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!

A fabulous progress report

Please read for yourself how well Chang Yim is doing. Indeed, he is a most amazing individual and credit must be given to Karl as well, because without his depth of understanding and motivation to better his life, Yim’s brillance would be stiffled under a cloak of dominance. Together the two are brillant!

In Karl’s words…….To the irrepressible Chang Yim! For a while now I have had his training sessions divided into pure target training from outside his pen, first thing in the morning, and a more freeform adaptation in the late afternoon, inside his pen. The morning sessions are for reinforcing already learned behaviours and for introducing new ones, and works better at this time as he is sometimes a little edgier in the mornings after a long night cooped up, and itching to get out to run and eat. So far it is working as well, or better really, than I had even hoped, and still the main problem I am facing is keeping everything moving at a pace quick enough to ensure he doesn’t become disinterested. It would really help my cause if he were a little slower on the uptake, like myself, but alas, he is sharp as a tack!! For the morning sessions, his bahaviours include; presenting all feet, front and back and left or right by request, and holding them in place until I release them, and we are currently working on him presenting feet both forwards for nail trimming, (which he has down pat) and tucked up so that the pad is exposed, as well as conditioning him to having them touched all over; presenting and holding in place his ears so that blood can be drawn -soon I will start pricking the vein with something sharp so he becomes used to the sensation of the needle; presenting his side so that he can be brought in line; presenting his tail so that any work around his back end can be done without worry about a tail that will become like a baseball bat when he is older, as well of course in case of any injury to his tail; placing his head at the target and holding in place so he can be held still and brought to where you need him; presenting his shoulder, again for the purpose of positioning; touching the target with his trunk, but he hasn’t quite got to the holding it in place point yet and still sees this as the fun point where he gets to whack the target when he’s feeling like he wants to (for which he doesn’t get the treat of course and he has improved greatly on this). The rest of the behaviours he really has nailed.

And so in the afternoon training we do all these same bahaviours, but in free contact inside the pen, and with two different sized tree stumps for feet presentations. Added to that we do coming to me, stopping in place, backing up until I whistle to stop, opening mouth for teeth examination (and to let him know how his breath smells as he is quite self-conscious about that, but he’d hate me mentioning that), turning, and we are working on grabbing and letting go of objects. For the most part, at these sessions I don’t use the target as he knows what I am asking for now, but I keep it tucked into my training pouch (sidenote: my first training pouch disappeared a couple of days ago, annoyingly, but the replacement has made up for the disappointment as it has a pouch on both sides of the belt making it easier to use either hand, and has slots that the target fits into perfectly allowing me to keep it at hand but out of his reach. Perfect!) and use it as needed which gives a good flow to the whole process. Added to that I have now started to add hand signals to the behaviours already learned, and it seems to be working well. I haven’t yet tried a behaviour with only hand signal and no command – there’s no rush after all – but he is definitely starting to make the connection, and getting him thinking has engaged him more again.

So in all, I couldn’t be happier with how he has been going in that. Frustratingly though, despite requesting otherwise, the mahouts seem to be undertaking their own training, and at the moment it seems that they all want to be Yim’s mahout, constantly stepping in on me, and always trying to get him to “do things” which really convolutes the whole process; but I am resigned to ploughing on and trusting that Yim will be able to make the divide between the two. And it seems that he can. It’s funny, as when I started 4 months ago it seemed not many were wanting to put their hand up to be Yim’s mahout, but now it’s all hands on deck. Although for many of the mahouts outside of the family group it is still a matter of taking cover whenever he gets close; but not so much for good reason anymore. Yim has been, for some time now, on his absolute best behaviour, very calm and responsive. (There is one mahout in the group that he takes every chance to go after, but I agree with him, so I’ll turn a blind eye to that for now). I am almost waiting for the next time he blows up; but he just hasn’t for weeks now -knocking on wood as I type! I had a strange thought the other day that if he doesn’t have an “episode” for a long time then will it be worse when it happens as I wont be expecting it!! What a stupid thought, right? Why can’t it be always like this? I mean, there are still disagreements, but we always seem to reach a decision that we can both live with – or else we just go with mine. (I would insert one of those winking smiley faces here, like this , but this isn’t a text message, so I wont).

