If you know me, you know I am a bit scared of animals. It’s common knowledge. Yet, I often find myself in areas surrounded by monkeys, nearly hyperventilating to view sea life, or now, sticking my hand in the mouth of an elephant. In most cases, this picture pretty much sums up my first moments of animal exploration.
Having friends visit me throughout this trip has offered wonderful detours from time connecting with nonprofit organizations to promote proactive mental health education through projects focused on HOPE. For the last two weeks, Emily and Corinne were perfect travel partners as we traversed through a bit of Thailand enjoying the country – and so many good laughs.
While visiting Chiang Mai, I met Shayne while visiting Free Bird Cafe. I quickly learned that Shayne is known by others as Chiang Mai Ambassador and is a networker, connector and problem solver. I quickly learned he is also the man at the center of many positive and rewarding human connections.
I mentioned my friends were interested in visiting an elephant sanctuary and wanted to find a place focused on ethical treatment of the majestic creatures. Shayne had an option in mind that proved to be perfect for us, The Elephant Love Project.
When researching ethical elephant centers, there are some things to consider. Practices typical in the past, and some of which I have even seen, are actually very stressful for elephants. When choosing, it’s important to avoid places that advertise shows where they are taught behaviors unnatural for elephants including acrobatic tricks and painting. In nature, elephants don’t let people ride on them. Doing so for the pleasure of humans requires “breaking them in” which can be extremely tortuous. Elephant sanctuaries provide care for ex-working elephants who were held in captive, and are best when they allow elephants to live and wander in big open spaces with other elephants. Visiting smaller sanctuaries that do not service tourists all day is best – especially if part of the plan includes touching the elephants or spending time in water with them. It’s not natural for elephants to bath all day, so it’s important to be cautious about this.
The Elephant Love Project has taken all of these guidelines to heart. During our time there, elephants were treated like extended family members, receiving affection, kindness, and good quality care.
Thanarong is the husband of the Karen family who runs this center. As members of the Karen people, they take their historic role as “caretakers of the elephants” very seriously. Sadly, because of the expensive costs of promotion needed to engage with tourists, and the fees charged by tour companies, many smaller Karen sanctuaries face financial difficulties as larger corporate groups monopolize the tourist industry.
We were picked up in the early morning by Somsak. Happy to say, he was not only friendly and gracious, but a Kenny Rogers fan who happily became a duet partner. Loudly belting out “Oh, Holy Night” while driving through backroads in Thailand may have been one of my trip highlights. As he told us about the sanctuary’s work, he became emotional while sharing the importance for Karen people of continuing their mission of protecting elephants and his desire to help Thanagrong’s family overcome the financial challenges of feeding the elephants (who eat 300-500 pounds of food per day) and their ability to pay annual rental fees to maintain the large roaming land space.
Our day was so much fun! We began by making nutritious snacks for the elephants that serve as daily vitamins. Using a large wooden smoosher (named by me), we mixed bananas with a variety of plants and herbs with specific medicinal benefits to ease digestion and provide important nutrients for elephants.
As we walked through the bright green property filled with foliage, we could hear elephants in the background. Corrine was giddy. I was nervous.
When we first met the elephants, Posit and Karmoo (English name translation), we were able to watch them interacting with each other and hanging out for a bit. The sanctuary team was so gentle with them. I could definitely see a difference from past experiences I have observed with elephants. Posit and Karmoo were former working elephants at the Thai border who were recovering from lifetimes of being overworked. Both had injuries that included one ear scarred from bomb injuries and a foot and leg with longstanding damage from being forced to carry heavy loads.
At “Elephant Love Project,” the elephants live in a place where they receive care for previous injuries while also living in a safe and secure space that closely resembles natural conditions. After living in captivity, both elephants would be unable to survive without the specific care they receive.
Once we warmed up to each other through gentle touches and slowly gained proximity, we were able to share the treats we made by saying “bon bon” and putting the snacks in their waiting mouths. This is when I started to feel a bit freaky, but I loved the way there was no pressure to dive in, but just gentle guidance to encourage interactions with the elephants. Their big wet tongues playfully, but quickly gobbled the snacks that actually smelled quite delicious. I am pretty sure that without a lot of guidance, you would not see me get this close to an elephant on my own.
It was a humid day, so time in the water was desirable for all. These elephants enjoy scheduled water time based on their needs, not only for the purpose of pleasing tourists. The muddy bath “spa” offers a desirable cooling spot and a bit of a rest. The elephants seemed to eat up gentle touches and the cool water poured on their warm backs. I know I enjoyed the quick dip and a few splashes between friends.
Our time with the elephants was interactive, purposeful, and appropriate time wise to not cause stress for anyone.
The sanctuary has a shower space where we rinsed off before enjoyed a few plates of yummy Pad Thai while happily debriefing on our day. Words like surreal, once in a lifetime, and living a dream pretty much summed up our day.
People wanting to visit elephants while maintaining ethical standards can confidently enjoying Elephant Love Project.
If you are interested in visiting or supporting their rehabilitation efforts, be sure to visit their Facebook page.