We had just arrived to the small village of Baan Tha Klang, and my week working with the elephants of the Surin Project was about to begin.
Our coordinator was busy taking the other volunteers to their rooms, so I waited at our morning meeting point. As I was sitting there, I could hear the sound of chains hitting the ground.
I looked out of the little hut and saw a huge tusker (not in the Surin Project) walking towards me. He was carrying his mahout on his shoulders and another person sat in a large cage harness on his back. It would seem that they were training the large tusker or taking him to give rides to tourists.
He was incredible! He was pretty much like the picturesque elephant we have all seen in a picture or painting at one point or another. Grand in stature with huge tusks swooping out in front.
As he was walking he kept yelping like a dog would if you were to accidentally step on its foot. His mahout had a bull hook, but he was resting it on the elephants head so that wasn’t causing him any pain…..yet.
I looked around and noticed that the tusker’s mahout had his foot hooked underneath the elephant’s huge ear and was pulling up on it to keep the large male in control. An elephant’s ears are very sensitive and mahouts will often tug and pull on them to direct the elephant.
Well this big guy did not like his ears being messed with. He started shaking his head in frustration. This lead his mahout to do one of the worst things I have ever seen.
With a loud pop, he swung his bull hook and stabbed it into the top of the elephant’s head. The tusker let out a loud scream that echoed throughout the small village. He dropped down on his front legs and lowered his head cowering away from the abuse of his owner.
I knew I would see some disturbing incidents while I was at the Surin Project, but I wasn’t expecting something so terrible to happen within the first 5 minutes of me being there.
Our coordinator came to take me to my host family shortly after the tusker had walked away. Once in my room, I dropped my bags and broke down in tears. How can humans be so cruel?
This story is only a part of what an elephant goes through when being trained and used to give rides to tourists, perform in shows, and paint pictures.
A couple years ago a video was released showing elephants being tortured to work in the tourism industry, and it gained a lot of attention.
People have been opening their eyes to the awful world behind animal attractions, but there are still plenty of folks unaware and willing to partake in the activities. The abuse has been the main reason people have decided to avoid elephant rides and shows, but there are plenty of other reasons not to support these attractions.
Poor Living Conditions
When the elephants are not working, they are normally chained up with their 2 front feet chained together without shelter. The lucky ones have some kind of protection from the sun and rain, but most of them do not.
While I was at the Surin Project, I saw plenty of elephants displaying signs of distress. Head bobbing and swaying are huge tells of stress on the animal. I have seen where people will actually laugh at an elephant acting in this way because they think they are dancing or playing around.
That fact of the matter is that elephants displaying this kind of behavior are severely emotionally stressed, and some of them will never recover from it.
An Elephant’s Body is not Built to Carry Heavy Loads
There is another huge reason elephants are not meant to carry heavy loads on their backs, and that is their actual skeletal make up.
It’s an argument I have heard time and time again.
“They are huge animals and we are so small in comparison. What harm could it do?”
Well first of all….the harness that is put on the elephant for people to sit in is already pretty heavy. Then add on another few hundred pounds of human weight and it’s the equivalent to an adult human carrying around a 50 lbs backpack all day.
50 lbs may not sound all that bad to some, but I can assure you it is. My pack weighs 50 lbs and after 30 minutes of carrying that God awful thing, my shoulders feel like they are going to snap!
Unlike the human spinal cord, an elephant’s spinal cord has a large ridge of bones that stick up at least 6 inches above it, and they are very fragile. Imagine if humans had this same ridge and what it would feel like to endure excessive weight on it day in and day out. Doesn’t sound too pleasant does it?
When I worked at Elephant Nature Park years ago, there were quite a few elephants that had bad backs because of the riding industry. Their spines were damaged from carrying around all that extra weight.
An elephant’s bone structure in their feet is also very sensitive. Their bones angle up, and their heels don’t touch the ground, so they are basically walking on their toes at all times.
Ladies, we all know what it feels like to walk around in heels all day and how awful our feet feel afterwards. Now could you imagine walking in heels while wearing a 50 lbs backpack? Just the thought of it makes me cringe!
*I took this video to show the signs of a distressed elelphant*
These are just a few of the reasons we should not ride elephants, and not just not ride them, but not participate in any kind of attraction utilizing them. This goes for attractions all over the world.