Elephant abuse in Nepal: Are the mahouts really to blame?

It’s easy to look at an elephant shackled by both front feet to the ground, with open wounds, and blame the mahout.

But I challenge you to learn the facts.

Elephants belong to hotel owners

In Chitwan, Nepal, mahouts do not own elephants. Elephants are the private property of hotel owners, who use them to augment their income by offering elephant back safaris to overnight guests and daytrippers coming to Chitwan in search of fun and adventure.

Elephant back safaris not only provide a bountiful financial benefit for the owner, they are actually the life’s blood of Chitwan.

In Sauraha, Chitwan’s tourist destination, every shopkeeper, restaurant owner, hotel, bar, service provider, wilderness guide, money changer, street vendor and orphanage owe their survival to these elephants. Without elephant safaris, this tourist destination would cease to exist.

Grueling work schedule

All day long, 24/7, mahouts and elephants give safari rides in the community forest.

Mahouts train, feed and ready the elephants for the rides. It is a grueling job for both.  Up at 4:30am, the pair sets out on the long trek to the safari loading area as the rising sun lights up the morning sky.

During what is supposed to be a one-hour lunch and rest period, the elephants instead are taken to a riverfront area where tourists mount them to have their photo taken.

Walking back and forth to the safari ride area, tourist bathing area and home stable, while carrying hundreds of pounds of tourists for hours at a time, takes its toll on elephant and mahout alike.

At dusk, and even into the dark of night, elephants can be seen silhouetted against the sky trudging down the paved roads of Chitwan toward their home stable.

Mahouts: Overworked, underpaid and devalued

Elephant owners know nothing about elephants and rely on the mahouts to keep the elephants alive and working without killing tourists. This is a heavy burden to put on overworked, underpaid and devalued employees.

When mahouts “ask for more,” be it food for themselves or the elephants, they are chastised. Many owners view the mahouts as stupid, uneducated and unmotivated and blame them for the elephant’s unsanitary living conditions and poor health.

Yet mahouts are not provided even the most basic supplies to ensure the health and wellbeing of the elephants in their care. Owners fail to supply nutritious food but blame the mahouts for the elephant’s poor health. Stables are rancid cesspools because no provision is made for waste disposal. Many stables don’t even have a source of fresh water. For this, the mahout is unjustly blamed.

A marginalized community

The truth is that the mahouts are a marginalized community. The custom of treating them as poorly as the elephants is woven into the fabric of society and their living conditions are a mirror image of those of the elephants.

Mahouts learn their trade on the job, from senior mahouts. Their lot in life dictates they do as they are told without question. They hit the elephants because they are taught they must in order to ensure the elephant does not kill them.

Still, this does not excuse how the mahouts mistreat the elephants.

Abuse can be eliminated

Through education and culture shifting, elephant abuse can be eliminated.

Demonizing either owners or mahouts is not the solution.

The first step is understanding why the situation exists and accepting the challenge to help move culture forward.

Owners must be held responsible and mahouts educated.

This will result in improved welfare for the elephants in Chitwan.

How we can help

Developing sustainable assistance programs is essential. Live demonstrations, educational resources such as videos and manuals, translators and hands-on assistance are needed to improve mahout knowledge and understanding of new approaches to elephant care.

This is Elephant Aid International’s mission. By providing bi-annual foot trimming; training mahouts and vet techs in the skill of foot trimming; teaching positive reinforcement training philosophy and techniques; and constructing chain-free corrals, we are laying the foundation for positive change.

EAI doesn’t blame the mahouts. We give them the tools necessary to take better care of their elephants. Click here to sponsor a mahout.

December 18, 2012 – E-Newsletter

I am back in Nepal. So much has happened during my first month here!

I accepted a kind offer from the National Trust for Nature Conservation’s Biodiversity Conservation Center to live on-grounds. It was a good decision. There is always something interesting going on, local and foreign students visiting and opportunities to learn about the work of the many conservationists on NTNC-BCC’s staff.

