“Whenever elephants met men, elephants fared badly…in India and southern Asia, elephants became the mounts of kings; tanks against forts, prisoners’ executioners, and pincushions of arrows, driven mad in battle; elephants became logging trucks and bulldozers, and, as with other slaves, their forced labor requires beatings and abuse.”
― Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a unique connection to elephants — the emotionally intelligent creatures that John Donne once described as “nature’s great masterpiece.” Their resemblance to their frozen wooly mammoth ancestors conjured images of gentle giants dreamily lumbering through time as the world sped past in a blur of evolution and natural selection. Characters like Dumbo, Horton and Snuffleupagus fueled my imagination, stirred deep emotions and taught me valuable lessons. And above all else, my grandmother’s (“Grams”) shared fondness for them helped establish a special relationship with me, a boy who never felt like he fit into his family.
As I grew, so did my relationship with elephants. I look back now on moments they touched my life and can’t help comparing them to milestones that help build a lasting friendship. Writing a fifth-grade research report about where they live, what they look like and their background was our first getting-to-know-your conversation.
Exploring their physical, intellectual and emotional sides for a university acting class in which I had to convincingly play any animal of my choice (don’t ask!) was our time spent getting to know each other better. Being charged by one while on safari during my study abroad in Zimbabwe was our first fight. And buying elephant souvenirs for my Grams every time I traveled was how I proudly shared my love for my friends who she would never have the chance to meet.
When I planned my trip to Thailand, I knew I wanted to spend a day with elephants and finally realize my dream. But unlike the dream world, I knew there were consequences and it would be important to act responsibly to protect my special relationship with these animals. I quickly learned that finding the right place wouldn’t be easy.
While the Thai people’s generous hospitality toward foreigners is a key driver of their country’s successes in tourism, their eagerness to please has led to less desirable elements within their culture — ping pong shows and sex trafficking to name a few. Another is the exploitation of animals, including tiger sedation for petting zoos and elephant mistreatment for tourist amusement parks. Having no interest in supporting any of these — particularly the abuse of elephants — I sought out a sanctuary that shared my love for elephants and acted responsibly in their care.
Phuket was my first point of entry into Thailand and every time I saw elephants, I got that hollow feeling in my stomach when I saw them chained, ridden by throngs of tourists and beaten by their handlers. It broke my heart! I worried I wouldn’t be able to find what I wanted and struggled with the possibility that meeting my longtime friends might never happen. But my hope was kept alive by other travelers’ stories of elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai dedicated to providing the highest level of care.
I headed to Chiang Mai straight away and began my search. I asked a few hostels about the different sanctuaries, talked to other travelers about their experiences and read online reviews. In the end, I decided on The Elephant Family Sanctuary, which was only a few months old and had five rescued elephants ranging in age from a few years to a few decades.
I was picked up early in the morning by a minivan carrying only four other tourists, which was a good sign that I would get more time and interaction with the elephants. After introducing ourselves and listening to a short briefing from our guide, we set off. At some point, we cleared the city’s paved roads and found ourselves traveling through a lush green countryside on dirt roads. With the minivan creakily complaining about not being built for these conditions, we bounced and pitched over bumps and around turns as the smile on my face grew with the anticipation rising within me.
After a long drive, I caught my first glimpse of my long-nosed playmates as we pulled into the sanctuary. With ears flapping and trunks swinging playfully, I was thrilled to see that they were free of chains and interacting with handlers more like playmates than prisoners.
We started with learning a few simple commands and feeding them bananas and sugar cane by hand. This elicited more than a few giggles when we touched their slimy, pink tongues and inspired me to nickname us “the human vending machines.”
Next came a fun walk through the river — one that turned out to be very slow and short due to the massive appetites of these non-stop eating machines. In addition to their frequent stops to strip leaves off trees, we also indulged in a few tree climbing adventures to retrieve some fruit for them. While short, one of my favorite things during our walk was how the little ones held on to our wrists with their trunks like toddlers at a park outing as they purred in a deep baritone.
Then it was mud bath time! After we all stripped down to our swimsuits, we joined our elephant friends in a huge mud pit filled with chocolate milk-colored water and began covering them as best we could with thick, cool mud. I say as best we could because it turned out to be more like a mud wrestling match than a serene treatment at a high-end spa with mud throwing, splashing and a few three-count pinnings.
After the mud, we washed them (and ourselves!) off in the fresh stream water, fed them a few more treats and said goodbye before climbing into the minivan to head back into town.
From beginning to the end, everything was amazing and had gone just as planned!
Something else happened that day. Something unexpected. For the first time since my Grams passed away six months ago, I felt her spirit around me and let my denial that she was gone fall away. I played in the mud with them and let her memories fill my head and heart. I felt her watchful gaze upon me and knew she would be proud I was realizing this dream with the respect and love we both shared for these magnificent creatures.