August 8th, 2011
Sometimes the horrible things humans do to each other and the planet make me feel so hopeless. It seems like everything is just a mess and there is no solution. And then I stayed at Elephant Nature Park in Chiangmai, Thailand. The experience changed my mind set and made me realize that there is hope because there are so many people in the world who care.
Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for abused and neglected animals from all over South East Asia. The park is home to abused and neglected pigs, cows, a feisty pony, a three legged horse, over 50 cats, and over 90 dogs. But the 37 elephants are the star of the show. Almost all of them at the park have suffered from abuse and neglect at the hands of humans in logging camps, trekking and tourist shows and also just horrible accidents. Malai Tong is an older elephant with half of her back foot blown off by a landmine. Mae Do is an elephant that had her hips and legs broken by forced breading programs. She was chained down and a dozen mahoots (Elephant “caretakers”) were stabbing her with large knives so that she couldn’t move while the bull raped her from behind. To this day she and the other elephants that went through this excruciating process are terrified of male elephants and will run away if they see or smell a male.
All of the elephants steal hearts. But my favourites were Jokia and Mae Peng. Jokia is an elephant with a tragic past. She worked for a logging company that worked her day and night. When she was pregnant her owner forced her to work in the rain at the top of a hill. Suddenly Jokia went into labour and when the baby was born the slippery slope was a difficult terrain for it to hold onto and Jokia watched it roll down the hill to its death. As the days went by, Jokia plunged into a deep depression and one day refused to get up to work. Her owner stabbed her and stabbed her but she still refused to get up. So he threw stones into her eyes and blinded her.
When she was brought to the park, Jokia was still deeply depressed and park staff worried greatly about the elephant’s welfare. But Mae Perm (a senior elephant at the park), sensing that this elephant needed help, came up to her and realizing she was blind caressed her with her trunk. Mae Perm led Jokia about the park and showed her the ropes. Now years later, the two are inseparable. Anywhere that Mae Perm goes Jokia is not far behind.
The elephants at Elephant Nature Park have had tragic pasts and it is easy to see from their eyes that many of them are still haunted. But it is also beautiful to see that many like Jokia and Mae Do, are gentle around humans again. They have been so ill treated but they are learning to trust and love again.
The park owes it’s existence to the work and devotion of one very determined woman. Her name is Lek, the Thai word for small, and the word really suits her stature but not her heart. Meeting her, Dan and I both felt star-struck. She is so inspiring. She is a woman with passion and a purpose. In a world where so many feel lost, she wakes up every day knowing there is important work to be done to fight for animal welfare in Thailand.
Now, the park is thriving. The guests pour in and the cash register from the gift shop peels joyfully through the halls, all proceeds heading to support the elephants. Lek also has many projects planned throughout Thailand and a brand new park beginning in Cambodia. But she remembers that it wasn’t always like this.
As early as 2002, the park was renting the land from the government and struggling to support nine elephants. As a side project, Lek began documenting the brutal training rituals that elephants endure in order to work in trekking camps and shows for tourists. First the baby elephants are ripped from the protective care of their mothers and then they are forced into a cage too small to move in and poked and beaten with nail-tipped sticks. The practices are barbaric and seem more effective at teaching the elephants violence than suppressing it. But the ultimate goal is to make the elephants fearful and submissive. After several months in this cage the mahouts have “broken” the elephant’s spirit and then, armed with large metal hooks for beating the elephants, they begin to attempt riding the once gentle creatures.
Lek sometimes brought volunteers on her expeditions to document these training practices. And one time, without Lek’s knowledge, one of the volunteers was so horrified by what she saw that she sent pictures to PETA. The organization spread the word immediately calling for a ban to tourism in Thailand until the government change the conditions for the elephants.
Thailand is a country economically dependent on tourism. And instead of seeing this as an opportunity to change, the government and many locals sought to blame, accuse and spread rumours about Lek, who was in no way responsible.
Lek started receiving threats of all kinds, and was even called into trial. She went into hiding in her family village, but then when threats were made to her family, her father denied her publicly calling her “a black sheep” and saying that from a young age she had always been different. As Lek recalled these stories to us, there was no anger in her voice. She seemed to understand their plight and even added that her family runs a elephant trekking company so it is not surprising that they wouldn’t want to side with her. She said she hasn’t had contact with them for years and has been denied by them and accused of being crazy.
She amazed me. She seemed like she was beyond petty anger. Being denied by my family would devastate me and I am not sure I could ever get over it. But Lek had a greater dream and couldn’t be stopped.
I was later told by Pomm (her only employee at that time) that the locals and government leaders knew that Lek was someone who would never give up. And so they sought to hurt her in the only way they could. While Lek was in hiding, she heard that one of her baby elephants had been poisoned. She rushed back to the sanctuary only to see it bleeding from its eyes and rubbing it’s face in pain against a pole. The baby died with Lek by its side. To this day they still do not know how the cyanide ended up in the elephant’s drinking water.
Elephant rides and elephant made paintings are major industries in Thailand. Tourists everywhere are drawn to these animals and want to have a real connection with them. But few people know what these kinds of connections have cost the elephants. Now word is beginning to get out. But it’s amazing how many people still want to keep the voices speaking for elephants silenced.
Eventually tensions cooled. A rich business man heard about Lek’s battle from a friend at PETA and offered to buy the land for Lek to secure the future of her sanctuary. And as the sanctuary gained in popularity, with more money and volunteers, Lek ensured that there would be less resentment from the local community. She hired locals to work at the park, organized the volunteers to go to the local school to teach English to the school children, and even built a space for local women at the sanctuary to offer Thai massages to the tourists and keep all the profits for themselves. Lek invited the local medicine man to perform the opening ceremony for the volunteers at the park and ensures that the locals are involved in all aspects of the park. She is determined to change the villagers’ minds and wants them to see the park as an essential part of their community.
However, still in Thailand speaking up for animal rights is a dangerous business. So many people are profiting off of animals that anyone who speaks up for them will be persecuted. It is an uphill battle. But the Elephant Nature Park is a place that gave me hope that the tides are turning not only because of Lek, but because of the large number of people of various ages that volunteer every week (an average of fifty a week) and are really invested in seeing a better future for animals. Dan and I were especially struck by some of the older volunteers. There was a man named Michael a 70 year old, self-proclaimed “professional volunteer.” He was remarkably youthful, always cheery and quite skilled at shoveling elephant pooh. There was also a retired teacher volunteering a year at the park to teach the mahouts, and some of the staff English.
Dan and I were also amazed by the trainers at the park. They were a middle aged couple who had given up the “normal life” and spent the last decade working with the animals. Their brain child is an experimental positive reinforcement training program for the elephants. They use bananas to train the elephants to perform basic commands that will help with their upkeep and general husbandry. The most interesting part of the training is that it is completely voluntary. The mahouts are required to bring their elephants by for one short training session per day; however the elephants can decide at any time if they no longer want to participate. In fact, the trainers told me that the trick is getting the elephants to leave. Some elephants will come by four or five times a day. Dani, their star student, is said to be hard to keep away. Every time I came near the trainers I saw her standing in the field close by waiting for her turn to begin again.
At every turn, there were people to admire and respect and visible positive changes that brought a tear to the eye. It made me realize that people do care. The enemy is ignorance. If more people knew about the terrible practices involved in the tourism industry in Thailand, the industry would be forced to change. And I now believe that it will.