“‘The most dangerous animal of all. More keepers and visitors are killed by elephants than by any other animal in a zoo. A young elephant will most likely dismember you and trample your body parts flat. That’s what happened to one poor lost soul in a European zoo who got into the elephant house through a window. An older, more patient animal will squeeze you against a wall or sit on you.'”
I happened to read this passage out of Life of Pi only days before going to the Into the Wild elephant rescue sanctuary in Chiang Mai. I know the truth in these words. But I also know, like Martel says, the most dangerous animal of all is man.
There used to be 100,000 Asian elephants in Thailand, of which around 20,000 were untamed. Now, primarily due to poaching and habitat loss, there are less than 5,000 – and more than half live in sanctuaries or zoos.
Every animal is dangerous because life will defend itself no matter what it takes. Animals are territorial out of the preservation of their own lives. Animals are dangerous for survival. Man is the exception – man is dangerous out of ego.
Many people like to take this dangerous, survival nature of a wild animal and use this as justification for human dominance. For the unnecessary, inhumane use of animals solely for human entertainment, like elephant riding, or poaching. For destruction of the environment for processed foods, animal agriculture, animal trafficking, and on and on.
But something curious happens when man instead saves the animal – Something which goes against every one of these arguments.
“One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second.
Think about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you? But animals are incapable of such discernment. Within the limits of their nature, they make do with what they have.”
Of course, I advocate for freedom in the wild for as many beings as possible – when it makes sense. But when habitat is dwindling to the point of impossible survival, when a species is constantly threatened by poachers, or constantly threatened by circus and other entertainment industries, “freedom” is not what we imagine it to be.
It’s important to note that Martel is describing the ethical Pondicherry Zoo in 1954. The situation with zoos today is much more complicated – far less black and white ethics interwoven with corrupt foreign governments and poor living conditions. If choosing to support wild animals, the answer will always be found in a rescue sanctuary – one that you have done proper background research on.
Into the Wild sanctuary has no fences, chains, gates, enclosures or barriers. The elephants stay because they are fed, cared for, loved. Two adult female elephants and one two-year old female baby elephant reside at the sanctuary.
In Thailand, elephants were historically used for help with food and transportation, similar to how horses were used in the United States. Elephants were praised for their contribution, and efforts to treat the animals fairly were always taken. A mahout is an elephant keeper who bonds with an elephant and remains with him for the rest of his life. The mahout communicates with the elephant vocally – the same vocal noise will be used for each command. This prevents any physical commands or violence unless the mahout needs to defend himself. Each elephant at Into the Wild has a mahout for life – a practice many other sanctuaries no longer implement.
This beautiful sanctuary is only two and a half years old and rescued the two adult female elephants from the elephant riding entertainment industry. Now, the sanctuary is heaven for these majestic giants.
Our hostel in Chiang Mai told us about this sanctuary and helped us arrange transportation. Our driver was a guide who works at Into the Wild. When he picked us up, on May 27th, he told us his name is Dej. Dej means “frog” in Thai, and this happened on the 27th. For those who understand this significance, how amazing is that?
Two other people from a hostel down the road joined Jenn and I for our full day at Into the Wild. Carson and his girlfriend Michelle were traveling throughout Thailand to celebrate recently graduating from college. The four of us were the only ones to spend the full day at the sanctuary – it almost seemed like a private tour.
Dej drove us for an hour and a half south of Chiang Mai. We drove past beautiful sights, around windy roads and on terrifying cliffs. To say that this roller coaster, and the accompanying motion sickness, was worth it is an understatement.
We started our day with the elephants by feeding them about 30 bananas each. The elephants eat all day long – Dej said it seems that they will never eat enough. They aggressively ate the bananas out of our hands, searching for the next before we even had a chance to reach back into the bag. At one point, the baby elephant tried to eat my hand when she was confused as to why I was not handing her another banana quickly enough. Luckily, she didn’t bite me with her teeth!
With Dej, the elephants and the rest of the crew, we took a hike through the jungle. Dej explained that the elephants like to eat tree bark – we watched as these giants ripped apart trees with their strong trunks and happily chewed on the bark. The baby elephant watched everything her mother did, observing and learning. One of the female elephants is named Mokay, which means slender (Unclear whether or not this was properly translated, seeing as “slender” is the last word I would use to describe Mokay). The mother elephant is named Wong Diang, which means Star, and the baby is named Diang Wai, which means Moon. Dej, Mokay, Wong Diang and Diang Wai were all completely foreign words to our Thai friends when we returned to Lomkao and told them this story. This may have been a different dialect of Thai that they were speaking at the sanctuary.
When we turned to go back to main camp for lunch, the elephants’ mahouts called them back to camp. Hearing their calls was interesting, but even more exciting was how quickly the elephants followed. They ran back to camp, growling like tigers and trumpetting loudly. Hearing an elephant trumpet in person is something I will never forget – If you heard this noise and were unaware of the elephant, you may have thought you were in Jurassic Park.
The camp made us an amazing vegetarian meal before we made “medicine balls” for the elephants. We combined turmeric, ginger, sugar cane, rice, banana, and many more medicinal ingredients for the elephants and formed them into balls to feed them easily. These were eaten even faster than the bananas.
After medicine balls, we were allowed to change into our swimsuits and take a “mud bath” with the elephants. Elephants use mud for sunscreen and mosquito repellant. You don’t realize just how enormous an elephant is until you are trying to cover it in mud and realize that even your best attempt at reaching to the top of the elephant’s back doesn’t come close. Rubbing mud on elephants, running around and splashing mud on Dej, Carson, Michelle and Jenn until we were all completely covered in mud, all the while hugging elephant trunks and playing with the baby – the beauty and joy of this experience simply cannot be described in words.
We guided the elephants to the river to bathe them off which was just as fun, if not more. The adult elephants were ready to move on from the river soon after being rinsed, but the baby elephant wanted to play and play. We swam with the baby, hugging her, climbing all over her, even holding her feet in our hands. The happiness I experienced was immeasurable.
I know that if I were to come across a wild elephant, I would not be welcome to hug its trunk and splash it with mud. I would not be welcome to feed it a banana and play with its tail. In my opinion, the mere lack of a common language is the culprit – if you can’t communicate your intentions to a being, if that being has never experienced the temperament of a human – or they have and that human were a poacher – the safest option for that animal’s survival would be to assume the worst. To take every precaution to save their own life.
But what I do know is that this rule changes when love is involved. When an elephant is given life and shown love, when an elephant is rescued out of kindness, the love will reciprocate. The love becomes the common language forming the unspoken bond. I know that when I stood next to Mokay, holding her trunk and looking into her eye, I experienced a breathtaking connection. I know that this being is my equal who deserves love as much as I do.
Into the Wild sanctuary gave me the most magical experience I have ever had – tangible confirmation of the love that connects all beings.