Up early in the morning, breakfast at 7:30, we ready ourselves for the Elephant Rescue Park. Long anticipated, we are like little kids on Christmas Eve! We both love animals, and an opportunity to walk and play with elephants is a true gift.
Some quick facts, to get those out of the way. At a high level, there are two different kinds of elephants: Asian and African (and within, there are African Forest and Southern African elephants, and there you have your three species). An elephant's zip code is quite easily identified if you know how. You can use the size of their head (Asian large, African small) or ears (Asian small, African large). If you are close enough and size doesn't give up the secret, the tip of the trunk has either 1 (Asian) or 2 (African) fingers for grasping. If you are brave and care to get really close, Asians have 5 toes on each front leg and 4 on each hind leg, and Africans do it with a 4:3 mix. Word to the not so wise: don't ever get close to a wild elephant. Ever. Just don't. You don't know the elephant, the elephant doesn't know you. They fight off water buffalos and lions without any trouble. At a top weight of 17,500 pounds, you don't want to believe you were born an elephant whisperer and just now connecting with your inner true self.
There are about 7,000 elephants in Thailand, up from 6,000 last year. Yay! About 4,000 are domesticated for largely three purposes: circus acts, logging wood or riding tourists around. Our tutor for the day tells us it is hard to unlearn the domesticated behaviors that have been often beaten into them, but they try to let elephants be elephants again the way they are supposed to be by having them around older elephants, by of course never beating them, and by not particularly asking or rewarding tricks with food. Food is timed and you will get more than enough; tricks don't get you more or earlier food. Well, that's not entirely true. The keepers stay with the elephants overnight. One of the elephants knocks on her keeper's door with her trunk every morning to wake him up and see if she can't get a banana. Cute!
Another thing on tricks versus behaviors. They do have behaviors, and there is positive reinforcement for that. They can learn to react to maybe 100 verbal commands, for example. That's helpful in caring for them. Those are good, needed behaviors. Tricks is getting them to stand on one hind leg on a small stool while a guy rides a scooter around the elephant in tight circles. There is no benefit to the animal in that. It's cruel.
Elephant Rescue Park is one of about 100 parks, all with varying levels of commitment to the animals. I consider this park's commitment very high. They have to buy their animals for about 3MM Baht (about $90k), which is a big commitment, and they take care of them for life. Their family is made up of 4 babies under 4 (3 from the circus and 1 logger) and 3 adults (2 loggers and 1 rider). One of the adults has her joints so overworked logging too much for too long that you can hear her bones as she moves. We meet her at the end, but she isn't doing the walk with us as she can't really walk up or down hill. They give her many glucose pills daily, and after six months she's gotten better. Of course she'll never make it to 100%.
Instructions and education behind us, it's time to feed our new friends. As we walk up with bananas, the four babies are literally dancing with anticipation - a learned circus behavior hard to unlearn. As we start feeding them, their excited swaying from left to right calms down some. One of them has already learned that it doesn't get him any extra and has taken note of the adult ones (who don't sway at all), and has learned to switch it's energy from swaying to following you with his trunk to see if you won't share a second banana. So adorable!
One banana per elephant at the time, we feed them four or five times each. They basically take the banana out of your fingers with the tip of their trunks. Containing about 110,000 muscles, their trunk is strong enough to pick any of us up and throw us a good distance away (so be respectful!), but also incredibly flexible and a good tool for them to pick things up.
Once we walk with them, we see all sorts of fun and mischief come to life. They go off the trail to stand in the shade, or scratch against a tree. We see one even take down a medium sized tree with its trunk, forcing us to step out of the way for a minute. They'll grab sand to throw on their backs to cool down more. Or they'll eat sand to help with their digestion.
When you walk with elephants, you don't hear them. We are louder than they are. They have 4" of padding in their feet to help with that. But sometimes we have an elephant on our shoulder and we never heard it coming! Kind of creepy, but the environment is save and fun, and caregivers are always ensuring the animal and guests are safe.
The highlight definitely is getting in the water with them to scrub them down. They love the water, and it is so endearing to see some of the baby elephants reach for their caregivers' hands as they lead them down to the water, much like you may have seen a baby hold on to its mother's tail. Cute! Once they're in, we get in and start to scrub them down. It is clearly the elephants' highlight of the day as well. Our adult girl moves and leans into the brushing action ever so slightly. She loves getting the large cups of water over her back. She loves it so much, she reciprocates and I am glad I left my phone on the dry side. I am soaked from the head down, even though we are only in the water up to our waists! It's only 10 minutes, but it could have lasted an hour and we would still be enjoying ourselves. It is so much fun, I wonder if it is maybe illegal…
On the whole this is a fantastic experience with a group that really cares for these animals. Almost all of you know of my connection with the beautiful aquarium, and I feel I can speak a little better on this subject than most tourists. There is a lot of animal abuse in this world, and Elephant Rescue Park is a respectful group of people who lead with their hearts. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to walk besides these gentle giants and to give them their baths. If you ever have the chance, please do your homework to make sure you are visiting a rescue team with the utmost care for the animals. Or take the shortcut and just visit Elephant Rescue Park, and make sure you use that exact name, because there are enough copycats that pretend to be them with names close theirs.
Shanghai tomorrow, where we hope Trump's shenanigans won't get us randomly detained without reason, and then a direct flight home the next morning. What an adventure!