A Blessed Way to Spend Christmas Morning

This afternoon I am leaving ENP for a few weeks. My travels will take me to Vietnam for nearly two weeks and then back to Thailand for a week at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary. So, as you might imagine, I was feeling anxious about leaving “the family.” Against all efforts I have grown seriously fond of them. In their world I am just another human sharing their days, but they are quite special to me.

Leaving elephants even for a day has never been easy for me. It’s not that I need them; it’s that I feel so comfortable with them. I feel more like me in their presence. So in anticipation of my noon departure I did not linger at breakfast, knowing they were already out in the pasture.

The morning was cooler than normal. The mahouts were bundled in jackets and hats. Several were crouched down in a tight circle, the crowns of their heads touching, focused on an activity that I soon realized was fire building.

The elephants were several meters away, calmly grazing and mingling with each other. From the side I saw comical Faa Sai, frustrated mahout in tow, prancing across the pasture…holding a brand new house broom in her trunk. Obviously her mahout had abandoned his effort to get her to drop the broom, allowing her to bring her newly found “Christmas toy” with her.

 Faa Sai has been acting out for the past few days, since her former mahout left her to work with another elephant. Faa Sai does not respond well to all mahouts — loss of her mahout means that she must get used to a new mahout telling her what to do. Needless to say, she has been giving him fits.

With Faa Sai back with the family, Dok Ngern started moving further out into the habitat. Instantly a voice rang out telling her to stop, to not go any further. The mahouts were cold and wanted to stay near the fire; if the elephants move, the mahouts are forced to move as well. Since the mahouts call the shots, the elephants sometimes are not allowed to roam as freely as they would like.

But this morning I decided to take advantage of my designated authority and called to the mahout telling him “chang bai.” I don’t know if that is how it is spelled but it means “elephant go.” The mahout knew exactly what I meant and stared at me hoping I would change my mind. I repeated my request and what followed was glorious, humorous and admittedly probably a little frustrating for the mahouts who are being encouraged to accept some changes in the way they manage their elephants.

Bua Thong, Faa Mai’s mother, was the first to sense a shift and began to walk slowly, almost guardedly, in the direction of freedom. I took advantage of my position out in front of the family and headed toward the river bed, hoping they would see that as a signal that they were free to follow and go wherever they wished…within reason of course.

The family moved like a gentle ripple across the surface of a still pond and only the elders kept an ear out for the command to stop. It did not come so they kept moving. When they reached the edge of the pasture, which drops off into the river bed, Bua Thong and Dok Ngern appeared to shed the invisible cloak of control the mahouts cover them with and led their family out onto the river bottom, sampling the sparse vegetation that remains. The mahouts did not follow. For a moment in time it was the family and me.

The mood was broken as one mahout left the warmth of the fire and came racing across the pasture intent on turning Bua Thong back. Bua Thong, ever the mature leader wanting only to keep peace and harmony, is easy to turn and, with her, many of the family members. When the mahout’s intent was clear, I called out “chang bai.” Body language goes a long way…luckily. I signaled for him to stop, moved my arms in the direction the elephants were heading and repeated “bai, bai.” His body language suggested he wasn’t happy with the request, but he complied and allowed the elephants to continue in the direction they were headed.

I motioned for the other mahouts to join us, which they did, actually carrying their fire with them. By now the family had figured out that they were free to explore their environment with the sole restriction to not enter the banana grove and the nearby road. After one more request that the mahouts not prevent the elephants from grazing the tall grasses along the river bank, the elephants settled into a wonderful feast.

Bua Thong discovered the giant grass and shared it with the others. The babies wallowed in the thick mud as they cruised the embankment selecting tasty trunkfuls of fresh grass. Faa Sai, always the one to push the limit, tried to climb further up the hillside than was acceptable. But she returned to grazing without much fuss, probably because the grasses were lush further down the hill.