Finishing up my work in Thailand

Tim Gorski of Rattle the Cage Productions spent all day yesterday at the Park, from sun up to sun down, documenting the relationship between Chang Yim and Karl, his mahout. I was thrilled when Tim decided to wave his fee…he is an authentic animal welfare advocate. Check out his site at

The footage Tim took will provide the visuals necessary for a video comparison of free-contact dominance and free-contact non-dominance elephant training. This footage will be the first of many hours collected in support of positive reinforcement training for elephants.

Oh boy, was it ever hard leaving ENP today. It was impossible to not get attached to the elephants during my stay because they absorbed me right into their family. I love and respect each one for their good humor, resilience and individuality. They are permanently embedded in my heart.  

I am on my way back to Boon Lott’s Sanctuary for one more week of foot care and positive reinforcement target training with Mee Chok. I can’t wait to see how he responds!

Som Boon

Dec 22, 2010

This morning I woke to the sad reality of death. Som Boon passed during the night. Thumbing through my notes, I see that on day two of my time at ENP I saw Som Boon and jotted down in my book that she had “small ears” and decayed teeth.

The entire time I have been at the Park, Som Boon has been experiencing health problems. First she was not eating well, and then sores developed on the roof of her mouth. More recently she was not defecating. I had the opportunity to look in her mouth and saw that her top molars were missing large areas and were black with decay.

After a brain-storming meeting with Derrick and Jodi, a long-time American volunteer who lives at the Park, Derrick ordered a shredder for Som Boon’s food.  The shredder idea came from the experience of an emaciated elephant who arrived at the Sanctuary with a very poor appetite.

When Sissy came to the Sanctuary, she had difficulty masticating her food. We used a shredder to cut her hay into small “pre-digested” pieces. After several months her appetite improved, she gained several hundred pounds and she was able to return to eating non-shredded hay.

The goal was that Som Boon would benefit from the shredded hay but, unfortunately, she had stopped eating by the time the shredder was delivered. Staff tried many approaches to get her to eat, drink and defecate, to no avail.

During her necropsy, a large blockage was discovered in her large intestine. Estimated to weight fifty pounds, the obstruction consisted of unmasticated and poorly digested pasture grass. The obstruction was completely dry, resembling a massive brick.

Som Boon had lived at ENP for more than seven years and was dearly loved by all. She will be missed by her entire ENP family.

Being with the Family

My days are filled with shadowing the “family” in the habitat and doing foot trimming and target training. I am having a blast! It really is a gift to be able to focus solely on these limited responsibilities. Even though the days are long, each brings immeasurable rewards.

Target training has really caught on. Now all the family members are joining in. It is so much fun to play the training game with a wall of eager students, ranging from senior citizens to calves. It is a riot as they jockey for the prime spot and the opportunity to respond to requests for their feet, ears, forehead and side. They all excel at moving their side into the target — it is so cute. Once they understand the request for side, they respond with a quick movement, leaving their front feet in place and swinging their hip around to make contact with the target. When they are all competing for a turn it is like a chorus line of feet and ears. What a joy!   

Getting to know the family is an unexpected experience, one I cherish deeply. Today I felt a sense of belonging to an elephant family again as I moved along with the herd, like a ripple in a stream, flowing together effortlessly across the pasture. I had not inserted myself into the family because my time here is limited, but today I felt that unnamed energy that is elephant, all inclusive, the matriarchal collective, being part of a loving family. I soaked in the acceptance they radiated, grateful for each one of these magnificent individuals.

Later I met two new Park residents, grande dames I had not had the pleasure to meet before. Much patience was required because they were so frightened by the idea of having their feet touched. The mahouts did their best to reassure them and, although I didn’t complete a full manicure, we made some progress. A little at a time — fine, I am in no hurry. My goal is for these elephants to know that when they come to my pedicure salon they will be treated kindly and with respect. If they leave without experiencing a pedicure, that is okay.