We have already trimmed feet at the two government Centers, NTNC and some private stables, but foot trimming has taken a back seat to other projects for now.

Expanding the chain-free corral in a big way

When I arrived, the first order of business was identifying a location for an additional chain-free corral at NTNC-BCC for Man Kali and her new calf.  After I described my long-term aspirations for NTNC’s elephants, senior staff suggested that we petition to expand our chain-free corral pilot project to include the entire hattisar (elephant compound). I was deliriously happy with the idea that we might be given permission to convert the entire hattisar all at once.

Chitwan National Park’s chief warden and senior veterinarian, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation’s ecologist and NTNC’s officer-in-charge explored the idea and unanimously endorsed it. The project is scheduled to begin December 15th.

The funds to build the expanded corral were donated by EAI’s dedicated supporters including a most generous and timely donation from the Harrison Sanford Jackson estate. This donation has come at the perfect time for EAI to make a serious impact on elephant welfare in Nepal with this chain-free hattisar, the first of its kind in the country.


Not only does the chain-free corral expansion mean that all six NTNC-BCC hattisar elephants will never again be shackled, the design enables them to socialize with each other.

Reuniting the family

Knowing the importance of the mother and calf bond, you can imagine how excited I was when Dr. Gairhe, Chitwan National Park’s senior government veterinarian, suggested that the family group at NTNC be allowed to live together in the same corral.

Even though Prakriti Kali and her mother both live in the same hattisar, they have not been allowed to socialize for four years, since Prakriti Kali was formally trained. This practice of separation is traditional, meant to break the mother/calf bond.

But onlookers can see that the bond between Prakriti Kali and her mother is still strong. On occasion when they are relatively close, Prakriti Kali rumbles, her mom responds and Prakriti Kali instantly assumes a posture that the mahouts refer to as “four feet together”: an awkward, stereotypical posture she exhibits when she appears to be soliciting comfort.

Dr. Gaihre’s recommendation and the blessing of PasPat, the mahout supervisor, means that Prakriti Kati will be reunited with her biological mother after four years of separation. She will also meet her baby brother Hem Gaj, for the very first time. Together the three will share a chain-free space designed specifically for them.

Anyone who has witnessed the reunion of Shirley and Jenny

in the award-winning documentary “The Urban Elephant” can imagine what this reunion will look and sound like. Elephant reunions–there is nothing more moving.

And be sure to watch this short video  about our work in Nepal, and hear from Prakriti Kali aka Sweetie Kali’s mahout about the difference a chain-free corral has made in her life.

A life lost to herpes

Shortly after I arrived in Nepal, a two-year-old calf at the Government Breeding Center succumbed to the herpes virus. This insidious disease is relatively new to Nepal but has claimed the lives of many captive-born elephants in the US, where extensive research is being conducted.

The loss of any elephant is heart wrenching, but to lose a baby is particularly difficult. The mahouts were quite obviously grief stricken as they gathered in near-silence to bury one of the youngest members of their family. Incense was burned and prayers given as the mahouts dropped flowers into her grave. One of the young veterinarians in attendance said that the mahouts view the elephant as having personhood status. To them, losing this calf was the same as losing a family member.

Since herpes is a virus, there is no vaccination to guard against it. It appears and kills quickly, usually within days of the first signs (lethargy and dark spots on the tongue). The medication prescribed to help combat the disease has had mixed results and, as I found out, is not available in Nepal. Thankfully, our friends at Wildlife SOS-India came to our rescue.  Dr. Yaduraj spent days locating the volume of drug required. After three shippers refused to ship to Nepal, he found one who was willing. There was one last delay—when the package was returned to Wildlife-SOS for additional address information—then it was finally sent on its way. Our sincerest thanks go to Dr. Yaduraj for his assistance purchasing and shipping the medication to us.

Getting accurate weights in case

 All babies and their mothers at the breeding center were weighed. If any of the babies become ill, Dr. Gaihre will be able to prescribe an accurate dose of medicine.

