“How many nipples does she have?” I asked as I saw her loping around on bad legs. “2, just like us Lob,” replied our guide. With every question I had, our guide Petch’s Thai smile grew wider and correspondingly, my curiosity grew more unhinged. I felt I had many questions about elephants and so ignored the sharp elbow to the side from my wife and asked away. “You ask many questions, Lob.”
About an hour north of Chiang Mai is The Elephant Nature Park. You can almost hear the Jurassic Park theme play as you enter the leafy jungle road. Tall, green and lush trees trap the humidity at a low level, and even though I’m in an air-conditioned van, I sweat. For a city boy like myself, it’s rare to see an animal that is not a dog or cat. So when I first saw elephants on the road the on my way to the park I was floored. Big, hulking yet effective in their strides, I saw about half a dozen elephants saddled with wooden boxes carrying two people on their backs and a guide. I was amazed as to how animals of such power, and from what I’ve heard intelligence, can be trusted with three souls on their backs.
“What your name?” asked Petch in perfect, well almost perfect, Asian-affected English.
Arriving at the park, the trombone sounds of elephants emanate from the valley in which they live. Petch led us to a perch where I saw group of people happily giving elephants whole pumpkins, banana bunches and papayas. Already feeling a little jealous, I wanted to start giving the pachyderms their meal, but first we had to sit through a small lesson for personal safety.
“Do not tease the elephants, give them their food right away” said Petch. Obvious to me, as it seems quite mean to withhold food from what looks like an animal that is always hungry. “Stand behind the red line when feeding the elephants.” Also makes sense. I don’t want to be accidentally stepped on by Stampy. “Do not stand behind the elephants as it is hard for them to look behind them and some of them are blind”
“Blind? How did they become blind?” I asked.
Petch went on to explain that some of the elephants were blinded by the flashes of photography as they helped their previous owners beg for money on the street. Others were blinded by their owners, who would stick them in the eyes when they refused to cooperate as logging animals. Instantly, the experience of hanging out with elephants changed tone. We had abused these animals in unthinkable ways - the next few hours were going to be bittersweet as I started to realize how humans make a four-ton animal a slave.
Lucky the elephant cracked the pumpkin in her powerful jaws. Elephants basically have 24 teeth that look like four molars useful for mulching and munching their way through a vegetarian meal. As soon as Lucky put food in her mouth the trunk recoiled outwards asking for another piece. I found out that elephants eat up to 10% of their body weight a day. A since they’re herbivores, that’s a ton of work to keep the animals happy. Luckily for Lucky and the other elephants, the park had become very popular amongst travelers; so keeping a steady supply of fruit did not seem to be a problem. Lucky stuffed her mouth and reached for the bunch of bananas in my hand.
Withholding food is a method by which elephants are trained. Along with sleep deprivation, baby elephants are put through a Guantanamo-esque regimen of starvation, sleep deprivation, and physical abuse, to finally make them succumb to their masters. Terribly sad, however, in being perfectly honest with myself, I realized that elephants helped create Thailand and much of South East Asia. With their incredible strength, the animals were breathing bulldozers clearing entire forests so people can live. It’s a dichotomous thought knowing that such cruelty was essential for the creation of a nation. I still don’t know how I feel about that, but I do know that now that we have Caterpillars and John Deeres, abuse for the sake of tourism is barbaric.
“I’ve read that you can always tell which elephant is oldest in a group by its size” I said stepping over tall grass and feeling like the smartest kid in class. “The biggest elephant is going to be the oldest.” Thankfully Petch gently refuted my knowledge and pointed out that elephants, again like us, come in different sizes.
Part of the tour includes a little hike around the nature park where you can see elephants hanging out with their respective herds and friends. As you amble through the trail you encounter elephants walking by, almost as if you are passing them on the street on the way to the market. (Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Stampy.) Every now and then an elephant will give in to your nosy eyes and do more elephant like things such as chat with friends by rumbling and trumpeting their trunks or applying sunscreen by spraying dirt neatly on their backs. Their movements are gentle, tender, and elegant and really drive home the sad path to retirement they endured.
The process of destroying a baby elephant’s life in order to become tame is called the phajaan, and, man, does it sting to find out about the torture and pain inflicted on the animals when you start spending time with the little fellas. Named Dok Mai and Navann the ENP’s mischievous duo is as cute as your sister’s four-year-old and curious like cats. The Mahouts have a hell of a time keeping them away from food and making sure travelers do not startle them. When the little guys aren’t causing trouble, their herds protect them. Elephants have a great sense of family, and at any sign a trouble the four-ton adults surround little 400-pound Dumbo and like an thick leather curtain, shield their precious ones.
Bath time! Little Navann runs into the river and starts to splash about followed by his mother and grandmother and then the mahout. We are not allowed to get too close to the babies in fear of their parents freaking out, but we do get to give a spa treatment to the adults waiting for their pampering. We are in Thailand after all. Grinning like a Cheshire cat I fill my bucket full of brown river water and throw it on the grateful giant. You could really tell the animal loves it. With temperatures around 90 degrees and humidity at about 90%, I could only wish the elephant would return the favor and give me a generous shower with its trunk. But no, she is too busy enjoying her bath, just another day in the life of a retired elephant.
“Did you have a good time, Lobelt.”
“I’m very glad.”