DISCLAIMER: this post is not meant to offend anyone who has ridden elephants as when I was first traveling to Thailand, I thought I would be riding an elephant as well as this tends to be the #1 attraction here. But after a bit of learning, we decided to do things differently.
Anyone who knows me well is pretty aware just by walking into my home or office that I am absolutely obsessed with elephants. The fascination started when I was a little kid with a small elephant plush toy which was either passed on to me from my sister or I stole it from her (the facts are a bit fuzzy). I knew that if we were to end up in Thailand, I absolutely HAD to hang out with elephants. While we were still in Colombia, Kieran came across an Elephant Nature Park just one hour north of Chiang Mai and after a bit of research, we decided to book a one full day outing with these great giants (Tip: book far in advance as they sell out quickly). As I continued to browse the site, I noticed that you could also spend one or two weeks volunteering with elephants or dogs (as this has recently become a dog rescue as well). After seeing a few pictures of the pups and reading some awesome reviews, we decided to sign up for a one week volunteering program with the dogs. You may ask, why dogs when you are at an elephant park? Keep on reading…On Sunday morning, April 19th, we were picked up from our hotel in Chiang Mai along with seven other volunteers and driven to the park. During the drive, you are shown a forty minute National Geographic video called Vanishing Giants regarding the contradictions of how the elephant is so highly regarded in Thai culture (you literally can find at least one elephant sculpture in every temple) and yet how poorly the animal is treated. Within 30 minutes the mood in the van goes from excitement to heavy somber.
As much as I would like for this post to be all about puppy play and elephant love (there was plenty of that for sure), my main goal is to pass on the message and my newly found knowledge of the type of work this park does to rescue and save animals and how too few places in Thailand and in many other countries are treating elephants as living beings.
The park was started in 1990’s by Lek Chailert, a local hill tribe woman who has been dedicating her life to rescuing elephants and educating people on how elephants should be treated with love. Lek in Thai means small and although she really is a tiny woman (especially next to an elephant), her heart and energy are ginormous! We had the pleasure of meeting Lek and listening to one of her lectures during our stay.
There are 44 elephants at the sanctuary and each elephant has his/her own mahout – a person who tends to/cares for the elephant. Traditionally, a mahout is taught to use sharp hooks, sticks and ear pulling to control the elephant, but not at this park. Here, mahouts are taught to take care of elephants through love and food (it is work in progress to change the way people are used to treating these animals). The elephants at this park come from all types of abuse – from logging (which is illegal in Thailand since 1989, yet people still do it), to circus, to street performers, to elephants that are being ridden by tourists for the sake of entertainment.
Here is an example of an elephant foot which was destroyed by a land mine while logging……versus a healthy foot…There are elephants at the park with dislocated knees, hips, broken ankles, broken back, blindness along with emotional and mental instability.
There is a rescued elephant at the park who gave birth while logging and the baby (still in the sac) rolled down the hill. When the mother tried to go down the hill to save him, she was stabbed in the eyes which caused her permanent blindness. To this day, she is extremely depressed due to the loss of her child, but she was welcomed into the park by another female elephant who leads her everywhere they go and they are now inseparable.
When the elephants are taken into captivity from the wild or birth, they are put into a “training crush” for 3 days and nights without food or water, with metal chains cutting into their flesh and they are kept awake for the entire time while being beaten into submission (can we say torture?). The method is called “phajaan” or “crushing” the elephant’s spirit. This is a tradition that has been around in Thailand and other countries for many years, but it’s time to do things differently and to teach future generations that this is not ok! There are small children who not only observe the entire process, but they actually participate by sitting on top of the elephant and beating him/her with a hook. For someone as in love with elephants as I am, this was all news to me and so although I know that this is incredibly sad and hard to read, I just want to spread the word!
The dog rescue is a pretty new concept for the park which started in 2011 after horrible floodings just north of Bangkok which displaced thousands of dogs. Lek and her team took in about 2,000 dogs at the time. There are now approximately 450 dogs at the park and a team of just a few people who feeds them, walks them, provides medical care for them, etc. As you can imagine, most people come to the park to volunteer for the elephants (which is awesome and fun), but the majority of help is really needed with the dogs since the elephants have their own mahouts – thus, this is how we ended up on the dog side.When we arrived we were shown to our new home for the week (at $20/night/person). The accommodation is very simple and can for sure use a bit of an upgrade (if anyone at the park is reading this, tourists would be willing to pay WAY more for nicer housing). You get a room for 3 people and in the house of 9, there are two showers and two toilets. At times, there was no running water and there was usually no hot water at all (we had a few people get sick and without water/flushing toilets, the virus spread like a wild fire). The accommodations on the elephant side are far better from what we have heard and if you are just an overnight guest for a two day elephant trip, you get very nice accommodations with hot shower, wifi, etc.