If treatment is needed, the veterinarian must know the patient’s weight in order to prescribe the accurate dose of medication. It was decided that all the elephants should be weighed in the event another baby is stricken with the virus. There is a scale on-grounds but the elephants needed to be trained to step onto the platform.  They all did great but the calves were especially fabulous. They all took their turn to step onto the platform. None showed a bit of fear; each of them walked confidently across the platform to receive a tasty treat.

Checking tongues

As an added precautionary measure, the babies were also trained for tongue examinations, a simple and painless procedure to detect the disease in its early stages.

The babies were willing participants in the Compassionate Elephant Care training method http://www.elephantaidinternational.org/CEM.php, which uses only positive reinforcement. Within three days all the calves were happily laying their trunk back across their forehead and sticking out their tongue for their reward: a juicy orange slice. With the trunk and tongue in this position mahouts can easily examine the calf’s tongue for abnormalities.

EAI paid for a shipment of medication used to combat herpes and worked with mahouts to show them how to train the babies for tongue examinations.

The mahouts are now checking the babies’ tongues twice a day–once in the morning before going to the forest and then again in the evening when they return. Hopefully the virus will not strike again but, if it does, the mahouts’ vigilance could make all the difference.

Still fighting for Mali

Efforts to move Mali from her solitary existence in a zoo in the Philippines to a sanctuary in Thailand continue. An op ed by Carol comparing Mali’s life to that of Tina, who came to live at The Elephant Sanctuary, appeared this summer in a paper in the Philippines .  Since then, Carol’s op ed has also appeared in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times  and, most recently, the Bangkok Post

And now we are three

EAI will soon celebrate its third anniversary. It’s hard to believe we have come so far and accomplished so much in such a short period of time.

We have been able to do so much – and have such an impact – because you share our dream and continue to support the important work we do. With so many needy elephants in situations that, at times, are overwhelming, it is essential to know that you are backing our efforts to make life better for captive-held elephants in Asia.

It doesn’t matter if we are building chain-free corrals, teaching mahouts to handle their elephants in a gentler manner, providing pedicures to any elephant in need or stockpiling medicine to treat baby elephants infected with the herpes virus, you are always there to make sure that we are able to provide swift and humane assistance, one elephant at a time.

We cannot do it without you. At a time when elephants are fighting for their very existence across Asia and Africa, you help EAI make a real difference. I know you will remember these hardworking and many times neglected elephants in your year-end giving.

2013 promises to be another year of challenges and change for the better. I look forward to continuing our work together.

Happy Holidays and Namaste,


Drag Chains and Training

Elephant’s World posted two videos on YouTube last week of me training a young elephant named Jon (you can view them here and here). I was surprised to see the videos and happy to know they exist.

Many people found the videos interesting and some have asked why Jon is wearing a chain. The chain is called a drag chain; in Asia it is used to prevent an elephant from running away. One end of the long chain is fastened around an elephant’s wrist and the other end drags behind.

When a mahout is afraid that his elephant will run away, he puts a drag chain on him. If the elephant runs, the mahout wraps the loose end of the chain around a tree to stop him.

The mahouts at Elephant’s World were resistant to non-dominance training and even more resistant to removing Jon’s drag chain. In order to be allowed to demonstrate positive reinforcement target training, I agreed to the drag chain for the first two sessions. One end of the chain was on Jon’s ankle and the other end was loose.

My adherence to their tradition gave the mahouts time to get comfortable with the new training method I offered. They observed firsthand that Jon was more interested in the training game than in trying to get away.

Jon showed such promise that after the second training session the mahouts agreed to remove the chain.

There have also been questions about the “stick” used during training. The stick, or target as it is called, is a flexible pole with a soft cushion on the end. If you view my training tutorial you will see how the target is used and learn the basic concept of target training.

The goal is to teach an elephant the name/word for different body parts, such as foot, head, ear, side, etc. Once understood—which takes most elephants only minutes to grasp—the elephant will voluntarily offer that body part when asked. The key is to ask, not demand, and always provide praise and a treat as a reward.

