As February approaches, I have begun thinking more and more about the upcoming journey to Thailand and what it might bring. There is a mixture of excitement, nerves and relief. I can’t help but wonder what took me so long to go adventuring abroad after my 2010 Oregon internship, although I know things in life tend to crop up when you least expect them. For a long time it was a matter of finding a suitable job I could settle into. Working two or three part-time jobs to keep myself occupied and my bank account looking less horrific was not the easiest task. I felt tired most of the time and found that scrambling to make an acceptable income was not ideal; finding one permanent full-time job became my highest priority. Then came a flat, then it was incorporating more of different aspects into my timetable that would nurture my happiness. And finally, with things organised a little more clearly, I was able to realise that instead of stressing over where to work and what country to live in I could focus on fuelling my ultimate, but perhaps uncommon, passion.
Doing a job you love or have some passion about makes it more worthwhile. I have worked in various animal industries that differ greatly, but have found a similarity with all of them; I am most happy and satisfied when I get to use skills that allow me to care or nurture. That’s why kitten fostering has been so great – these little animals that would otherwise have had lives filled with burden and stress have developed into beautifully healthy, relaxed and content beings. There is no small amount of work that goes into their care to encourage such development, but it is a delight to be able to realise how far they have come. Likewise, with veterinary nursing I have more enjoyed post-operative or hospital care as opposed to the actual theatre side of things, and working with primates at a zoo I loved how with any of the species you could still feel connected and able to relate in some way.
Elephants are species a lot of us also feel we can relate to. Their collective intelligence is well known, as is the suggestion of their emotional sentience – perhaps this is why many of us feel so drawn to such creatures. We can relate to their experiences of ‘joy’ and ‘grief’, and this helps us understand some of their behaviour. They are also awe-inspiring; not only through their massive strength and ability but with their common tender mannerisms as well. There is definitely something special about them, something that reminds me of dolphins – a certain feeling of familiarity, perhaps? I have never been close enough to a dolphin to look into one’s eyes but it is well-known people often describe feeling recognition at these times. Back when I was working at Auckland Zoo there were two Asian elephants, Kashin and Burma, under the Zoo’s care. The few interactions I had with them could be described the same way – you could not help but feel a sense of familiarity and understanding, and even that they understand us humans to a degree as well. But, all that is very anthropomorphic, and I believe we should never become as arrogant as to say that we truly understand such animals.
So, my experience with elephants has been fairly limited. I am looking forward to changing this through the upcoming journey – and am interested to see how I adapt to the cultural changes I will no doubt face. The Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand Elephant Refuge & Education Centre is located in a rural part of Phetchaburi Province that has only been exposed to westerners for the past few years. I have never been to any Asian country, and I am sure I will find living there for almost two months very different and probably quite out of my comfort zone. But this is why along with nerves and excitement I also feel relief at the upcoming prospect – I cannot wait to get away from our so-called rat-race that can take over a lot of our lives. It is so easy to turn away from situations that perhaps we don’t feel affect us, but I personally think I have gone too long without contributing something to a cause that may not directly affect me (yet I still believe in its importance).
I don’t know much about the life of working elephants, but I am aware it is not at all optimal. I am a firm believer in wild animals not being kept as pets or for labour in any situation, and elephants have become a huge tourist attraction in many places. There are hundreds of elephants forced to live in Bangkok and other cities in Thailand. Some are ex-logging elephants who once had to work in deforestation, but with logging now illegal their mahouts (the personal ‘carer’ of the elephant) were forced to utilise their elephants in other ways – often this is through street begging. Something I only recently read out about, however, is the process through which humans try to ‘domesticate’ these elephants used as tourist attractions. Taking young elephants from the wild is common, and often involves the slaughter of their mothers and others in the herd. The young elephants are then ‘broken-in’ in a practice called “Phajaan”. Phajaan literally means “the crush” – it is the tradition of dominating an elephant through mental and physical torture. Elephants are strung up, starved and tortured, and through this it is believed their spirits are broken and they eventually become obedient and domesticated. I would hope anyone reading this would find the idea of this barbaric, but the reality is that tourists actually support this practice – many of the elephants you ride on at ‘parks’ and other attractions have gone through this exact routine. It is appalling, and I wish people would think more when making decisions of what to support when travelling.
WFFT is a refuge for several ex-street elephants who were rescued and given a place at the sanctuary along with their mahouts and the mahouts’ families. The animals will never have to work again and instead spend their days in a habitat as close to their natural environment as possible with adequate veterinary care, enrichment, daily foraging and bathing opportunities and freedom from harm and stress. They range from only a few years old to over sixty, and I know most of them have had to go through Phajaan at some point in their lives (one of the elephants went through it when he was only one year old, which is ridiculously young). I anticipate that I will be rather saddened when I meet them and learn more of their histories, but as with the wolves at the White Wolf Sanctuary I will be able to relish in the fact that they are now free from past burdens and I am contributing something to their current wellbeing.