Sanctuaries and Tourist Attractions: Do Elephants See Them as the Same?

When I was a little girl, my mother washed my hair every Sunday night in preparation for the school week. Back then you didn’t go to bed with wet hair; it was thought you could get a cold. So, while my hair was drying, I could sit in front of the television and watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Every time I heard the opening music of the show, I leaned forward and scanned the screen for elephants. If they were there, I willed my hair to stay wet and heavy.

On our recent trip to Thailand, we visited the Elephants Hills Sanctuary in Khao Sok National Park. We stepped out of the vans and watched the sixteen gentle giants emerge from the fields and walk in a single line towards us. The youngest was fourteen and the oldest was seventy-six. As we stood in the shade of the trees and listened to the guide, I slipped through the group towards the ancient female.

Mai Ri, the oldest elephant at the sanctuary, was born in 1943 when thousands of elephants were used as laborers to haul logs out of the Thai forest. They were used by the military to carry supplies, and they were captured in the wild and shipped to countries all over the world to work in circuses. Mai Ri has difficulty standing, so she shifts her weight from one leg to another. Her breasts sweep the earth as she walks, and she is blind in one eye. When she passes by a tree, her scarred ear flap catches on the bark and tears her already shredded skin. She has only one tooth in her mouth. No one knows her complete story; likely she was one of the rejected elephants found on the streets of Bangkok carrying tourists for less than a dollar a ride.

Before we bathed and fed the elephants, we got comfortable with their immense size by stroking them and touching their ears and trunks. The mahouts—the elephant caregivers who spend twenty-four hours a day with them—watched carefully and used commands and thin sticks to guide them. Mae Ri stood as if she were asleep while I patted her shoulder and ran my hand down her trunk bleached yellow from the years of sun.

We walked the elephants to a pond and stood on the trampled grass while the animals slid down the muddy bank. They blew water out of their trunks and jostled each other looking for the coolest spot. Mai Ri slowly sank to the bottom of the pond and rested there. Only her trunk was above water.  Soon, the mahouts spoke to the elephants and they all lumbered out, climbed the hillside, and rolled their skin back and forth, side to side, like ships bobbing on the water. Mud streamed from their sides and hit the path in circles. Mai Ri stayed on the bottom until her mahout crawled down the water’s edge and spoke to her. She followed the others to the bathing stations.

Paul and I joined Mai Ri at her pad. She waited for us, lifting her feet and swaying back and forth. Paul sprayed her with the hose, and I tossed buckets of water on her back. Together, we used coconut fibers to scrub her skin. Her one big brown eye gazed towards the empty, green field beyond us. A little afraid, I leaned my head to rest on a real-life elephant’s trunk. I felt her skin, smooth in some places and bristly in others.

I held Paul’s hand as we left the elephant sanctuary in the air-conditioned van. The driver (who I can only assume was fired upon our return) decided to take a short cut back to the camp. We bumped over craters in the road and rounded a corner where a traffic jam of vans was negotiating the entrance to a large, penned area with wooden viewing stands. Elephants wearing traditional Thai decorations stood in a line with giant rickshaw baskets high on top of them. They lowered themselves to their knees to allow people to climb them like a ladder. Once the baskets were bulging with people, the elephants stood up and began to walk. Heavy chains rattled with their footsteps, and they were prodded with a short hook, an ankus, by their mahouts. People kicked the elephants behind their ears urging them to go faster. The massive creatures ascended steep, man-made hills and screamed as the basket slid backwards. They shouted as the baskets slid forward on the downhill side. As far as they were concerned, it was a roller coaster ride. My throat swam in bile.

Is there a difference between the sanctuary and the tourist attraction? No one knows how many of Mai Ri’s babies were taken from her, how much pain and indignity she endured over the years, and even now, the performance she does twice a day at the sanctuary—swimming when she doesn’t want to, getting baths she does not need, and waiting to be fed by people afraid of her searching trunk—likely try her patience as an elderly matriarch.

The other people in the van shouted at the driver for taking us past the attraction. They contended we shouldn’t have been exposed to such cruelty. But not one of us unlocked those heavy van doors and demanded an end to the atrocity. ‘We went to a sanctuary,’ was the sanctimonious message passed through the seats as if that absolved us of putting our own desires above those of the elephants.

Travel industry experts say the elephants cannot be released into the wild because there is not enough habitat left to support them, and financial resources are limited, so there must be a means to recouping the costs.

Protected by the swaths of cool air and the guilty silence all around me, I sent a message out to the universe hoping Mai Ri recognized that my touch came from the truest part of me—my childhood self—and I wanted only to honor her. Given her long life, and perhaps her longing for her lost children, I hope she understood.

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