Before watching the videos of Jon’s training sessions, I suggest that you view the tutorial a couple of times. Then watch Jon’s first training session and see if you can identify what body parts Jon is learning. Notice that when Jon becomes frustrated he walks away, but returns almost immediately to try again.

Positive Reinforcement Target training gives the elephant the freedom to walk away, take a moment to reflect on what is happening and return when he is ready to try again. Walking away reduces frustration and increases the elephant’s willingness to participate.

You will also notice in the video that Jon offers behaviors–kneel and lie down. This is common in initial training sessions. Many times the elephant will offer what s/he already knows before starting to “problem solve” and figure out what the trainer is trying to teach.

Learning to think for themselves is the first thing the elephants learn. After that, training is a breeze.

Wildlife SOS – INDIA

During this trip to India I basically sequestered myself in Bannerghatta, singularly focused on the care center project. As my pending departure loomed I realized that I had failed to visit other projects. There really is so much to see—elephant welfare-wise—in India, I was kicking myself for not setting aside time to further my education.

Literally days before my visa was to expire I received an email invitation from Kertick and Geeta of Wildlife SOS to visit their facilities in Agra. True to my nature, I hesitated at first — not because I did not want to visit their bear and elephant facility but because my flight was already booked and I did not want to pay the flight change fee.

Fortunately, my flight from Bangalore to Kathmandu had a plane change in Delhi, the airport I needed to fly into for Wildlife SOS. I was able to postpone the second leg of the flight, giving me almost three days to spend with the Wildlife SOS staff at both their bear and elephant facilities.

The visit would have been perfect if Kertick and Geeta were in the country but they were in California, presenting at the PAWS elephant summit and other venues. In their absence their expert staff took care of all arrangements, which made my visit very comfortable. I hope Geeta, Ketrick and I will meet in the next few weeks, as they plan to come to Nepal to observe my work in Sauraha.

The work Geeta, Kertick and staff have done to rescue and rehabilitate dancing bears is nothing short of miraculous. The facilities are well designed, with expansive yards, spotless night houses and a dedicated and knowledgeable team of caregivers and veterinarians.
I was in the education hut sitting on a couch viewing one of many informative videos about dancing bears and the plight of other Indian wildlife, when something—light as a feather—touched my shoulder. I assumed it was an insect and reached up to gently brush it away without taking my eyes off the screen.

Without a sound or advance warning more than the gentle shoulder tap that I mistook for an insect, something much heavier than an insect, maybe four or five pounds, warm and hairy, jumped onto my head. I froze and whatever-it-was froze. I had no idea what it was. It was completely silent and warm, grasping my hair in what felt like many tiny hands.

Not being able to see what was perched on my head was indeed unnerving, and no one else seemed to be around. I trusted that I would not have been put into this room alone with anything dangerous so I considered my options. Yelling for assistance was out. Reaching up to remove my head ornament seemed risky. And waiting for someone to come to my rescue seemed unrealistic.

My decision was to slowly reach towards my head to see what would happen. The “thing” leapt from my head across the room to a chair and then back to my head again. Her movement was quick but as she was flying through the air getting ready to land on my head again I saw the “thing” was a young capuchin monkey.

Even though I am comfortable with captive wild animals I respect them by keeping my distance because I feel interaction is not in their best interest. But this little creature obviously felt differently. She leap froged from her chair to my head a couple of times and then remained perched on my head. With no staff in sight I realized I would need to deal with this little bundle of curious energy on my own. I was not opposed, I just did not want to do anything wrong, not having been around a primate before.

Gently untangling my hair from her tiny fingers she allowed me to remove her from my head and lower her to the couch. We looked at each other—too cute is all I can say—as she ever so confidently climbed into my lap, took hold of my hand and placed on her belly. There was no misunderstanding this gesture — she wanted a tummy rub.

I admit to being in heaven while at the same time wondering how I could justify having a monkey in my lap. In the end I did not try to justify it, I simply accepted the experience as the gift it was and enjoyed every second she remained in my lap. A few minutes later one of the resident Great Dane rescues showed up, sending her dashing from the room.

