When I was a kid, I was obsessed with elephants. Now, that’s hardly unique. Everybody loves those big noodle-nosed bastards. But when I say that I was obsessed with them, I mean that I was obsessed. The kind of obsessed that gets people put on watch lists nowadays. If elephants were an attractive girl, I would have been the guy that texts them “hey” every morning, the lack of replies hardly a deterrent to my jagged pursuit. If I had shown an ounce of anything but affection, people would have thought I was destined to be an elephant serial killer, spending my adult years slicing the fabric off of stuffed animals and wearing them like a little coat.
I had elephant toys. I had elephant clothes. I had elephant hats, the Mickey Mouse-style things that made it look like you had elephant ears, which was doubly stupefying to my parents considering the fact that as a six-year-old, I already had these big wingnut things on the sides of my head that threatened to send me airborne if I rode in a convertible at anything quicker than a cruise. I used to run around the house with my elbow attached to my nose, pretending to have a trunk, communicating only in bellowing harrooooooooo’s.
My parents would take me to the San Diego Zoo often enough. I watched Wild Discovery every Friday night. This got me through the days, pachyderm methadone, but in my mania I knew that to truly sate myself, I would, one day, far in the future, need to make my way to Thailand.
Even back then, I knew that Thailand was the place to go to meet elephants. African elephants are more plentiful, sure, but they also have a particularly cantankerous habit of killing people that try to get too close. Meanwhile, Asian elephants, particularly in Thailand, have been domesticated for thousands of years. Some of the first images of Thai people, shown on a frieze in the Khmer kingdom of Angkor Wat, feature elephants as war engines and displays of wealth.
In 2012, I finally had my opportunity to go. After graduating from college, I and my two roommates decided to buy tickets for a month-long trip to Southeast Asia, and I made damn sure they knew we’d be stopping over in Chiang Mai, home to around 20% of Thailand’s remaining elephant population.
Elephants have had a pretty rough go of it for the past few centuries. As recently as 1900, there were around 300,000 wild elephants stretching from India to Vietnam, with another 100,000 in captivity. That number has plummeted to the point where Thailand only has roughly 4,000 elephants left. Half of those are in captivity. But while the wild herds are struggling with habitat fragmentation (being separated by human development is a major issue for breeding genetic diversity, even if there were enough elephants in the wild to begin with) and poaching, some captive elephants have it even worse.
Most domesticated elephants used to work in the lumber industry, with families leasing theirs out to whichever businesses needed them for carrying logs. But in 1989, Thailand issued a ban on logging in the country. At any quick glance, this should have been a great thing, a real environmental landmark. I mean, we want more habitat for the elephants we have, not to mention the positives to the Thai tourism industry, which is the fastest growing in the country. But as it turns out, putting thousands of elephants out of work won’t actually help them. While some families moved over to Myanmar to maintain their usefullness, others simply sold their elephants to tourist traps, where they are forced to give rides or perform while being stabbed with bullhooks. The worst-off of these poor families kept their elephants to help them beg. You’ll see them walking around Bangkok and wonder how on Earth they find enough food in a concrete jungle. The answer is that they don’t.
Luckily, most of the elephants in Chiang Mai live in farms and camps where tourists can ride and bathe them. It’s a better existence for the animals, if not a perfect one. Many of these camps still use bullhooks to control their elephants, and choosing one that doesn’t can be tricky. After looking through a booklet and talking to other tourists who shared my concerns, I eventually chose to go to Maevang Elephant Camp. I looked over the brochure as we waited in our hostel for the tuk-tuk to pick us up and drive us about an hour out of the city to where we’d find our mahouts. The piled stones and polished metal that lined the streets eventually gave way to towering bark and leaf, growing thicker and thicker until it encroached onto the road, leaving the asphalt cracked like dried salt flats after a rain.
Eventually the greenery thinned again until the tuk-tuk pulled through a rotting wooden gate, revealing a wide-open field of trampled grass. It was already oppressively hot and humid, and I raised my hand as we left the forest to block the oncoming slap of sunlight. Five elephants milled about in the center of the field, barely regarding us as we sped past to the main office up the road.
