Owning an Elephant
Growing up, my sisters and I each had our favorite animal. This meant that in fantasy world, we’d actually own this exotic creature and take care of it, feed it and love it, similar to any domesticated pet you might own. In reality, since you can’t really “own” these creatures, we collected them. Stuffed animals, paintings, figurines, posters, key chains – you name it, we had it. My baby sister loved horses, my middle sister loved elephants, and I loved wolves. This story is for Adrienne, may you always remember your childhood fantasy pet.
During Singapore’s National Day this year (9 August 2011) I traveled to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, with three girlfriends for the first time. There are a lot of elephant farms in Thailand, each promising wild adventures, entertainment and an up close and personal experience. We found a highly reputable place called Patara Elephant Farm that works every day to raise elephants and prevent extinction. They have 14 elephants here, 6 of them are currently pregnant, and they have had zero deaths in the last 12 years.
Each of us were paired with our very own elephant, and a Thai trainer, and were responsible for its care for the entire day. Trust me, this is not easy work.
Before you engage an Asian elephant, you have to check their mood. Ears flapping and tail wagging means they are in a good mood and it is okay to approach. If you do not see these signs, back away and beware. You then need to make friends with the elephant. My elephant, Ploy, is a 12 year old female and seemingly in good spirits today. But I’m pretty sure that’s because I have a basket roughly the size of three basketballs worth of fresh fruit to give to her. This is part of the friend making process. Elephants respond well to food. Ploy has one small tusk on her right side, no left one. She has a birthmark between her eyes. Her eyes are kind. You always approach an elephant from the front, or sides, never behind.
Feeding Ploy is extremely intimidating at first. She must be at least 8 or 9 feet tall and weigh several tons, compared to my short 5’4” frame. I give her the Thai command to raise her trunk and she does, opening her huge mouth and sticking out her tongue where I place two or three bananas at a time. She slobbers them up, licking my hand and asks for more. I feed her the bananas, sugar cane and plums while she pauses in between to grab a few bamboo stems and leaves off the ground with her trunk and pack those in her mouth too. Watching her crush a 4 foot stem of bamboo as if it were a tiny twig is both fascinating and frightening at the same time.
My first task after feeding Ploy and making friends is to give her a health inspection. If she is dirty on both sides, it means she slept through the night. Elephants tend to sleep only 5-6 hours per evening. They sleep on one side for an hour, get up to stand for 10 minutes and then sleep on the other side. Next we check her cuticles at her feet. This is where they sweat from. If the toe nails are moist, this means they are healthy. Next we check her dung. There should be 5, 6 or 7 lumps of it and it should only smell like hay. Elephants are vegetarians so their dung takes on a wet hay like quality. If it smells bad, they are sick. The length of the fibers tell you their age, shorter fibers, younger, longer fibers means older. We also check the musk glands near her eyes. No musk or oil should come from these glands, if there is, then they are not well.
There are three major causes that elephants die prematurely. One is overfeeding, one is loneliness, and the last is infection from their feet. Skin care is also very important and they must bathe three times per day. This is my next task, bathing Ploy.
First I learn the command to make her walk or come, which is “mah” in Thai. I grab her by her ear and pull her along while saying mah. The next command, a bit more complex, gets her to lie down in front of me on her side. I’m given a bunch of basil leaves to brush all the dirt off of her sides and her head and back. Then she turns so I can get the other side. Then she eats the basil leaves out of my hand. We then walk down to the river where she and all her friends get in the water. I follow with my basket and proceed to throw water all over her and brush her with a course wooden and acrylic bristle brush. She seems to like this but I also guess it is probably routine. After we all wash our elephants they line up behind us and play a nice little trick by squirting water all over us with their trunks. It’s freezing cold but feels good.
Now we are ready for the exercise portion of the day. We learn to climb up on top of and ride our elephants to the water fall, which is about a 45-50 minute walk from the farm, through the most narrow, steep, muddy, treacherous hillside jungle I have ever seen in Asia.
Climbing up onto an elephant is probably the least graceful thing I have done in my life, well, at least recently. You can either climb up on the side, using their foot as a ladder, or by the front, using their trunk. I chose the side method and failed a few times, resulting in my Thai trainer pushing me up by my bum. That was fantastic. Once you are up there, you must slide down all the way to their neck, pull your legs up so your knees are bent firmly and resting against the back of their ears. Apparently white people don’t do enough yoga to ever make this comfortable for very long. Combined with the fact that you are now nearly 10 feet off the ground, sitting on an elephant’s head, holding a small rope behind you for support. Professionals just chill with both hands on their head. Ploy’s skin is tough, weathered. Her hair is sparse but extremely course and sharp, like hard plastic black wires. She flaps her ears and I give her the command for “good, good girl” several times.
Riding an elephant bare back takes a little bit of skill. Especially when you try to take photos while doing it. When going up a steep hill, you lean forward, while going down you lean backward. Elephants always have three feet firmly on the ground. If they try to walk on two they lose balance. Their trunk serves as a depth tester. While taking one foot off the ground, they search with their trunk to check the depth of the next step. Especially in deep mud or water where they are not familiar. To say the the ride to the water fall and back was tense, is a mild understatement.
Once we reached the water fall, Ploy stayed with the other elephants while we had lunch. Then two of the elephants joined us in the river and we were able to go swimming with them. They submerged up to their head and we sat on their back, playing and rinsing off and having photos taken. I’m not sure which two elephants were in the water with us, but they seemed to love being there.
After lunch, I took all the leftover rice and bananas we had up to Ploy as a little treat, which made the 6-month old baby, called “No Name” quite jealous. He came up and stole one or two bananas from me after stepping on my feet a few times.
When it was time to go, I climbed up on Ploy once again and we started the journey back to the farm. She got muddy again all over her feet and I thought how exhausting it would be to take her to the river and wash her again, but luckily, her trainer got to take over after we reached her place on the farm.
The experience was something I will never forget. It is hard work to look after an elephant for a day. Hard work that likely goes unnoticed and unappreciated by so many people who take creatures like this for granted. Life is short, and God’s gifts are special. Being able to get to know Ploy, share this experience with my sister (though vicariously) and overcome a fear of the unknown all at once, is a true treasure that will stick with me for many years to come.