Escorted by staff veterinarians we first toured the bear facilities and then drove a short distance to the temporary elephant facility. Set up on five or six acres of land, the elephant facility is a good start for the rescued elephants. The facility is well designed, with stables for shade and nighttime, sand piles to avoid hard surfaces, a steel corral stable for bulls and a circular concrete pool that is the high point of everybody’s day.

It was amusing to watch Rajesh, a beautiful full-grown bull with massive tusks, submerged for hours, gently bobbing around in the pool.

I did a little foot care and target training to give the vets, mahouts and elephants an idea of what was to come in the future. The mahouts have already changed how they work with the elephants to a great degree. The harsh tone and demanding commands are still used but the ankus and infliction of pain are not. I could see the mahouts are being won over to other ways of working with their elephants — it was exciting to see the progress they have already made.

Kartick and Geeta have plans to move the elephants to a very large tract of land. I have decided to accept their invitation to be involved in this project and recommend that you visit their site and support their work for rescued bears and elephants.


a need for change, right here at home

I recently returned from a lengthy trip to Asia, where I taught traditional mahouts (trainers) a gentler, more humane way of training and working with captive elephants.

Viewing the undercover video exposing the abuse of Tai, the elephant star of “Water for Elephants,” was unnerving. The techniques circus trainers in America use are identical to the traditional, antiquated and abusive methods of breaking and training elephants used by mahouts in Asia that have been handed down for centuries.

As in Asia, American circuses embody tradition, animal abuse for public entertainment. Being involved in the circus for nearly fifteen years gave me ample exposure to this abuse. Even though we have made huge advances in our knowledge about elephant intelligence and suffering, this tradition has, sadly, thus far failed to evolve.

There is an alternative to these harsh training methods, if indeed elephants must be trained. I am pioneering the field of positive reinforcement training in the traditional free contact environment in Asia. Although I do not condone the commercial use of elephants, I am realistic enough to know that my personal concerns will not put a stop to the shows and rides that exploit elephants there. Only through education targeted at elephant trainers, mahouts, and the insatiable public can the abuse be curtailed and eventually stopped.

It is uncanny that Tai’s abuse was exposed as result of her portrayal of an abused elephant in “Water for Elephants.” By enforcing existing regulations and strengthening laws to protect the innocent, the antiquated training practices of the circus in America can be eradicated.

I am of the firm belief that if the only way an elephant can be on public display is to be dominated with harsh control methods then we, as a society, are required to forfeit the opportunity to have elephants in captivity.

checking in at ENP

My return flight to Los Angeles leaves from Bangkok, which was the perfect excuse to go back to Elephant Nature Park one more time to see the progress made by Chang Yim and Karl.

Yim never ceases to impress me. He has made yet another transition from Karl to his new mahout, Lai. Karl has worked diligently over the past many weeks training Lai, and Yim has been a real trouper. There is no doubt in my mind that Chang Yim will miss the special relationship between him and Karl, but Yim has a bigger mission. He has the opportunity to teach a “traditional” mahout a different way, a more humane and gentler way to manage him and his family members. This move from Karl to Lai is actually quite monumental in the big picture…Yim is the catalyst for change. I am so proud to know him.

In addition to satisfying my curiosity about Yim’s progress, my return to ENP was to give Karl some pointers on training the elephants to place their leg on the trimming stool recently built for back foot trims. Once the elephants are trained, I will be able to return and finish the foot care clinic I started.

Mae Tee and Mae Kham Geao were our first students. The initial hurdle was getting the ladies to start thinking for themselves, no easy task for elephants who for decades had been conditioned not to think. The training was slow and at times appeared to be at a standstill, but, I could see the wheels slowly beginning to turn in their heads. Patience was the key.

After two days, my time at the park was up. Karl was well on his way to conditioning Mae Tee and Mae Kham Geao to voluntarily lift their back legs, a requirement in order to slide a trimming stood underneath for support. I felt torn leaving—I always do—but I had confidence that Karl would do just fine.