Below is my bed for the week. Too many cockroaches lost their life…RIP…I for sure always slept with one eye open.
And this was our home for the week…Besides the housing, you are also fed 3 times a day (all vegetarian and delicious). Every breakfast/lunch/dinner, we had gorgeous views of the park and the elephants that are free to roam most of the day… The food was delicious and my cooking skills were excelling as always!
Our daily routine had a pretty full schedule which started at 6ish in the morning with a nice cold shower and a walk to the dining area through the elephant park. After our 7am breakfast, which usually consisted of toast, eggs and some local dishes (and elephant watching, of course), we were off to start working with the dogs. I offered to work with 9 puppies who were all recovering from the parvovirus (which meant isolation and quarantine for me for the week).Around 11:30am, we would go back to the dining area for lunch and from 12:30pm until 4:30 or 5pm would continue to work with the dogs. Working with the dogs consisted of feeding, walking, cleaning cages, picking ticks (we became pros at this) and socializing. At around 5pm, it was back to the room for a quick clean up and for dinner at 6pm. By 7:30pm, we were practically asleep from exhaustion and the heat.
This cat had the right idea attaching herself to the cooler to try to cool down (no, there are no AC’s)…
The first few days took some getting used to this new “working” routine that we forgot all about, but after a couple of days, we were in it full swing. By the second day of my work with the puppies, 5 more got really sick (I am talking throw up, bleeding, diarrhea which I was constantly cleaning as the virus is spread through stool) which doubled my work load and so Kieran kindly offered to go into quarantine with me and to spend the rest of the time with the pups which meant we couldn’t socialize with other puppies during our week there. I was also in complete denial that the little black rice like things all over the cages (which I decided was in fact rice) was actually rat poop, until I saw one run by (I died instantly).
There is even a special doggy run built for a dog that is paralyzed and is unable to use its back legs, so it has a special floor that it slides on and receives hydro-therapy in a small pool thanks to awesome volunteers …
On Sunday, April 26th, the volunteers were taken back to Chiang Mai (to a nice bed and a great shower). We were sad about leaving the pups, but what kept us going is the fact that we were coming back the next day for the day with the elephants that I booked long ago.
There are many visits to choose from, but we went for the Pamper a Pachyderm visit which is pretty expensive at $180/person for the day (considering that our one week stay at the park was $150 for the entire week with food), but worth every penny when you know what cause you are donating the money to. It was a wonderful experience with just 10 people in the group spending most of the time at a neighboring park which is using the new concept of elephant walking rather than riding and using food to visit with elephants rather than hooks and sticks. Another new thing that we both learned about elephants is that they are silent as a mouse. You never hear them coming up behind you until there is suddenly a trunk in your face begging for a banana.It was a beautiful day which I would recommend to anyone and everyone when in Thailand. And let’s be honest, isn’t it so much cooler to stand next to an elephant than being on top of one?
Asian elephants are now an endangered species. One hundred years ago, there were approximately 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Today, due to elephant abuse and deforestation for farming purposes, there are only 6,000 elephants left.
Here is what we would LOVE for you to do:
- Do not ride the elephants!
- Educate others and spread the word via various social media channels.
- Do not buy teak wood which is what elephants illegally log here in Thailand.
- Reach out to organizations like Lonely Planet/TripAdvisor and others who advertise elephant riding as the #1 attraction and educate them and request that they take such awful advertisements down!
- Go to the elephant nature park and volunteer or just spend a day there (all proceeds go to the park).
- Sponsor an elephant for as little as $30 for a year and get updates about your elephant!
- You can also sponsor a dog or make a tax deductible general donation to the park.
- And finally, try to adopt a dog. The park does everything for you – all the paperwork, the flight of the dog to Europe or United States. You just have to be there for a lovely pup in need!