dog nearby, and got so scared he bolted it. ADORABLE!!!!
The eldest member of elephant park was an absolute QUEEN. She was 90 years old and looked fabulous. I hope I look that good when I’m 90.
We also watched a teenage elephant having a blast in the mud after taking a dip in the river. He ran over to the swinging tires for some after mud bath activity.
I know I’ve made this a tad bit depressing and lengthy but it really was great. Now for the best part… More photos. Sorry- there are a lot of "candids" of me.