Today, a little before four, I received a call from Karl. At first I was apprehensive because Faa Mai is experiencing some unidentified health issue. But the news was all good: Faa Mai seems a little better. But the reason Karl had called was not to update me on Faa Mai, it was to tell me that Mae Tee and Mae Kham Geao got it! They were lifting their back legs off the ground and suspending them in the air when asked. The both of them!

What do you bet they talked about it over the past two days? It comes as no surprise that both ladies, dear friends who spend all their time together, figured out what Karl wanted in the same training session. Karl was so pleased, and WOW — what can I say. I am so proud of everyone involved in this work: Karl, Dam (the Maes’ mahout), Jody and Sophie (treat givers) and especially Maes Tee and Kham Geao, the ladies of the hour. I sure wish I could have been there to share in the cheers and congratulations showered on the ladies, but I was there in spirit. Planting the seed and seeing it grow, one World, one elephant at a time — in this case, two elephants at a time!

Seeds of Change

April 13

My work in Sauraha has come to an end, at least for the time being.  Seeds of change have been planted. From the looks of it, some seeds are already growing, quietly shifting the soil around their sprouting roots. Experiencing the fruits of my labor so instantaneously fills me with hope.

Yesterday when Kiran and I arrived for Bhadra’s morning session we were told that Ramji, his mahout, was off making preparations for the New Year’s Day celebration. I jumped at the chance to work with Bhadra in Ramji’s absence.  But my excitement was quickly doused when Bhadra made it perfectly clear that he would work with me but under protest.

After completing each request Bhadra would do a mini mock lunge from behind the protective barrier. It seemed that he was clearly bothered about something to do with me. He was responding but being snotty. I have seen this type of behavior before when training a new mahout who struggles to keep pace with an advanced elephant student. I did not make that analogy until sometime later.

The next day, the motivation behind Bhadra’s behavior became apparent. In our absence, Ramji had risen to a challenge from Kiran to prove his skill with Bhadra within three months. The ultimate goal: to show everyone how far he could take Bhadra with positive reinforcement training.

Ramji proved his skills beyond question when he surprised us by calling Bhadra from the protection of the corral and proceeded to ask him to present his feet and ears, move to the side, back up and put his head down. I was stunned. They were fabulous. Ramji, all cool, calm, and collected, Bhadra listening intently and responding to each verbal cue. I wish you could have been there to see it for yourself, but I did catch it on video. This type of breakthrough must be documented in order for others to believe.

Needless to say, Kiran was pleasantly surprised at the immediate progress in less than a week!  Ramji obviously took the challenge seriously, resulting in a display that had me grinning from ear to ear, joyful with disbelief.

Ramji earned much deserved respect today, and Bhadra…well, he already has my heart. He has now joined the ranks of the “MIGHTY TYKES,” the young elephants in Thailand and now Nepal participating in this important case study of positive reinforcement training. These youngsters are the hope of the future: what they teach us and their mahouts will shape elephant training of the future. They are demonstrating how positive reinforcement training can be used with captive elephants in a hands-on working situation.  We owe them and their mahouts a great debt of gratitude.

Kiran knew instinctively that witnessing Bhadra and Ramji’s incredible accomplishments would make my day, my last in Sauraha. It was wonderful to see how proud he was. Kiran has been an invaluable asset throughout the training process. I doubt he realizes the role he has played in this cultural shift of mahout attitudes, which has the potential to change the future for captive elephants. The future is bright indeed.

I left Sauraha today with a heavy heart, heavy with the joy of knowing that we have planted a seed. I for one cannot wait to see how it grows.

a fiery red head

I’ve got a new heartthrob. He is smart, dark and seriously handsome, with a full head of fiery red hair! Admittedly on the young side, Bhadra still lives with his mom and spends the entire day gallivanting in the Chitwan National Forest.

We met two days ago and have spent only limited time together but let me tell you this little boy is smart. He is my latest ele-student, one year old and full of spunk and sweetness. There goes another piece of my heart!