Chang Yim’s Progress Report

Chang Yim has been in training for less than two weeks. His progress has surprised everyone… except Karl and me.

Lek returned to the Park today after being away for a few days. She commented on how calm Chang Yim has become. Indeed, he has shifted, no longer an angry young boy.

Target training has helped to boost Chang Yim’s self-confidence and trust in Karl, the significant person in his life. It has been a gift to watch Chang Yim relax instead of always being on the defensive, quick to display rebellious behavior. His bouts of aggression have become an oddity instead of the norm.

 Positive reinforcement training has had a marked affect on Yim’s attitude and behavior, but other changes in his management have contributed to his improvement as well. Visitors are no longer allowed to approach him without a mahout present. No one plays the “chase me” teasing game responsible for Chang Yims pushy behavior. Inexperienced mahouts who ignorantly antagonized Chang Yim have been told that their treatment of Chang Yim is inappropriate. All of these changes have made Chang Yim feel safe.

We are very proud of Chang Yim. From his calm demeanor and sparkling eyes, it seems Chang Yim shares that pride.

the ENP pachyderm pedicure clinic is open

Nineteen elephants at ENP have been identified as candidates for foot care. The schedule is set to provide pachyderm pedicures at the hospital building twice daily.

When I was in Thailand last June I did a great deal of foot work on Mae Kham Geao.  Her nails were abscessed and pads sloughing. She was confined day and night to the hospital area with little opportunity to walk and bathe herself. Fortunately I was able to convince the veterinarian to give Mae Kham Geao and her best friend Mae Tee unrestricted daily access to the pasture and river. The results were fabulous.

It was a pleasure to see the improvement in Mae Kham Geao’s feet and her confidence in receiving her pedicure. Her pads are supple and healthy. Her nails are no longer infected but they had four months of over-growth that needed to be trimmed away.   

Mae Kham Geao’s mahout, Dame, is a kind and experienced caregiver. His interest in foot care has grown in my absence. After a few minutes of reviewing the procedure, he picked up a rasp and began to trim his elephant’s feet. His initiative and confidence will have an influence on the other mahouts, a real plus in the training process.

 My foot care client for the past two days has been Jun Peng, a wonderful older female, who nearly sprinted up the ramp of the concrete loading dock being used as a foot-trimming platform. A basket of freshly cut produce was all that was needed to entice her to present her feet for trimming. 

Jun Peng was a perfectly lovely client, calmly standing in place for more than 30 minutes each session. Her nails were quite overgrown but very healthy. The pads of both front feet showed signs of past trauma but no new problems.

Tomorrow’s pachyderm client will arrive at the pedicure clinic at 10:30 am. I am excited to see who she is.

Chang Yim

Even though elephants have relative freedom at ENP, they are still living in a captive environment, necessitating that they learn basic behaviors, such as presenting their feet for trimming and their ears for blood draws. These easily learned behaviors are essential to ensure the elephants’ health and well-being. 

Chang Yim is the second calf born at ENP.  He is experiencing a near-to-natural family environment living in a herd with his birth mother.  “The Family,” as they are affectionately referred to by staff and visitors, consists of Yim and his mother Doc Ngern; Faa Mai, also born at the park, and her birth mother Bua Thoug; adolescents Faa Sai and Thong Jan; and self-appointed aunties Ma Lai Thong, Sri Noon and Thai. 

Chang Yim is 16 months old. True to his age and nature, he has bouts of defience toward his mahouts. The majority of the time, he is busy being an elephant, engaged with his family and exploring the habitat.

But when his mahouts need to guide his behavior, Yim’s resistance to being told what to do has become problematic. Karl, Yim’s mahout, is learning positive reinforcement target training in order to teach him some basic behaviors so he can be examined and cared for safely and effectively. 

It is exciting to see Chang Yim’s progress, knowing how essential this training is to his future.