Each time the mahouts got comfortable in their tree beds or huddled around their portable camp fire, the elephants’ natural migrating tendencies forced them to move again. This dynamic is a challenge for elephant management: the elephants want to move but the mahouts would prefer they hang around in one place. One this day, at least as long as I was there, these elephants would be wandering. The mahouts seemed to finally understand the plan and, even if only half heartedly, got with the program.

Sitting on the dry sand river bottom with my knees held close to my chest, I took in the glorious scene playing out in front of me. I was filled with joy and gratitude to be here at this moment in time, watching elephants being elephants, in perpetual motion, playing, grazing, drinking, dusting and exchanging the nonstop physical and verbal communication that they are famous for. I forgot the chill of the cool breeze that was cutting across the open space as a feeling of deep contentment warmed my entire body. I felt the morning sun hug me from behind and gave thanks for this blessed moment.

Walking away from the family was inevitable but I did so knowing that today, at least for the few hours I spent admiring them, they were as close to free as a captive elephant can be.

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.

Research at Anantara

Josh Plotnik, PhD, heads elephant research at Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, Anantara Golden Triangle, Thailand. Josh conducted the mirror study at the Bronx Zoo


I was fortunate to meet Josh on his recent visit to ENP, where several years ago he conducted behavioral studies. Currently, four elephants at Anantara participate in Josh’s studies to measure elephant intelligence.

The different apparatuses that Josh has designed are quite ingenious and the elephants seem to enjoy the activity. The mahouts are quite engaged as well, which makes the project enjoyable for all involved.

An added benefit of non-invasive research

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to visit two more elephant facilities in Thailand. Anantara, near the Golden Triangle, was my first stop. Although long, the bus trip north was well worth the time.

Anantara is a spacious resort nestled in lush forests bordering Myanmar. I was told that on rare occasions an elephant has silently swum across the river to foreign soil. An unsanctioned border crossing for sure.

The elephant program at Anantara is well thought out. With the exception of the first few elephants acquired by the organization in its early development, all of the elephants are rented, providing continued employment for their owners. The mahouts’ families relocate from their homes in Surin, where street begging is a staple employment. Renting the elephant instead of buying has many advantages, including the quality of mahout, the beneficial long-term relationship between the mahout and elephant and removing begging elephants from city streets.

Due to the number of captive elephants available in Surin, Anantara can insist on renting elephants with skilled mahouts who properly care for their elephants. By renting the elephant instead of buying, Anantara also avoids creating a market for elephant sales. (In the last few years, dealers have figured out that they can sell a sick or injured elephant and with the revenue buy a couple more.)

The company pays a higher than average rental fee to encourage owners to stay long-term. They provide village-style accommodations and ensure that the children of the mahouts receive an education.

What I observed at Anantara were relaxed elephants who had what appeared to be a healthy relationship with their mahouts. They were playful, responsive to their mahouts and displayed no fear or anxiety.

Anantara is conducting non-invasive research on elephant intelligence, which was very interesting to observe. I cannot divulge information about the exact projects currently being conducted, but from what I saw this work will definitely add to the current deficient body of scientific knowledge about elephant intelligence. I am anxious to see what will be learned over the next few years.

A by-product of the research is behavioral enrichment. Since these elephants, like all elephants in Asia, spend many hours each day on chains, the research benefits the elephant because they are off chains and engaged. Of course I would like to see the elephants off chains many more hours if not completely, and posed that idea to John Roberts, the program manager. A progressive thinker with an open mind, John is motivated to explore ways to increase the elephant’s quality of life. Hot wire is a proven effective way to confine elephants without using chains and is already used in a small area of the elephant stable area. At first the mahouts were resistant to its use but they now seem to accept the new idea. I feel confident that in the future Anantara will utilize hot wire yards to increase the elephants’ freedom of movement.

One of the most commendable things about Anantara is that all of the funds generated by its elephant program go directly to elephant conservation projects that benefit Asian elephants.

In my next entry I will tell you about the second facility I visited.

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.