Bhadra lives at a private resort on the border of Chitwan National Park with his mother, his sister and other non-related family. The resort has been closed for a couple of years, making life that much easier on this elephant family. No tourist rides, just lazy days in the forest and short training sessions, when Bhadra gets to demonstrate to his mahouts what elephants are capable of when trained through positive reinforcement.

The mahouts have been fabulous, very interested and engaged. Bhadra has only had four 15-minute sessions over the past two days and now responds to agot (come here) and ra (stand still), and presents his pow (foot), kan (ear) and thuk mud (head) when asked. Things were a little slow getting started because Bhadra surprised me by not liking bananas or apples. His mahouts knew exactly what he would like — molasses. One taste of the favored treat and he was all ears, head and feet!

What a blessing it has been to work with him. Hopefully together we have planted a seed with these young mahouts.

a powerful lesson

I am back in Sauraha, feeling like I have come full circle. For the past week I have trimmed feet at the government center. The majority of elephants who have received pedicures are adult males used for night patrol in the forest to protect wildlife from poachers. Their lives are far removed from their birthright but at least they spend a portion of their time walking on the soft forest floor, taking in the sights and sounds of the natural world. They are a shadow of their true selves; where those selves have gone, I don’t know.

Today I began work at the elephant breeding center, another government project in Chitwan. I was disappointed to leave behind the mahouts I had spent the previous week training, but felt confident that these mahouts would learn as quickly.

Most of the elephants at the breeding center are young, as you would expect: there are fewer adult males and lots of females and young calves. The first thing I noticed is that the mahouts are not as gentle or patient as the mahouts at the government center. It registered as I realized I was hearing the thump thump thump of a stick hitting a young male on the head.

I was reminded of the wise words of Karl, a fellow elephant caregiver at the Elephant Nature Park. I am paraphrasing, but his words went something like: “Even when we think we are helping elephants, many times it is more about us than about them.”

Karl’s words came to me loud and clear as I was trimming the feet of a young elephant. I was so intent on providing a service that I ignored the fact that he was suffering because of me. He was quite frightened to lie down for the pedicure, and the mahouts were insensitive to his fear.

When I finally allowed myself to realize what was happening, I froze in my tracks. What good could my help possibly be if this little elephant was being hurt to enable me to do my work?

I took a step back to reevaluate the situation. Even though I was not participating in the abuse, I allowed it to happen, and in that way I was a party to it. Karl’s words helped me to see my error; I want to make sure that no elephant is harmed in my presence or as part of my giving assistance.

I owe Karl a great deal for his wisdom and plan to be more conscious from this moment forward. Just because the mahouts have no concept of na pit neu (don’t hit) is no reason for me to assume they cannot learn.

My next pedicure session is in a couple of hours. I plan to bring a bag of treats for the young male, learn his name and have his mahout lie him down without hitting him. I will then instruct the mahout to give the elephant the treats as I apologize to him for my insensitivity. I will not trim his feet; only give him the opportunity, perhaps for the first time in his captive life, to experience what it feels like to be respected.

leaving Elephant’s World and Jon

Sitting in the passenger seat of the bright orange son tough (vehicle), the solo passenger bouncing down the dusty road, I left Elephant’s World. The tornado of emotion swirling inside made me dizzy, happy, sad, thankful, torn, already longing for the family I am leaving behind.

The last three days have been trying. Jon is in detention. He is fighting against the restraints of control being put upon him. Being as respectful as possible, I have made every effort to find common ground with management and the mahouts in order to ensure that Jon receive proper care during this critical time. They are not beating him, nor being overtly cruel, but they are punishing him by tightening the reins of control and reducing his freedom. They are mirroring their forefathers, who taught that disobedience results in punishment, which in this case requires deprivation.

Today was especially hard because I knew I was leaving. I felt I had failed Jon and the mahouts, and struggled for inspiration. I spent time observing the elephants in the morning. We were alone — the mahouts had gone to collect fodder and there were no tourists on grounds. I found myself melting into the elephants’ rhythm. It took no effort to feel their boredom, their thirst and their hunger. Their resignation hung heavy in the air.

