DO NOT RIDE ELEPHANTS (or support any kind of elephant tricks, including "painting")

We were warned to walk away if the baby elephant tried to come check us out. The mama and nannies are protective!

Asian elephants are ubiquitous in Thailand. 

If I had a dime for every time someone asked me if we were going to ride on the elephants during our trip, I'd be about a dollar richer. Maybe two dollars. Pretty much every person we told we were going to Thailand asked if we were going to ride elephants while we were there.

At first, I said I didn't know. I had a feeling we wouldn't. Maybe. I needed to research it.

And then I found the Elephant Nature Park's website and realized: riding elephants was not going to happen.

These mahouts are gentle 

And I knew we had to go to the park and visit their elephants. So we did. And we all loved it. Especially Remy, who showed no fear at all of these enormous animals. Which isn't to say that he didn't follow the rules, he did. But he was the one who kept feeding them, past when other people got bored by the repetition.

Now, these are rescued elephants, which means (for the most part) they have been abused, disfigured and traumatized. And yet, here's this place that has taken them in and given them space to be themselves again. (The Nature Park also has programs to release elephants back into the wild, but the disabled elephants need constant care.)

No platform roped around their back (up around the tail, pulling on it - can you imagine how awful that must feel?). No elephant hook, stabbing into the delicate skin around the ears.

Instead the elephants at the park are given space. Their mahouts (keepers) don't carry hooks. They are allowed to form their own herds, which they have.

Driving up to the park, we passed by some of the (many) trekking centers (some of which claim to be rescue centers, but aren't, please research them if you are going to Thailand - even this page mistakenly lists a center that offers rides as a valid sanctuary), where people go to "learn to be a mahout!" This includes some of the things we got to do (helping bathe the elephants, feeding them fruit), but it also includes riding on their backs. Using the bull hook.

One of many elephants we saw as we drove to the sanctuary.

I took some photos of those elephants as we drove by them, shaking our heads. There were hordes of tourists. Did they not know? Did they not do any research? Can't they see the scars?

(You can see the scars on this elephant, if you know where to look: behind the ears, in the folds of the legs.)

The one thing, the one very simple message I want to share with you today is this: please do not think it is okay to ride on an elephant's back. Please don't think that just because they have already been broken, you aren't hurting them anymore. 

Every command the mahout makes, he makes with a hook. With a sharply pointed pick, jabbed into the elephant's ear.

They come to the rail for food. They have free range around the park.

If the elephant has already been broken and is cooperative and the mahout is kind, then the mahout tugs on the ears instead. This is a reminder of the pain the elephant already experienced. Um... what? That's not okay either. If you research the elephant painters, you'll see that the elephants paint by being directed, through ear tugging, how to draw the lines. This is not elephants using art as therapy, this is elephants being abused to make money!

One more thing I realized. In the video we were shown in the van on the way to the park, a baby elephant was rocking back and forth as it begged in the streets of Chiang Mai. (We never saw a single elephant street begging, which I am truly thankful for.)

Rocking. Back and forth.

Where have I seen that before?

Closeup.

Oh yeah. People who are in sensory overload (autistic people, people with sensory processing disorder), rock back and forth. People who are grieving rock back and forth. People who are caged up rock back and forth.

(I'm not the only one who's made that connection. I just didn't know about it going in.)

The elephants at the Elephant Nature Park don't need to rock back and forth anymore. They can walk freely. (Unless they can't, because their hip got displaced in forced breeding camps.)

If you aren't feeling traumatized by this already (and I am sorry, but this is what these amazing creatures live with and we need to spread this word because people do not know!) then google "elephant training video" and do more research.

(Big trigger warning: do not watch those videos if you are empathetic and already understand why elephants being hurt sucks.)

They also rescue dogs! Don't pet the ones with red scarves. This one is friendly.

All of these photos (with the exception of the one with the elephant being ridden - which I took from the van as we drove by) were taken by me at the Elephant Nature Park.

The only other sanctuary I know of in Thailand that does not mistreat the elephants is BLES, outside of Sukhothai. We didn't go there, since we had already decided to go to Chiang Mai.

There are elephant sanctuaries in North America, too. So don't think you have to go all the way to Thailand to support elephants being elephants (and not chained up doing tricks in circuses or being given way too little space in zoos).

Next time you know someone who is going to Thailand (or if you go yourself), please tell them why riding on elephants is a cruel thing to do.

Don't ride the elephants!