I confess: I’m not an honest-to-goodness animal lover.
I’m not sure why. I guess maybe because I grew up on a farm, where animals had more utilitarian purposes. Sure, we dressed up barn kittens in doll clothes, and stray dogs showed up and stayed a while. I remember bottle-feeding a few calves. The spring chicks were cute, and it was a treat to be surrounded by the chirping troops in the warm brooder house. But, by summer, it was time to pluck them for dinner to go with the bushel baskets of sweet corn from the field. Reality.
My mother had enough children in the ever-expanding-bedrooms, one-bath farmhouse without adding a house cat or a dog to the menagerie. We did get one kitten from a cousin (future mother of barn cats) and a friendly dog named Toby from town, who lived a long and happy life (because he was my little brother’s friend).
When my own girls were little, they had hamsters, which were quickly replaced a few times with look-alikes so that they wouldn’t know they’d spun on their last hamster wheel. And then there was Sassy, our independent and smart cat, who lived 17 years and was buried in our back yard. She roamed the neighborhood and knocked on the door when she wanted to be let back in — often leaving a mouse on the stoop to prove her worth.
So, why did I decide to volunteer to work up-close with elephants in Thailand?
The stories I’d read about elephants’ memories and their friendships and their intelligence intrigued me. Also, sadly, I worried that one day they’d become so endangered that an experience like this one would be impossible. Finally, I had been sitting at a desk for most of my adult life, and it was time to undo my own chains.
Through Bamboo, part of my volunteer group’s experience was staying for five days in an elephant village in Surin province in northeastern Thailand. We lived in the home of an elephant mahout and his family. Bamboo contracts with the village families to house volunteers. The family’s elephant, named Malika, lived in the backyard, where we could watch her eat huge amounts of bamboo.
Cutting the bamboo was one of our jobs while we stayed at the village. We went out to a field and chopped the tough, woody stalks and carried them to the truck. In return, we also got to take the elephants to nearby river twice for baths. Each of us selected an elephant and walked with the mahouts and the elephants to the river — which the elephants loved. They rolled around and blew water out of their trunks and trumpeted their joy as we threw water on their heads and rubbed them down (being careful not to get stepped on or kicked).
While walking through the village, we stopped at the small groceries in homes for beer and snacks, and the ice cream man came around with this cooler-bicycle contraption to offer cool treats. We learned about the Thai language and culture. We learned about the history of elephants in Thailand and their importance, and how it has become more difficult and expensive for mahouts and their families to live this lifestyle.
We visited baby elephants and their protective mothers. We ate lots of (what some called “dumbed-down) Thai food because it was not as spicy or flavorful as most Thai dishes. We visited an elephant sanctuary where we learned more about the history of the elephants in Thailand, made paper from the fibers of clean elephant poop and saw an elephant cemetery. We went to local outdoor markets that were awhirl with colors and smells and sounds — and mounds of fresh vegetables and fruit. What I would give to have that kind of market available here where I live!
The area of Surin in Thailand is known for elephants, jasmine rice (wrong time of year for us to see the working rice paddies) and silk. One afternoon we visited the silk region, where we watched women create silk using an intricate weaving system passed down for generations. The silk patterns were incredible. The shops in the village sold much cheaper versions of silk scarves, ties, dresses, skirts and cloth in bright colors.
One afternoon we helped fertilize a young field of bamboo by dropping the pellets of fertilizer in the rows and covering them up with hoes. Walking down the rows of bamboo in the hot sun brought me back to the days when we walked soy beans to cut out weeds on the farm. I realized that I hadn’t bent over like that to chop and hoe in a very long time. And when we got to the end of the row and drank ice water from a jug, that, too, brought me back to those long-ago summer days.
And what do I take with me about the elephants?
The wisdom in their eyes. The pure happiness in the water. The almost-uncontrollable fear of a mother elephant who is chained to the ground as her baby scrambles out of her reach toward a group of noisy humans. And the curiosity and fearlessness of that baby.
In the end, I come away knowing we are not at all so different.
Here are some more interesting facts about Thailand’s elephants.
More to come!