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.

The TARGET of target training

A target is a tool — a flexible pole with a spongy end — used to shape behaviors. Its purpose is to create a focal point, a benign object for the elephant to focus on. 

To start, we touch Chang Yim’s head gently and say “target.” When he makes contact, we blow a whistle and give him a treat. Chang Yim quickly connects the whistle with the touch and, of course, the treat with the whistle. Throughout the training we touch the target to different parts of Chang Yim’s body — his foot, ear, leg and side — following the same process, giving each body part a name.

When Chang Yim understands what we want, he responds by touching the appropriate body part to the target. The whistle sounds and he receives a reward, a treat. In moments, Yim makes the connection. He is quickly learning his ear, head, side, feet and back.

The purpose of this training is to gain Chang Yim’s cooperation for medical procedures and foot care. He is never told no and can never fail, which helps boost his self-confidence and willingness to engage in the game. Done properly, the training becomes a much-anticipated activity that Chang Yim freely participates in.

feeling at home

Everyday I intend to post an update but surprisingly there has been no time. My day starts at 6am. I am sure that those who know me laugh at the thought of me rising with the sun as I am a natural night owl. But the change is good. Karl and I start with Chang Yim’s morning training sesson and then accompany “the family” out to the habitat for morning observations. I have started trimming feet in the afternoon, followed by two more training sessions.

In between there are feeds, trips to the river for elephant baths and opportunities for the public to view the elephants. And there are always unscheduled occurrences and visitors that fill in the gaps of what otherwise would be extra time each day.

Chang Yim is fabulous. He is responding exceptionally to the training game as you would expect from such an intelligent boy.

The sticky rice balls used for his reward is an effective motivator.  He has learned to target his head and front feet. Today we started teaching him to target his side  and added holding the different positions for a few seconds. Chang Yim is doing great and so is Karl!


November 21, 2010

One year ago today my life took an unexpected turn. At the time I would never have imagined that today, exactly one year later, I would be a party to the rescue of an elephant in Surin, Thailand.

Hours after arriving in Bangkok I boarded a train to Surin to meet up with Lek, founder of the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). I knew we would be observing elephants at the annual elephant round-up and meet with the governor of Surin. But I did not realize that in less than 48 hours we would rescue an elephant, load her for transport and move her to ENP.

Observing the entire procedure was an opportunity for me to learn more about how elephant rescues take place in Thailand. Quite different from rescues in the US, all arrangements, including payment for the elephant, travel logistics, health status report and travel papers, were concluded in a matter of hours.

This rescue was made possible partly by a 9-year-old New Zealand boy named Jack. He visited ENP with his parents nearly two years ago and left determined to raise the funds to rescue an elephant. He reached his goal in a short eighteen months.  Over the past three days Jack took an active role in preparing for the rescue, including purchasing elephant food for the trip. He was given the honor of choosing a new name for the elephant, a tradition held by ENP to give the elephant a new start. Jack researched the name himself and chose Kwan Jai, which in Thai means beloved. Kwan Jai, estimated to be 55 years old, is thin and dehydrated.  A serious logging accident left her crippled years ago. The break in her back right leg led to a misalignment of her spin, making working difficult. But even elephants with broken legs are used for street begging and tourist rides.

Prior to loading Kwan Jai into the straight-bed truck, mahouts, veterinarian, Lek, Darrick (Lek’s husband), Antoinette (of Bring the Elephant Home) and several volunteers, along with Jack and his proud parents, spent the next two hours securing the vehicle for a safe trip.

They strapped wind-break material along the side walls of the truck and built a corral of large timbers ensuring that Kwan Jai would stand safely in the center of the truck bed.

Kwan Jai is a seasoned travel, so she loaded into the truck without hesitation.

Nearly 24 hours later, driving through the night and a good part of the next day, Kwan Jai arrived at her forever home at the Elephant Nature Park. 

 What an honor it was to be a part of the life-changing event not only for Kwan Jai but for all of the people involved.

