It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post here. In California, my schedule is much more hectic, and I have less time to write. I still think about our time in Mongolia and our friends there all the time, and I try to follow the Mongolian news as much as possible. I miss our life there very much. It’s not easy having your heart in two (or in my case, three or four) places. And I have a backlog of posts to write, and I will try to get them out. Here’s one:
One of the things we really missed while we were in landlocked Mongolia was the ocean, so for Emma’s weeklong spring break in April we decided to go to Thailand. We stayed in Hua Hin, about a three-hour ride from the airport in Bangkok, because we only had six days and we wanted to spend our time at the beach, not traveling. It also seemed like a more low-key tourist destination than Phuket or the more popular places. While I was doing Google searches for things to do in the area, I came across the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand (WFFT), an animal rescue organization located not far from Hua Hin. I was able to sign us up for a day-long tour of their sanctuary. It was the highlight of our trip, it turns out.
Tourism in Thailand is often equated with riding an elephant. Elephants are so big, and humans so small compared to them, that most people probably don’t think twice about going for an elephant ride, and I’ve known quite a few people who’ve come back from their vacations in Thailand with exciting stories about elephant trekking through the jungle. But, as the guides at the WFFT taught us, elephants’ backs aren’t flat the way horses’ backs are, and carrying heavy weight on their backs is bad for them. It causes permanent harm to the elephants. It also rubs the hair off their backs, so they lose important sun protection. However, elephants have become a way for many people to earn income from the tourists who come from wealthier countries, so they continue to be used in harmful and abusive ways.
There is a long history of human use of elephants in Thailand. Rulers maintained large elephant corps for transportation and war. More recently, elephants were used for logging, until the logging industry was banned by the Thai government in 1989. Then, people working in that industry were left with rather large mouths to feed, and few resources to feed them with. Some of the elephant handlers, or mahouts, took their elephants over the border to Myanmar (Burma) to continue logging there. For others, tourism seemed like a good solution, and the number of elephants used in tourism grew tremendously. Elephants are used not just to give tourists rides, but for shows and other entertainment. As we learned, these elephants are often terribly abused, aside from the harm they suffer from carrying heavy loads directly on their backs.
During our daylong tour of the sanctuary (which included a delicious lunch of Thai food, with good vegan options), we had the opportunity to not only learn about but also meet up close several of the elephants that have made their way there, often leaving behind brutal conditions which have given them permanent scars. There are elephants of all ages, and they all live in large enclosures, up to five hectares each, with plenty of room for natural movement, as well as trees and ponds for bathing. They live in social groups whenever possible and will be able to live out their lives without any more hard labor or abuse. They have good medical care and all the food they can eat. Since they can’t live as wild elephants, this is the next best thing.
Part of our tour included hand-feeding some of the elephants pieces of fruit, and then helping to bathe them with a garden hose and push brooms. These elephants had been rescued from tourist attractions, so they were used to being around people, but they are still very large living creatures with their own ideas, so we were taught how to approach them respectfully and gently, so as not to distress them. We lined up several yards away from the elephants and took our turns hosing and scrubbing them with the brooms to get off the caked-on mud that they had accumulated since their last bath. The purpose was to give the sanctuary volunteers a chance to look for injuries and other problems.
I had seen African elephants in the wild in Tanzania and Kenya, but this was such a different experience. I had the sense of unease I feel around zoo animals, knowing that they are beings with their own consciousness living in situations created by humans who think themselves superior. The elephant I bathed had her own thoughts and feelings about what was happening, and I lacked the ability to understand her. She tolerated what I was doing, but did she enjoy it? Or find it mildly irritating? Were we interrupting something that she’d rather be doing? Or was she happy to oblige? She seemed to enjoy the water and the scrubbing. But we project our ideas and emotions onto animals all the time, but we really have no idea how they think and feel. Her life is thought to be better at the sanctuary than it had been in the tourist attraction she’d come from, and for her it probably is. But without genuine communication, the best we can do is project our own desires and beliefs onto her and her fellow creatures. Treating them gently and with respect is much better than hurting and abusing them, but their lives are still lived on human terms, as with most creatures on the planet at this point.
