I could disconnect from reality here. I could forget New York, forget my job and imagine that this – right here, right now – is my life. A wooden house in the Chiang Mai jungle where elephants casually stroll by. Where rescued dogs relax on our porch and cats nap lazily under the midday sun. I look over at my boyfriend, Jeff, both of us in this heaven of fresh air and birds chirping amidst an animal sanctuary of rescued dogs, elephants and cats from around Thailand.
We’re here at Elephant Nature Park, where elephants subjected to years of abuse from the logging and tourism industries are brought to safely live out the remainder of their lives in peace. It is the way animal tourism should be – with the animal’s wellbeing at the center of it. It’s devastating to imagine the neglect and pain that these animals suffered – more so to see the buses of tourists still lining up to ride elephants, despite the information out there pleading against it.
It’s morning in Chiang Mai and I wake up to the sound of elephants breathing heavily just feet from my window, swaying languidly in the morning light, their trunks inspecting the ground around them. I am standing on my balcony a few feet above the ground when I notice a small, grey cat with persistent meows. The cat wants our attention – possibly a bite to eat – and climbs a tree in order to jump onto our balcony. It is the first time I’ve seen a cat perform such a feat. This little fellow quite literally climbs a tree and hurls itself onto our balcony where I catch him in my arms. Meet Bunjee. We temporarily give the cat a name for our temporary family here in Thailand: Bunjee, Bella and Phantom – a street cat and two street dogs now living in the warm home that is Elephant Nature Park.
Jeff and I go for a walk of the grounds that morning. The park is blissfully deserted – a welcome respite from the swarm of tourists that seem to descend for one-day visits in the early afternoon. The sun has yet to reach its hottest and so the walk is cool as we trail a herd of elephants making their way down river. It’s a makeshift family of older, female pachyderms who wear a regrettable lifetime of emotional and physical scarring. Their stories are horrific – ranging from car accidents in Bangkok due to street begging for money, scars from bull hooks used to make them move forward while being ridden or paint pictures for tourists. The reality of the elephant tourism industry is grotesque.
Baby elephants are captured to undergo a physical and mental ‘domestication’ process where they are tied up, abused, hit and beat up into docile submission so uneducated tourists can get their Goddamn selfies. The whole thing is utterly sickening and there is simply no excuse for it in today’s digital age of information. The elephants at Elephant Nature Park are blind, injured, nervous, scarred and mentally unbalanced in some cases. Rescued for $20,000 US each, these innocent victims form a family here.
Our morning walk follows the herd – a blissful experience, until we hear the cries of an elephant across the river. A man comes bounding along the river, riding an elephant who is yelping in pain from the blows of the man’s bull hook. Nothing can be done. It’s an elephant from a nearby trekking camp – one of many in the area catered to tourists keen on riding them. One can only imagine the pure torture and emotional toll it must take on the elephant to be so close to a sanctuary of free roaming elephants and be subjected to such torture day in and day out right next door.
It’s the tourist’s choice – where will you spend your money? How will you leave your mark? Will you encourage this industry or fight against it? In many ways, Thailand feels lawless. There are no raids to save animals here. There can’t be. Elephant Nature Park must purchase every elephant it rescues or wait for elephants to be given to them once they are of no use to their owners. The silver lining (if any) is that there appears to be a slow shift towards ethical animal tourism in the country.
When it comes time to leave Elephant Nature Park, we don’t want to. We have both taken to this place, have fallen in love with the simplicity of being here amongst the beauty and kindness of the natural world and those who protect it. Elephant Nature Park is a respite from the constant energy of Chiang Mai, the blast of exhaust fumes on a hot day, the rev of a motorbike and hum of a night market. Life slows down here and – for two New Yorkers – incredibly, we slow down too.
Have you been to Elephant Nature Park? Share your comments below!