CBS Assignment America

After the recent airing of a CBS Assignment America piece by Steve Hartman, many of you were seeking clarification. 

The statement that has caused confusion is toward the end of the piece when I seem to say that elephants don’t need people or human interaction. The sound bite was an excerpt from an interview done two years earlier for the Tarra and Bella story. If there had been more time for the expansion of my statement, you would have heard me say something like…..“Elephants don’t benefit from public visitation by strangers. But elephants thrive on relationships with caregivers with whom they form deep bonds.”

The media has limited time to report on any single subject, which can result in misunderstandings. Without a doubt, Steve Hartman knows of Tarra’s capacity to bond with another individual of a different species. He was the one who first introduced Tarra and Bella’s endearing relationship to the world.

My intention for the Sanctuary was to provide a rich captive environment for elephant rehabilitation: an environment where elephants have autonomy, can rediscover themselves and form deep bonds with others.

The Sanctuary is not the wild; caregivers are an essential part of the equation.  The goal is to train caregivers how to develop sincere relationships with the elephants.  The deeper the relationship between the elephant and caregiver, the more effective the caregiver can be in his/her job. Without a deep and respectful relationship, the caregiver could be a source of stress for the elephant.

The “people” I referred to in my comment are strangers. Of course elephants living in captivity will form strong bonds with their caregivers. It is an elephant’s nature to form deep relationships with other herd members. For elephants in captivity their relationships extend to the caregivers who provide for them on a daily basis. Caregivers are an elephant’s extended family and their relationships should be strong and healthy.

Provided that an elephant in captivity lives in a healthy environment with ample space, the freedom to make his/her own choices, other individuals to bond with and access to an abundance of live vegetation, s/he doesn’t need the distraction of and interaction with strangers. (Some zoo and circus elephants live in such a deprived environment that they benefit from such distraction and interaction.)  Elephants in healthy environments thrive on mutually respectful long-term relationships with elephants and other individuals they consider members of their family.

Gratitude on so many levels

There has been a whirlwind of activity on the EAI website since it launched less than two weeks ago.  The response to our mission, goals and programs has been outstanding. Our 2010 focus on Thailand, India and Nepal has been met with enthusiastic support.

Elephant Aid International is humbled by the many elephant experts who have agreed to be on our Advisory Council. It is my honor to welcome these renowned professionals, people distinguished by  their contributions to elephant welfare. These accomplished individuals will assist EAI’s efforts, providing expertise and direction for EAI’s elephant welfare programs and the care of individual elephants . We welcome the Advisory Council with sincere appreciation, recognizing that our combined efforts will further benefit elephants worldwide.

The two people responsible for the design, development and content of our stunning website may prefer to remain behind the scenes but their brilliance must be acknowledged. This site will continue to be a vehicle to move our work forward. It will be a source of news, features and information; a place for all of us to stay engaged.

As for the outpouring of support from elephant lovers, trainers, caregivers, keepers, activists, veterinarians, scientists, researchers and educators, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your trust and support of this work is the catalyst that will spur our programs forward.  Without you we simply could not accomplish this important work. Personally, I plan to harness the enormous volume of positive energy flowing into EAI to empower our vision for elephants.


foot care kits

THANK YOU to everyone who helped us reach our goal to underwrite 40 elephant foot care kits! In less than 48 hours following the challenge from an EAI supporter, you did it you reached the goal! I am seriously impressed! You met this need with such generosity and enthusiasm.

Mahouts are people of few material belongings, yet they shoulder a huge responsibility for the elephants in their care.  Your support demonstrates a genuine appreciation for their work and is sincerely appreciated by the mahouts, me and everyone affiliated with Elephant Aid International. It’s not appropriate for me to speak for the elephants but I am sure it’s safe to say they appreciate your support as well.

Since everyone seemed to enjoy the chipin challenge so much, I will make sure that our most urgent need is always posted with a chipin challenge on the EAI site.