With noble plans to help the poor abused elephants in Thailand, Gillian Kendall learns that voluntourism works best when it reshapes your ingrained perceptions.
I'd been looking forward to volunteering in the elephant village for months, yet I said the wrong thing ten minutes in.
On Christmas Eve morning in the hills north of Bangkok, the heat and humidity were just starting to put a shine on our faces and the first sweat stains on our fresh t–shirts. Along with ten other volunteers, my partner and I sat in the thatched–roofed, open–sided dining room, hunkered around a table to hear about the ElephantStay program.
The Australian managers, Eva and Michelle, explained that we would be joining in the life of the village, which centers on the World Heritage Royal Elephant Kraal and sanctuary. We would stay in the village (though in relatively luxurious, air–conditioned huts), eat meals prepared by the local women, and help take care of the retired female herd.
Eva asked each of us to introduce ourselves. Most of the volunteers came from North America, Europe, or Australia, and most said they had come because they loved animals. One woman admitted to wanting to hug and cuddle the elephants.
In my turn, I started out all right. I said I'd been given a lot during my stay in Thailand, and I wanted to give something back. Michelle and Eva nodded warmly, and so, feeling expansive, I went on. "Also," I said, "I have strong feelings about animals in captivity, especially circuses and zoos, and I'm glad of what you're doing to relieve their suffering."
Eva and Michelle exchanged a silent look, and I knew I'd made a poor choice of words. "Relieve suffering" is a catch phrase from the Buddhism 101 commitment to "end the suffering of all living beings." But my use of the words "captivity" and "suffering" in the same breath clearly displeased the managers.
Guided Pachyderm Artistry
A large gray mass appeared beyond the bushes. Walking slowly down the path beside the dining room was a mid–sized elephant, followed at a relaxed distance by its Thai mahout. All the volunteers, from doting young girl to middle–aged man, turned to ogle it. "Do the elephants like painting?" someone asked.
Michelle shrugged. "That's like asking, 'Do people like painting?' Some elephants do, some elephants don't. That's Noppakhao, and he loves it. He loves Eva, because she started the painting project with him."
We went to watch the work in progress. On a small patch of earth between the kitchen and our stilted huts stood a large easel and a few boxes of paints and brushes, arranged at chest height for a human. Seeing Eva, the elephant rumbled and showed off for her, raising a foot and wrapping his trunk around her waist. Michelle pointed out, "See? That's one of their 'tricks' they do in shows, but it's a natural thing for a happy elephant to do. We don't force them to do anything unnatural: we just get them to do it in a show for an audience."
As we watched, the mahout—a young Thai man wearing a sarong and Western t–shirt—dipped an extra–long paintbrush into green paint, and told Noppakhao to make lines. He guided the elephant's trunk to a point on the paper, and the elephant, unassisted, slowly drew a vertical line. Later, the mahout changed to yellow paint, and got Noppakhao to paint blobs on top of the green stems, creating a large, loosely drawn bunch of flowers. I was fascinated by the elephant's ability, but sorry to learn that the fabulous paintings were designed by humans.
"What happens if you just let the elephants paint whatever they want?" I asked.
"They're very sloppy," Eva said. Later, she showed me one done by an elephant without human guidance: a colorful, abstract painting something like an elephantine Jackson Pollack.
Later, Eva took us to meet the little elephants still under their mothers' care. All the "babies" used to roam freely through the camp, but they formed a gang and started playfully wrecking things—including the only refrigerator—so now they spend most of their time in a pen about the size of a ballroom. As we proffered sticks of sugar cane, five or six trunks of differing sizes weaved around us, sniffing at us and delicately touching our clothes, silently trying to remove the food from our hands.
To get closer, one of the babies clambered onto the narrow wall of the enclosure. Eva said, "See, that's something that the elephants do in performances, and people say it's cruel. It's not cruel—it's natural behavior." I could see that the baby was not under any coercion to climb on the wall, but it still didn't seem natural: would an elephant in the wild ever have reason to walk on such a small ledge? Eva thought so: she pointed out that they might walk across logs or rocks in a river. We gave out ears of corn and pieces of sugarcane judiciously, making sure that the mamas got as much as the babies.
My partner and I were assigned to a lovely, pink–spotted old girl called Pisamy. The first day, we volunteers rode with a mahout sitting behind us who could direct the animal and help the new rider. Although each mahout carried an evil–looking hook—like a large hammer with a pointed head — I didn't see any of the mahouts use them. Most of the time, the hooks were simply hung from the elephant's ear as a mahout worked nearby. And more than once, I saw an elephant reach up and quietly remove the hook and lay it on the ground, much as a woman might take out an earring.
The highlight of each day for the elephants was to walk to the river and bathe. We rode on top, swaying, sometimes singing along with the mahouts. We held tightly to the leathery ears as the animals stepped down the slab of broken concrete that provided entry to the water.
Once in the river, the elephants tended to stand and cool off, with occasional sudden immersions—they'd drop straight down like submarines. When Pisamy sank down, the mahout behind me quickly stood up on her back, so he wouldn't get wet, but I got drenched to my shoulders.
Once they'd been refreshed, the elephants played in the river, squirting each other and the people, splashing about and apparently enjoying the mahout's commands to "roll" to get us, the volunteers, to topple off into the muddy water. The mahouts could leap from back to back as if the animals were stepping–stones, but we newbies had to swim to an elephant's side and wait for it to submerge before we could clamber back on.
In one bathing session, a young mahout–in–training who was not being careful with his hook accidentally tore a hole in an elephant's ear. A trickle of blood fell down the animal's neck as it was taken off to receive treatment, and Michelle ripped into the young man, telling him off ferociously in two languages. I felt sure the mahout would never make such a mistake again.
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