I remember the first and only time my parents took me to the circus. I was a pretty adventurous kid, always happy to be tossed into a pool of water or strapped into a roller coaster. But I hated the circus, so much so that we had to leave early because I wouldn’t stop crying. My mom attributes my terror to the all the noise and ruckus, but I also think there was something innately disconcerting to me about the animals on display there. If I was terrified of the lights and noise, weren’t they? But this was the ‘80s, and it would be several years before anyone really stopped to think about lions and elephants as anything more than cornerstones of a very profitable act.
I hadn’t thought much about the circus until yesterday, when I visited Elephant Nature Park about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. We picked this particular place because it’s not just a self-purported sanctuary, but a rescue that buys up injured or elderly elephants from surrounding tourist operations and gives them a comfortable home to retire in peace. This means no riding, no tricks, no painting, no expectations of any sort, except eating for 16 hours a day, splashing around in the water and allowing zealous tourists to take a respectful number of selfies.
But before I hopped in the shuttle to visit the park, I hadn’t thought too deeply about the extent to which elephants suffered at the hands of humans over their many centuries together. Elephants are revered in Thailand; they’re the country’s national symbol, and their images are prominently featured on wats and spirit houses around the region. Elephants are an inextricable piece of Thailand’s history and culture, having spent hundreds of years serving as everything from tireless teak loggers to the country’s most effective war machines. They are strong and tough, but more importantly, they’re smart, which means they can be trained to do just about anything, whether it’s carrying soldiers into battle or hula hooping with their trunks.
We got into the car, and our guide, Sai, told us we were going to watch an instructional video during the drive. The first part was an animated film on how to avoid irritating an elephant, with lots of lighthearted sequences in which the cartoon protagonist was thrown, shrieking into the trees, by the annoyed pachyderm. I laughed and made a mental note not to sneak up behind any elephants, and was prepared to turn my attention to the passing scenery when another film began.
Gone were the cute animations and the screeching elephant-agitator. Instead, this video took us, in excruciating detail, through the vicious treatment elephants have to endure before they’re ready to be used in circuses and rides.
The process generally goes as follows: First, poachers find a baby elephant in the jungle, these days usually in Myanmar. The poachers will subdue the baby’s family, either with tranquilizers or by killing them outright.
Once they’ve taken away the elephant, it’s time to put it through a process called the phajaan, which translates to “to crush.” No euphemism here—the goal of the phajaan is quite literally to destroy the elephant’s spirit, leaving it defeated and therefore susceptible to human influence. Sometimes this involves putting the animal in a tiny pen or kraal; the video we watched showed one bound up in ropes and chains, completely unable to move even its head or feet.
The elephant is starved and beaten, with the assaults focused primarily on its most sensitive areas, like its ears and trunk. Once the mahout—a person who works with elephants—is satisfied that the elephant’s spirit has been thoroughly murdered, it can begin to train them. The process of spirit murdering, if you’re wondering, generally lasts around a week.
The video was horrendous, and left me feeling dazed and ill. The most alarming part is that no elephant you’ve ever seen—at the circus, giving rides, painting pictures—hasn’t undergone the phajaan. Before I watched that damn video, I had no idea that loading an elephant down with a howdah was so terrible for its back. I had no idea that mahouts stuck nails in the elephants’ ears to make them paint. I never liked those elephant walks that occurred in New York City until so recently, which were blithely publicized with an air of “Maybe this is cruel but it’s so fun!” lightheartedness. But like so many things, I made an effort to not think too hard about a practice that was going to carry on with or without my approval.
But the video screen dangled a relentless four inches from my face, and I had no choice but to pay attention. It finally ended, and I stared blankly out the window as the stores and apartment complexes gradually gave way to dense jungle greenery.
We arrived at the park a short time later. Elephant Nature Park is unique in its concern for apparently all living things, serving also a rescue for dogs abandoned following Thailand’s historic monsoon in 2011, a safe haven for buffalo destined for slaughter, and home to many dozens of cats, who make it clear they run the place.
Once we arrived, we dropped our bags at a table and descended onto the enormous grassy expanse that the park’s various animals are free to roam. Sai walked us around and introduced us to elephants one by one, telling us their names and injuries with the matter-of-factness that you might use to explain someone’s profession.
Many of the elephants in the park are blind—the majority lost their sight thanks to the endless assault of flashbulbs at the circus, but one or two were poked out by mahouts angry at the animals’ behavior. One had a broken hip, the result of being chained to a large bull during forced breeding. One had an enormous yellow bandage covering her soft foot—she’d stepped on a landmine while logging at the Myanmar border. Logging has been illegal in Thailand since 1989, but elephants live to be old, and many of them suffered greatly before any sorts of regulations were in place. One elderly cow was in her 80s, and while she now spends her days shoveling tree shoots into her mouth, it’s hard not to think of her past in circus in the 1940s, with the costumes and lights and no PETA in sight.
Another thing I was surprised to learn was just how sensitive elephant skin is. Elephant Nature Park allows visitors to give the elephants a few pats, and I did, just to see how it felt. It was rough, with spiky little hairs jutting out, which makes you think their hides would be tough and impervious to touch. But they’re not. Their skin is sensitive enough that they can feel a horse fly land on their backs. Having learned that, maybe it shouldn’t have been as jarring as it was to see deep scars in their ankles from chains, or along their backs from the chairs used to give rides, or the old wounds in their heads from bullhooks. But it was.
After lunch, we watched the elephants walk to the river for their baths, which basically entailed park employees flinging buckets of water on their big, wrinkled backs. Some of the elephants preferred their baths to be brief; others clearly reveled in it. I watched transfixed as a baby splashed around with its adopted mother, both of whom were clearly having a great time. I generally loathe the anthropomorphization of animals, but these guys were delighted, flopping down in the water and letting the current pull their massive bodies downstream several yards before staggering to their big, padded feet to do it again.
It was strange watching them, knowing that each animal I there had endured some form of unspeakable abuse, and that the mental and physical scars from that abuse would be with them until they died. I wondered, also, at my own ignorance. How did I think those elephants at the circus had been trained to rise up on their hind legs, to kick soccer balls? Did I think they enjoyed being marched through the Brooklyn-Queens Tunnel? Why hadn’t I been more bothered about it until now? Why hasn’t everyone?
Elephant attractions are more humane than they used to be, thanks to awareness on the part of tourists less willing to funnel money toward watching them do tricks. But chains and bullhooks are still used—one reviewer, writing on Trip Adviser for Maetang Elephant Park (which happens to be just down the road from Elephant Nature Park), wrote that “we only saw the mahouts use their hooks on a handful of occasions (within 2 hours).” The review is from February of this year. Lots of establishments have gotten wise to the fact that tourists these days crave sanctuaries and “eco” experiences, and have nimbly shoe-horned those words into their names and descriptions.
But tourists also want rides, and rides can’t exist without bullhooks—bullhooks which elephants only know to fear thanks to their phajaan. As the day wound to a close, Sai pointed out one solitary elephant in an enclosure. She doesn’t like people, he explained, and with good reason: While being used to give rides, she once hurt a tourist. As a punishment, her mahout cut off half her ear. If she never wants to be around humans again, I wouldn’t blame her. Thankfully, no one at Elephant Nature Park would, either.