If you spend some time with me, it will probably come up that I like elephants. A lot. I find them to be beautiful creatures with many behaviors that are reminiscent of human emotions and relationships. When I visited Thailand with my husband and friend, I told them that I was okay with whatever we ended up doing, as long as we visited an elephant sanctuary while we were there. And what a great experience it was!
There were two elephants at the sanctuary the day we visited. They have a third but it was in the hospital that day due to age-related issues. The elephants we saw were Tong Kham, who was rescued from the riding industry, and Tong Poon, who was rescued from the logging industry. Tong Poon has short tusks and less pink on her trunk, which makes it easy to tell the two apart in the pictures. The sanctuary offers two sessions a day, morning and afternoon, where visitors can take part in caring for the elephants. Even on days when there are no visitors, the trainers follow the same schedule and do all of the same activities with the elephants.
When we first arrived, the trainers were feeding the elephants palm fronds. The elephants stood at a fence and the trainers gave them several fronds at a time. Our guide told us that it is best to feed the elephants in this way because if you put too much in front of them at once, they end up playing with their food instead of eating it. We started our day by feeding the elephants bananas, peel and all! We were instructed that we could hold out the bananas and the elephants would take them with their trunks, or we could put them directly into their mouths. I tried both ways of course. The hand to trunk method occasionally ended with elephant snot on my legs. (So worth it though!) Tong Poon liked to take quite a few bananas and hold them in her trunk until she put all of them into her mouth at once.
We were told that elephants can spend 15 hours or more each day eating. Because they eat so much, they also need to exercise each day. We were able to walk with the elephants to a large grassy area where they were free to walk around and do as they pleased, including eating grass. We were able to walk right along with them and touch them whenever we wanted. Although we were warned not to touch their stomachs because they might be ticklish and could accidentally kick us! While we were in the grassy area, we also had the opportunity to ask the guide any questions we wanted.One of the first questions was about the morality of riding elephants. The guide explained that riding elephants, using them for work, and other activities are not bad in and of themselves. The issue comes in when the owner values money over the elephant’s health and/or treats the elephant badly. Elephants should only work for a few hours a day, leaving plenty of time to get the food and rest they need. If an elephant is treated properly, these activities will not be harmful and will not affect the lifespan of the elephant.
The guide also explained that before modern transportation, elephants were used for many things including logging, human transportation, and some were even used in war. Because of how the elephants served the Thai people, they are very respectful of elephants and are striving to rescue the elephants that are still being mistreated.
The elephant sanctuaries are located outside of cities for several reasons. One is that this allows for ample space for exercise, growing food, and everything the elephants will need. Also, elephants are easily startled by noises such as barking dogs, car horns, and helicopters. Keeping them in a sanctuary outside of the city keeps them away from many of these noises.
We learned that the trainers live at the sanctuary. Each elephant has her own trainer and she keeps that trainer for years. If the trainer were to leave and come back many years later, the elephant would still recognize the trainer. An elephant never forgets!
After their exercise time, we walked with them to a pond where we were able to get in the water with them and give them baths. Then we walked with them back to the pavilion where we had started and we fed them watermelon and pineapple slices. They ate the watermelon rind without hesitation. When we handed them the pineapple slices with the crown still attached, they maneuvered it with their trunks until the crown fell off, then they ate the fruit.
It was a great experience. I not only got to spend my day with elephants, but I learned a lot too. If you ever find yourself in Thailand, go to an elephant sanctuary!
Photos by Taylor and Dale Frecker