I don’t know what it is about elephants that makes me love them so much. I love that they are huge and gorgeous, that they live in families and are smart, and that well, they’re just kind of magical. I was super excited to try to see them during our visit to Thailand, but encounters with elephants take more research than just stopping on the side of the road and taking photos with babies. Look a little closer, and the babies are chained by the leg, separated from their moms, and terrified.
I knew I didn’t want to ride an elephant. I find that demeaning to the animal, and I learned more about why people should avoid doing this. More on that in a moment. The reason Mike and I went to Phuket was because my friends, Kurt and Debbie, just happened to be there. I liked the idea of a few days at the beach instead of more days in Bangkok (smart!). Anyway, they said the highlight of their whole visit to Thailand was a morning at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. The folks there call it ethical elephant tourism; it’s a retirement ‘home’ for elephants that have worked in logging or tourism or both. We were in.
The first thing you do when you get to the sanctuary is watch a couple of videos: One that basically tells you not to be an idiot around the elephants, and a heartbreaking one with graphic information about the abuse and mistreatment of elephants in logging camps and tourist operations. The elephants don’t seem to mind giving rides, but those seats with people on them can weigh 500 pounds. And bathing with the elephants seems cool, but making elephants do anything that’s not their idea can involve coercion that includes pain. And don’t ever buy paintings by elephants. The video of how trainers hurt the elephants’ ears to make them do that brought some people to tears at the sanctuary.
Anyway, there are four elephants here: Madee and Kannika (best friends), Dok Gaew, who’s in her 60s, and Gaew Ta, who was blinded when she couldn’t work anymore. All of them were rescued from the tourism industry, and all of them but Kannika had incomprehensible injuries inflicted by humans. These days, they each have their own mahout, or handler. Their daily agenda includes eating massive quantities of fresh fruit, going on walks with their dogs (!), swimming, knocking down trees, and doing whatever THEY want.
Our day with them started with feeding them all kinds of fruit, then going for a walk while learning about their histories and their lives now.
It was cool to watch the elephants (and their dogs) in their own private… well, not LAKE exactly.. more like a mudhole. Another fact we learned: The dogs like to get into the water first, because elephants like to poop where they swim.
It was an incredible, educational morning that we didn’t want to end. And we felt good about this kind of an elephant encounter, where these animals keep their dignity and still give us some up-close interaction. The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is less than a year old, but it’s growing in infrastructure and population. It’s a project of love (and sweat) founded by Montri Todtane, a Phuket elephant camp owner, world-renowned elephant rescuer and Save Elephant Foundation founder Lek Chailert, and EARS Asia founder Louise Rogerson.
So far, I’ve done my part to help this project by buying an adorable stuffed elephant keychain and a tote bag. But that’s just a start. I highly highly recommend you visit the sanctuary if you ever find yourself in Phuket. Sign up early, though, as there’s a limit on how many people can go a day. You can give them a boost if you can’t go, by donating, too. I’d usually hesitate to promote a fundraising cause right now, as I’m about to hit many of you up to donate to my Pelotonia ride, but I believe in what the folks at the sanctuary are doing so if you can, join me in sending them some dollars here.
After three weeks of incredible experiences all over Southeast Asia, I agree with Kurt and Debbie. The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary was the absolute highlight.