Although I have a TON of stories from my time living/teaching abroad in Asia, one of my favorites is my encounter with an elephant. I have always loved elephants, so when I had the chance to go to an elephant sanctuary, I was completely thrilled.
Living in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, made it easy to travel. It was a center hub for domestic and international flights as well as easily accessible by car, trains and boats. I tried to use my weekends and holidays as a chance to explore more of the country. I had heard a lot about tiger temples from my co-workers and started doing research. It was then that I found a town called Kanchanaburi that was only 2 ½ hours away from Bangkok by taxi bus. While doing research of activities that would fill a whole weekend in this is town, I discovered Kanchanaburi also had an elephant sanctuary, which was more exciting for me than tigers. Due to a series of events that weekend, I did not end up going to the tiger temple, but that was fine by me as I later learned that they drug the tigers so tourists could take pictures with them (not something I am interested in or support). I paid 750 Baht (about $23 at the time), and my experience lasted roughly 2 hours. The biggest reason I chose this specific sanctuary (there are several), is that the money earned by the sanctuary goes directly into care and food for the elephants, rescuing other elephants and education programs.
When I first arrived, I walked up a wooden bridge to an observation deck. On the observation deck, there was a visitor’s center where you could read the elephant bios and learn more about the organization’s mission and work in Thailand. Below the deck was a big area for the elephants to congregate. This is where they ate the majority of their meals, so the elephants naturally always ended up back here. Most of the huge property is only for elephants and staff, but much of it could be seen from the observation deck. I have seen elephants in captivity before, at the zoo, the circus and even the renaissance festival, but this was different. Although technically they’re in captivity this home is a place of safety and love. Poaching for tusks/meat/hide, as well as, capturing and enslaving for dangerous and harmful labor is a huge problem in Asia. Here they could roam freely, get medical attention, be fed consistently and happily interact with people and other elephants. You could instantly tell by the staff and elephants interaction that there was a massive amount of respect and love there. It was so wonderful to see elephants roaming around freely (not chained up) and interacting naturally with each other. Each elephant had a caretaker they created strong attachments and bonds to. Researchers at the University of Sussex, in Brighton, UK, have discovered that African elephants can distinguish differences in human gender, age and ethnicity purely by the sound of someone’s voice. This helps them bond with caretakers, protect their herd for enemies and play.
Did you know that an elephant’s behavior is associated with a unique animal intelligence? They display a range of emotions including grief, joy, altruism, compassion, self-awareness, play, art and music. Elephants also have the ability to mourn their dead, a behavior that is only elsewhere seen in humans. Due to their complex emotional range, they do not force any elephant to participate in the day’s activities. They also watch the elephants moods closely to make sure they are happy and the humans are safe. Staff members pick an elephant that they feel will connect well with you. The elephant is led to you, and if the elephant is comfortable with you, the caretakers help you up into the “saddle” on the elephant’s back. You can also ride on their shoulders or switch back and forth. I was paired up with a girl name Suzie. She was gentle and sweet.
There is a huge misconception that elephants are dumb and can only learn specific tricks to show off; however this is not at all the case. Elephants have the largest mammal brain which gives them a more developed cerebral cortex – meaning they can learn more complicated tasks and they have remarkable memories. They collect and retain social and ecological knowledge including scents, voices and migratory routes. Elephants are able to learn new facts and behaviors, self-medicate, and use tools. Because of this, there is very little direction needed from the caretakers. Suzie led us around some forest paths at her pace (without use of chains, ropes, or leashes), stopping to eat whenever she felt like it. She would flap her ears happily when her caretaker sang to her, and she loved to eat leaves from our hands. Yes, the caretakers do carry around the staff with a hook on the end, but only used as a last resort for self-defense. The average Asian elephant weighs 12,000 pounds, and can get spooked or angry just like any other animal. They also have skin as thick as an inch. IF a caretaker needed to use the hook it would not even make the elephant bleed because their skin is so thick and tough. However, this is almost never necessary as elephant understand emotions and directions. If the caretaker wanted her to go a certain place he would politely say “right” or “turn around” and she perfectly understood. After riding Suzie for a bit (and gaining her trust), I was even allowed to give her directions, which she was happy to follow.
After wandering around the forest for a bit, Suzie led us to the river. Here I disembarked her shoulders and was able to have some face to face time- or face to trunk (at this time the caretaker also took off the riding seat). She loved to wrap her trunk around my stomach and give me “hugs”. I was given a bucket of food from the caretaker to feed to her, which she loved. Here on the riverbank, I was able to change to the bathing suit I had on under my clothes and ride Suzie bareback. With a water bottle, soap and scrub brush in hand Suzie led me into the middle of the river. I felt Suzie must really love bathtime in the river. She seemed so happy and relaxed. I got to scrub down her body and moisturize her dry spots. She seems to especially like when I scrubbed her behind the ears. She used this time to play with me as well. She would load up her trunk with water and spray me. We finished the water time with her rolling me into the water while holding me with her trunk so I was safe.
After a few more trunk hugs and pictures, I left Suzie on the riverbank. From there she was allowed to wander at her own pace within the property or back up to meet other visitors. I feel truly blessed to have such a meaningful memory and the ability to help such a great organization.