In a near meditative state I found myself thinking about the mahouts and their families, living in their simple bamboo huts. Laundry hanging on bamboo rods to dry in the open air. Breathtakingly colorful violets draped from the rickety porch shaded by scraps of shade cloth. I thought about this for a long time. I tried to feel how it would feel to live here, to be here, to know nothing else. Would I yearn for something different? Do they yearn for something else? Or are they content, surrounded by their families and friends and their elephants?

Drawn back to the massive gods chained in front of me, I wondered if my need to help them resulted from an unrealistic personal projection, or could it be that they too recognize the lack of freedom of choice they live with day after day. The peaceful river flowed nearly silent on one side of me, while tethered elephants simply existed on the other. On the river side, life is abundant, rich with texture and color, teaming with bugs, darting birds, the swirling current and the wind. On the other side, a colorless one-dimensional backdrop of dust covered half dead trees rooted in a barren carpet of dehydrated earth devoid of vegetation did nothing to enhance the elephants, who were deep in the escape they have mastered, nearly void of life from being left on chains for nearly every hour of every day. They don’t even sway — they just breathe, hardly existing.

Being kept on chains creates a disconnect that cuts an elephant off from the natural world and, as result, their own nature. They look so out of place. Watching them, I’m sure the elephants know the difference between here and their real home, and they realize that the choice is not theirs. Some rebel, some accept and others go insane. I wonder if the mahouts ever feel this way.

Piza knew I was sad about leaving with Jon still incarcerated. Over the past three days, I asked about Jon’s food, water and chain-free time at every opportunity. Piza was always polite and kind and explained the current plan as best he could.

I had delayed my departure to the very last moment so I could see the elephants in the river one last time. I heard a familiar playful voice call out to Jon and spun around in its direction. I couldn’t believe it — Jon was running full speed ahead, hobbled, with drag chain trailing behind, making a beeline for the river and the other elephants. He was a whirlwind of energy, like a tornado, spinning rapidly while steadily moving forward. Piza had intentionally released Jon for the river, standing a few feet behind, wearing that “I love Jon, too” grim that stretches across his entire face.

I was overjoyed. What a sight Jon was, running FAST, glancing back at Piza every few seconds to make sure he was not being followed too closely. He was ready for this mad dash to the river; he had waited all day for it. My heart burst seeing the look on Jon’s face: he was ecstatic, about to explode with excitement. He did not slow as he approached the river and nearlycreated a tidal wave when he plowed into the water at full speed.

I looked at Piza. He had a cheeky look on his face and I realized that he had allowed Jon to go to the river for me. Piza knows how deeply I want Jon to have some freedom and I am eternally grateful that he created the situation where my last memory of Jon was watching him play with full abandon.

In the river, the scene was “watch out elephants and mahouts-on-elephants, Jon is here!” He flew into the water, eyes intense, wild in anticipation. He ran, hopped, swam and play-charged the other elephants. He literally dove into the water doing a sideways body slam not holding back an ounce of his boundless energy — he was on fire. The mahouts were on guard, but they were happy that Jon was able to experience a moment of fun as well.

Later, speeding down the paved highway toward the Kanchanaburi bus station, I found myself grateful for my time at Elephant’s World even as I pondered the plight of elephants worldwide. Can we help them? Is it possible to give them their lives back? I am optimistic because to fail them is not an option.

Because of this, I know I will go back to Elephant’s World. Not because it is a progressive facility where elephants’ needs are met first and foremost — quite the contrary. I will go back to help Elephant’s World reach these goals. They have good intentions and I believe that in the future EW will be an organization that I will proudly endorse. I will go back to help EW make a better life for Jon, for all of his elephant family and for the mahouts. This is my Kanchanaburi family and I will not forget them.

I am thankful for Jon, Piza and all the mahouts. I am especially thankful for all of you who made my unscheduled stay at Elephant’s World possible by your generous support. My life is enriched daily and today I feel like a billionaire.