I grew up loving and riding horses. I cleaned stalls, bathed horses and swept barns at 12 years old in exchange for riding lessons. I loved being around the animals and others who loved the clip-clop of hooves and smell of hay.
During my many hours in the barn I watched young horses become accustomed to having humans touch them, place saddles on their backs and eventually, have those humans climb into the saddle. Most resisted at first, but all horses came to trust the humans. Trainers gained the horse’s trust through positive reinforcement – treats, head scratches and kind words. There is a stark contrast between this process and the process used on elephants.
We spent 7 days in Thailand. Elephants were on my “to-do” list while in the country. Initially, I assumed I would ride one; it sounds amazing actually. I loved riding horses, why wouldn’t I love riding an elephant and feeling close to it. Just one hour of research while planning the trip changed my mind, immediately.
Some elephants work in forests, helping to drag trees for lumber production while others live their lives with tourists climbing onto their backs. Neither of these “jobs” are particularly horrible at first glance; but there is more than meets the eye.
There are host of reasons not to ride an elephant in Thailand, or elsewhere. Here are my reasons:
- Harsh and cruel methods are used in order to “break” an elephant so they can be “saddled” and ridden. “The crush” is the method used on baby elephants. The calves are taken too soon from their mothers, kept in a solitary place too small for them to move and then, they’re beaten by humans. The process is called “the crush” because the purpose is to crush, or break, their spirit. The goal is to force them into submission through starvation, seclusion, physical punishment and fear.
- The mistreatment does not end after the elephant is “broken in.” Bull hooks are still used to control the animals as they age.
- Asian elephants are endangered species. Some experts believe there are only 2000 wild elephants left. Illegal capturing and trade for tourism purposes happens far too often to meet the demand of tourists and therefore further diminishes these numbers.
- Spine injuries are common among elephants that are ridden.
Thankfully, tourists have alternatives to riding elephants.
These alternatives can lead to much more positive interactions between humans and elephants and honestly, a much more “close up” encounter with the beauties. These alternatives are healthy and sustainable options for the elephants, mahoots (elephants handlers) and tourists.
These alternatives come in the form of rehabilitation or retirement centers. These centers offer visitors close up and personal experiences with the animals. There are safety parameters, but visitors are allowed to feed, wash and in some instances, touch the animals. Positive reinforcement (food) is used by the mahoots, and the animals are free to roam large areas of land. There are not any cages or bull horns in sight. Luckily, no matter where you are traveling in Thailand, you are likely near one of these great facilities and have an alternative to riding and elephant.
Notable centers in Thailand include:
- Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai
- Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary – Sukhothai
- Elephant’s World – Kanchanaburi
- Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand – Petchaburi
Elephants are working animals in Thailand, and other countries in the region. I see nothing wrong with an animal working; I do think it is one of the reasons animals exist. That being said, humane treatment of animals is paramount. Can humans ride elephants in Thailand? Yes. Should they? I think the answer is no based on the methods of “breaking” the animals and the health risks associated with riding elephants. Humans should never wield their power without regard to the animals’ physical and emotional well-being. Sadly, this is the case for many elephants in Thailand. Choose an alternative to riding elephants when in Thailand; there are plenty to choose from!