All you have to do is google elephant cruelty, and you can see the abuse of elephants done in the name of tourism. So how do you have a positive interaction for your kids with elephants without supporting the abuse? On our trip to Thailand, we wanted to experience these majestic animals up close and personal, but we had to do a little research first. Here is what we found.
The first thing to keep in mind is that riding elephants are NOT OKAY. There is debate about whether it hurts the elephant's back. However, there is no debate that, to be tame enough to have riders, they were abused from a young age. Being taken away from the mother then immediately beginning the "training" causes elephants to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Another general guide line is to not go to elephant "shows." We admittedly were drawn in by the bling of the billboards. Phuket FantaSea describes themselves as an exotic heritage showcase full of Thai traditions. This "traditional" show included baby tigers drugged for pictures, ten elephants on a small stage, an elaborate display of fireworks on the stage with the elephants, etc. No elephant endures that in nature. Phuket FantaSea does not allow pictures (as in you have to check your camera and phones). However, we went to Safari World in Bangkok, and it was just as bad. After these two experiences, we learned that we must do more research before going.
A third tip when considering whether it is an ethical treatment facility is the elephants' living conditions. Are the elephants chained? Are they on concrete? Elephants have very sensitive skin and use mud and dust as a protective layer, so making sure a mud bath is near becomes vital. Another important aspect of an elephant's happiness is having a social group. In nature, they do not live alone. Further, they with their mother and her family until the age of sixteen. If the elephant you are encountering is young, but not with her mom, or separated from other elephants, or alone, the facility may not be adequately supporting the elephant's needs.
So what was our solution to having a positive interaction? Elephant Hills Thailand, Rainforest Camp! Not only do you get an immersive experience of life in the rainforest with glamming, hikes, and kayaking, but this camp focuses on rescuing elephants. We were able to feed, bath, and watch these elephants play in the mud. All interactions are voluntary for the elephants; if they do not want to come out, then they do not have to.
We stayed at this camp for three nights; two nights in the jungle and one night on a lake. This camp is off the beaten track with half a day travel (transport provided). The first two nights we stayed in yurt-ish cabin, which included a bathroom, AC, and quick wifi. We become truly immersed in the jungle with the sounds of monkeys and rain on a tin roof (very soothing). Here, we had our elephant interaction. Being able to touch these intelligent creature was truly an amazing experience. The staff was truly engaging with stories of the lives of the elephants we were meeting. One older mother had a difficult past, which caused her to be very shy. But, she had a very gentlesoul with graceful movements; she is a true inspiration.
This is just one ethical sanctuary; others can be found.
With a young child, the question always came up "why do they get to ride the elephants, but I don't?" Our response was "sometimes, elephants that are ridden are not treated well, and we do not want to encourage people who use elephants just to make money. But if you wait, we are going to a place where we can care for the elephants. A place where they focus on making the elephants happy." Although it was tough for him to walk away from an elephant ride, our son was thrilled when he had a loving interaction.
There is no doubt that seeing elephants is a big draw to Thailand. Interaction on an ethical, cruelty-free basis is possible. Just do your homework, read the reviews, and find a place to enjoy these magnificent, intelligent creatures with the respect they deserve.