To their credit, WFFT will no longer be offering the elephant bathing experience because they want the elephants to have less contact with people in their “protected-contact management system.” Instead, visitors can “meet, greet, and feed” the elephants from a platform while the elephants come and go freely. This will minimize the risk of visitor encounters with the large creatures, according to the organization, which makes me wonder if something happened. It will also make the experience feel less intimate, and perhaps the elephants will seem more mysterious. This is both good and bad, I think. Elephants are creatures that deserve to exist in their own right, not because of their connections to humans. But elephants will continue to exist or not according to what humans do, including preserving their wild habitats. People feel attachment to elephants because of zoos, circuses, tourist attractions, and popular culture, and perhaps elephants are beholden to humans for that attachment, because it might be what saves them in the end. Unless we have a cultural shift and start to see non-human animals as deserving of existence outside of our need for them.
The WFFT sanctuary has more than just elephants, too. It’s home to over 600 animals, many of whom have had less than desirable encounters with people. The sanctuary is on land belonging to the Kao Look Chang temple, and people bring animals to the temple, which then passes them on to the sanctuary. These include Asian small-clawed otters, which are popular as pets until they mature and start smearing their poo everywhere. People aren’t so interested in poo-smearing pets, it turns out. There are also lizards that have gotten too large, monkeys that have been injured in dog attacks, slow lorises rescued from illegal trade, civets and other wild animals people found to be unsuitable pets, and even two orangutans that people had kept like dress-up dolls until they got too big. One of the sanctuary’s main messages is that wild animals make poor pets, and the trade in wild animals is illegal for good reasons.
Another highlight of the tour was a look at an island that is home to several gibbons. As soon as they saw us, they started whooping and hollering as only gibbons can. It was hilarious; as Emma said, they seemed to be yelling, “Get off my lawn!” They watched us and hollered at us for as long as we stood there, while our guide explained how they had come to the sanctuary. WFFT also operates a gibbon rehabilitation and release center in northern Thailand, where they prepare gibbons to be released to the wild. Some of these gibbons, and those at the main WFFT sanctuary, spent their early years as photo props in floating markets. They were turned over when their owners grew concerned about the police raids that became a frequent part of enforcing the ban on wildlife trafficking. Some of the gibbons have never been in contact with people, so that they can more easily be returned to the wild when they are ready.
The sanctuary rehabilitates many other injured, abandoned, or orphaned wildlife and returns most of these animals to the wild. If animals are unable to live in the wild, they find a permanent home at the sanctuary, but it’s not WFFT’s mission to become a zoo. Instead, they aim to do what they can for the animals they are able to help, and also educate people about how to properly co-exist with wildlife in Thailand. They visit local schools and invite students to visit their facilities, in the hopes that teaching children about wildlife will have long-term effects on how people interact with their non-human neighbors. They also campaign against the illegal wildlife trade and other practices that harm wildlife, and they work with the Royal Forestry Department and the Thai government. Their veterinary hospital is open to the local community; they run a veterinary clinic for anyone to bring sick or injured animals to.
While I was very impressed with the WFFT sanctuary, and Emma and I fantasized about volunteering there together (the center depends on volunteer help to feed and care for the animals), I also felt the same unease I feel about all wildlife rescues. It’s very tempting to focus on these animals and want to save them. But caring for all of these animals requires a lot of resources, and there are so many pressing social and environmental concerns that underlie their need for help in the first place, that caring for them may not be the best solution. Of course, there are many, many organizations working in Thailand on all sorts of issues, but until poverty has been successfully addressed, people will continue to use Thai wildlife as a way of making money. They will also continue to create the conditions that threaten all of Thailand’s wildlife. Despite WFFT’s and other organizations’ best efforts, there seem to be more and more animals that need help, not less and less. Habitat destruction remains a huge problem, as does tourism and the wildlife trade.
Saving individual animals and allowing them to live out their lives in comfort provides a balm for those of us who care about our non-human neighbors and are distressed about our own species’ destructive behavior. My own tendency to try to save animals goes back a long way. I was the kid at the Jersey shore who was picking up beached jellyfish with her bucket and putting them back in the water, not realizing that they would only wash ashore again. WFFT might be better off telling foreign visitors and volunteers to stay home, to avoid the carbon emissions it costs them to come to Thailand to see the animals. (Yes, I did it, too. I’m part of this system that we’ve created.) When we are facing mass extinction and climate disruption, caring for individual animals seems almost like vanity. We feel better because we can see ourselves as saviors. But what kind of future are we saving these animals for? There is no satisfying answer to this question. Figuring out how to ensure any kind of future at all should be our first priority, but we can’t seem to make it so. Not yet, anyway.