We were to get the authentic experience. The mahouts, the Hindi word for elephant riders, spend their entire lives bonding with the animal in their charge – feeding it, bathing it, waiting on it, and we would be doing everything short of shoveling shit.
And then I saw the baby.
Six weeks before, one of their female elephants had given birth. The mother and child were supposed to be in their own pen, giving them time to bond and recover from a 22-month pregnancy. However, six weeks is enough time for any kid to start getting curious, especially when that kid is born at 220 pounds and fully capable of wandering on her own. This baby, a little girl, wandered out of the pen and made her way to the lineup where we were currently being educated on elephants, safety, and steering. She strutted across our façade like a drill instructor, reaching with a trunk she didn’t quite control yet for the bananas on the table next to us.
The mahouts seemed to be okay with us doing whatever we wanted. After all, we were paying. So while my roommates tried desperately to remember the Thai word for “stop” as the elephant he rode walked casually into a low ceiling, I followed the baby back down to the pen where her mother and caretaker were waiting.
As soon as I wandered into the pen, the baby ran straight up to me and started grabbing at my hands with her little trunk. She stamped her feet like a dog trying to jump on its owners lap, and when I squatted down to look her evenly in the eye, she barreled into me with a force she was as naïve about as her trunk. I toppled onto the cold cement of the pen, grasping at the creature for balance even as she pushed harder into me. Eventually, she decided to lay down, and rotated her hips and legs to land squarely on my testicles. I still consider the sacrifice worth it.
Eventually, she adjusted into a position she, and thank God I, found comfortable enough, as she lied against my chest with her trunk wrapped tenderly around my arm. She fell asleep within minutes. I spent the next half an hour on the floor, while the baby slept on top of me, her mother standing cautiously above, threatening to step on whatever pink and fleshy creature even thought about causing her child harm. I was, to say it in another way, in Heaven.
I had a lot of time to think, being trapped on the ground there. And while most of my thoughts involved some reordering of the words in the phrase, “holy shit I can’t believe this is happening to me,” I occasionally strayed into the kind of deep thought only reached when you have nothing else to do. Shower thoughts. And what I thought about was this: philosophers have wondered whether mankind is inherently good or evil since the first man realized he could get something for free just by taking it from somebody else. And sure, there’s a lot of compelling evidence that we’re all just terrible people trying to make our way in a crazy world that offers us nothing in return.
But elephants proved that wrong to me.
Elephants are some of the most intelligent creatures on Earth. They have the same number of neurons in their brain as humans. They’re the only creatures on Earth besides humans that have a ritual around death, recognizing the bones of their deceased and covering them with dirt and leaves, mourning the loss for days before reluctantly moving on.
Their intelligence elevates them above their instincts and gives them the capacity for kindness. They are kind enough to allow their children to lie on top of a spongy, pink monster that has offered no proof that it won’t turn that child into a rug. If this is how animals with intelligence behave, then humans, despite all their flaws, must be inherently good. Even as these elephants have been abused, prodded by hooks and forced to perform and work, they maintain that same faith that this human, that they could so easily crush under their feet, will be better.
We need to earn that trust. The elephants aren’t saved yet, but if we are as good as we have the capacity to be, then they are on their way. I hope, one day, we can prove the elephants right.
The best elephant camp is Elephant Nature Park, which brings in and cares for abused elephants of all ages. The owner, Lek, was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time Magazine, and she visits elephant camps all over Thailand to teach mahouts how to properly care for their animals. If you want to see elephants, please seriously consider supporting what she’s doing by paying her a visit. They do not allow you to ride the elephants there, so if that’s what you’re looking for, please at least refrain from using a bench, which are terrible for the elephants’ backs. Maevang Elephant Camp, where I went, did not use benches (at least for my group), and never controlled the elephants with any more than a light prod from a blunt stick. If for some reason you don’t visit either of these two camps, please, at least, know what you’re supporting.