September 27, 2016

How to train your elephant

When I speak with students interested in studying in Thailand, one of the first things I tell them is not to ride elephants during their stay. The university has a history of portraying elephant rides in their advertising – it contributes to the image of Thailand as an exotic place to spend a semester. But I think if students knew the truth about Thai elephants in captivity, they would gladly take the path my friends and I chose.

Domestication is not something that can be done to an individual animal – it involves many generations of selective breeding for tame behaviors. If you want to tame a wild elephant, your only option is to make it afraid of you, and Thai elephant trainers know this.

In Thailand, working elephants who are not born in captivity are typically taken from the wild as calfs. Wild animals need to be “broken” of their wildness before they can be trained. The standard elephant-breaking procedure in Thailand is to tie the calf’s legs to posts and light a fire underneath it. Whipping and prodding with sharp objects reinforces the message until the elephant is fully submissive.

Broken elephants can be coerced into learning tasks they will need on the job. This could involve circus-like performances, logging or tricks to perform on the street. Breaking an elephant for riding is a popular practice, well-rewarded and perfectly legal.

In the meantime, elephants suffer psychologically from captivity and training. Intelligent, social animals, elephants develop psychosis when they are unable to engage in natural behaviors. They are also susceptible to arthritis and disease in such situations.

The Thai people appreciate elephants for their cultural significance – they like the idea of elephants. But most Thai people do not have the same concept of animal rights we have. Those who use animals for entertainment tend to be poor and desperate for spare change, and tourists fall for the gimmick.

Fortunately, there are a few Thai animals who have been removed from this cycle and placed in sanctuaries. The closest wildlife sanctuary to Hua Hin, where Webster students reside, is Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT). WFFT offers a “Full Day Experience”for about $30 a person. When I studied abroad, our group coordinated two visits during which we walked, fed, bathed and got to know their rescued elephants.

elephanttransparent2Bua was so eager to meet new people that she accidentally knocked my friend over with her trunk. She and I shared a bath and feeding time. When I wasn’t able to reach a dirty spot on her calloused skin, she would spray it with her trunk, drenching me in the process. While someone else hosed her down, I handed her bananas and pineapple chunks. She was even kind enough to let me place the food right into the corner of her mouth.

There is a profound difference between the intimate hours I spent with Bua and the few distant minutes spent on a working elephant’s back. The riding elephants I met were effectively dead – hot, dried up, spiritless and acting out of habit and obligation.

But the two girls I met at WFFT had regained some semblance of vivacity. The moments when my hand was engulfed in Bua’s trunk were breathtaking. She wasn’t stupid – she knew I was an elephant noob. But she humored me at her own discretion and allowed me to be close to her. Bua passed away soon after that day, and my friends and I would trade any animal ride or performance for another snack with her.

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