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I loved Pai Lin from the second I saw her. She’s about 65, so is one of the oldest girls at the Centre. The first day I got up for work at 6am and checked the job board I saw I was listed to work with her. I had no idea of her disposition at that point, but volunteers were told not to enter her enclosure without a mahout present – as was the case with most of the elephants. Back when Pai Lin first arrived at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand her true mahout came with her; the guy who had been working with her on the streets for years and years. One day he left the Centre, and apparently she has not been the same since then. She won’t walk as far as she used to when she gets taken out to forage, she is definitely less reliable and does not listen to the other mahouts as much, and she is terrified of many other animals and people. She especially dislikes See Puak – Pai Lin will retreat into the bushes of her large enclosure if See Puak (who shares a neighbouring exhibit) comes up to the dividing fence.
I would sit most afternoons up in the elephant tower and watch the elephants in the dry sunlight. I noticed that although I had been told by an employee that Pai Lin was afraid of the other elephants, she would very often stand with Somboon and Khan Kluey when they had been moved into their spare exhibit which is directly next to hers. They would stand like that for minutes and minutes – I couldn’t help but wonder what they were communicating about. Pai Lin would even let Khan Kluey sneak his trunk under the fence to touch it to her own – a genuine and gentle gesture.

Dear Pai Lin is not a full-bodied lady. She gets elephant pellets as extra supplements twice a day like Khan Kluey to help keep her weight up – but even across the few weeks I was there I noticed she just wasn’t looking the same as when I first began volunteering. She’s an old girl, to be sure, and she’s had a rough life. She would have been started in the logging industry before moving into tourism when logging became illegal. Many elephants used for trekking and rides etc. have misshapen spines and back problems – Pai Lin is no exception. Elephants don’t naturally carry anything heavy on their backs, and their bone structure has to be strong enough to hold their own weight. Years of having a litter strapped tightly around their torsos and their backs pressured with the weight of human hitchhikers does their bodies no favours. Pai Lin would have been subjected to this kind of work for decades, and you can see the unnatural bumps and curves across her spine. When we give Pai Lin a full-body scrub with her twice-daily showers we take extra care with the height of her back.

Pai Lin's 'hat' - the only thing heavier than mud I've seen her put on herself

Pai Lin’s ‘hat’ – the only thing heavier than mud I’ve seen her put on herself

I didn’t want to be biased while I was there, but Pai Lin became my sneaky favourite. I spent a lot of time up the elephant tower, which just happened to sit above her exhibit. It was rare for Pai Lin to be away from the fence during the day, so I’d often just sit in the shade near her enclosure and watch her go about her day. Her enclosure is the biggest of all the elephants’ exhibits at the Centre – it’s a huge expanse of young forest, small hills and dust baths. I’d make sure to hide food around her exhibit while she was out on a walk – the routine after Pai Lin’s walks was that you bring her back, give her some fruit and a shower, then leave her main meal of harvested vegetation out in its normal spot by her gate for when she was finished with her bath. In my final week at WFFT she was catching on. We had a couple of days that weren’t as hot as the rest, and she’d hurry her shower up, guzzle down her fruit then head off into the bush to look for any hidden treats I had left for her – it was nice to see her anticipating something positive.

I would have liked to see Pai Lin back when she was more confident with her original mahout. Now she will not come out for a walk unless she is lured with food… Which is why we would have to hold off from feeding her a lunch-time meal until after her walk was over. The whole point of walking the elephants, to me, is to get them out for a decent amount of time to forage – and for mental and other behavioural enrichment of course. In the wild elephants will spend up to 23 hours of their day foraging, whereas in a sanctuary like this all their food is prepared and almost measured out for them. Pai Lin is one of the lucky elephants at WFFT that has enough room and resources to forage if she so desired – but she really does just spend most of her time up by her gate where she is in sight of people. I suppose she never knows just when someone is going to come along with something for her.
I think the mahouts perceive the elephant walks as something very different. I get the feeling they believe walking the elephants is more for the entertainment of the volunteers, and that they don’t recognise the potential benefits of keeping the animals out foraging at their leisure for longer amounts of time. So far, if Pai Lin does decide she wants to head out, she gets walked relatively quickly through a tree plantation before the mahout leads her back to her exhibit. It is beneficial to have some kind of working relationship with the mahouts; it makes it easier to request that they wait a while and let the elephants forage for a good amount of time. While I was there, despite a huge language barrier, we managed to come to the understanding that if the elephants wanted to stay out and forage then we wouldn’t call them back to their enclosures until they were ready. Nothing was better than watching Pai Lin meander around outside. As I said, though, she has apparently lost a huge amount of confidence since her mahout left WFFT, and instead of foraging she will instead usually follow you everywhere for food. The mahouts have started hiding food in the trees or scattering it around outside on the open ground to keep her busy for a while, but it never takes her long to decide you are the better source of edible rations. At least she would get out and about, though, and I think that form of enrichment was better than nothing. Some of my favourite times with her were when we were just wandering around the WFFT grounds.
Getting her past See Puak’s enclosure for a walk was almost always an issue – whether it be coming home, or going out. Quite often another mahout would have to run over to See Puak and entice her away; See Puak couldn’t get through the barrier to where Pai Lin would be walking, but poor Pai Lin obviously didn’t feel comfortable around her at all. During one of my first days at the Centre I was watching the mahouts try to bring Pai Lin back to her enclosure, and she wouldn’t budge from where she was standing. Pai Lin’s enclosure is past See Puak and Duanphen’s exhibit, and there is no way to get her back in there without walking alongside their fenceline. The mahouts tried food, they tried pushing her (how one pushes an elephant with success I have yet to see!), they didn’t resort to pain – for which I was glad – but they did end up opening See Puak’s gate and bringing the other elephant out. Well, that got Pai Lin moving – she truly hurried straight back to her own enclosure. I was sad that they had to use fear as a tactic to get her moving. So many times I looked at the way the elephants at the Centre were managed and thought about how certain things could be changed. It would take work, patience and consistency though – and I don’t know if staff would be willing to put all that in for something that seems to go ok most of the time.

I think I miss Pai Lin most of all. I worry about her, too. I wonder if an elephant like her could ever bond to someone and feel safe around them again. She’s 65, she has spent so much of her life serving people and being solely under the direction of a mahout who has since left her… I only hope that she is somewhat happy. I’m sure she is happier than what she used to be, and now she has a good diet, good care, no longer has to work… but I still feel a huge sadness when I think about her. I guess she is a good reminder of why we have to strive to be better. I’m planning on heading back to the Centre next year – I hope I will see her again when I’m back.