Year of the Elephant

Wassana - Land mine victim in sanctuary at BLES

Wassana – Land mine victim in sanctuary at BLES

I‘m just about to climb over the top of the gate and into the elephant barn to join Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, founder of Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, as she softly sings lullabies to Faa Mai and the other elephants in the barn, when Kim loudly shouts my name in a panicked voice. I look down towards the ground just in time to see my backpack – filled with my camera, lenses, audio recording gear, and travel notebooks – get whisked away into the darkness by an errant elephant trunk like some unsuspecting victim in a horror movie. As I jump off the gate my first thoughts aren’t one of fear or anger. Simply, “But our trip has just begun!”

Elephants have always been close to our hearts and for some time Kim had wanted to travel to Asia and volunteer, so even before arriving back home from Africa late in 2012 she was making plans for the next adventure. We had friends who’d previously been to Thailand to volunteer with elephants, and in short order Elephant Nature Park was selected as a destination. Of course, not being the types to leave well enough alone we also chose another sanctuary, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, to visit following our stay at ENP. The former, located about an hour north of Chiang Mai, would put us to hard work looking after their thirty-odd elephants; while the latter, four hours south of Chiang Mai near the town of Sukhothai, would let us enjoy a leisurely “choose your own adventure” type sojourn. Both sanctuaries provide a safe, welcome home to elephants who were once street beggars, used in the illegal logging trade, ridden by paying tourists, or otherwise beaten, abused, and made to work for profit.

While ENP and BLES differ in how they approach some of their operations, the stories of the elephants at both are similarly heartbreaking. Legs broken by logs falling on them while hauling timber up and down steep, unforgiving mountainsides. Backs and hips broken by forced breeding. Feet blown off by landmines. Eyes blinded by slingshots and spears when the elephants refused to do their masters’ bidding. All… all beaten and tortured in a process known as phajaan (literally “the breaking of the spirit”), a series of mental and physical abuses that would make those meting out prisoner abuse at GitMo blush and which are intended to strip an elephant of its will and dignity in order to make them conform and comply to anything asked. The earth’s largest land mammal, extremely intelligent, hyper-social and proven to be self-aware, forced to paint pictures for admiring tourists, forced to carry them on their backs, forced to haul timber, forced to beg on the streets for money. Tortured and broken to do so, and continually beaten as a reminder that they have no free will to choose otherwise.

When asked why we were going to Thailand to volunteer at elephant sanctuaries all I could think of to say was simply, “To ask for their forgiveness.” I knew the inspiration was to further educate ourselves, to help raise awareness, to see, taste, and experience a part of the world we hadn’t been to before, but in my heart was, and still is, a very real need to pay back a debt, however possible, to an animal that deserves so much more from us than what they’ve been given.

Ollie enjoying a pre-flight libation

Ollie enjoying a pre-flight libation

We scheduled our trip for later in the year, choosing late November to make the most of the holiday time we had available and to maximize the relatively cooler weather in that part of the globe. And while we knew 2013 was going to include elephants – busying ourselves in the meantime with trips to explore the sights, sounds, and tastes of Barcelona, sampling the works of master sushi chefs, following Nick Cave across countries, and catching up with Killing Joke, among other adventures – we didn’t quite understand when the year kicked off just how much 2013 would be about elephants.

In April we joined the fundraising committee for Big Life, an organization Kim has written previously about, for a charitable event in Seattle they were initially looking at putting on in September. Every two weeks for six months Kim and I dutifully attended each committee meeting, and at each meeting I found myself wondering what exactly was being accomplished, as it was painfully evident there was little rhyme or reason to the way it was being overseen and run, much less any tangible traction being made.

While this was somewhat new territory for the two of us, we each have extensive backgrounds in project management and operations work and from the get-go it was clear how badly mismanaged the entire affair was. We tried to leave after the second meeting, which would’ve been easily enough as no one showed up for a full thirty minutes after the agreed upon time, but both of us have a character flaw which prevents us from putting ourselves first at times when it’s beneficial to do so. Plus, as Kim kept reminding me, “it’s supposed to be about the elephants,” and the on-the-ground work Big Life does in Africa makes a tangible difference and is very much worth supporting.

So instead of doing the sensical thing and running away from the committee, we dove deeper into things with the bull-headed attitude of “we can fix this!” – hoping that bravado, along with our naiveté, would be enough to see things through. The committee’s tried and true lieutenants all disappeared over time, with no explanation given, and the original group shrunk from about two dozen to just four of us who could be counted on to be there and follow through week after week, meeting after meeting. In a sign of how off-track things were, the September date for the fundraiser was pushed back to November.

A little less than two weeks before the rescheduled date I received a phone call from Big Life’s Executive Director, the person overseeing the event and the one responsible for how badly mismanaged it had been from the start. While asking one set of questions she implied that she was intending to cancel the fundraiser, claiming Big Life’s co-founder, Nick Brandt, who was due to attend to help raise funds, would be relieved if it got canceled because of a hectic travel schedule. Whether true or not, I don’t know; and while not the sole reason for pulling the plug, it was further indication of how far we were missing the mark no matter how well intended those still involved were or how well attended the event was.

Two days later an email went out from the Executive Director to the original list of committee members informing us that a decision had been made not to go forward with the fundraiser. No discussion with the committee, no follow up to go over the reasons why and what could be done to avoid a similar fate in the future, not even the courtesy of directly informing the four of us still intimately involved who had put in so much time and effort. A short, colorless email that felt like an aside, really, and an insulting way to end six months of dedicated support. When asked for an official statement to pass along to donors we had procured items from, hoping to provide them with a reasonable apology and to not lose their good will and support, we were essentially scoffed at.

All of it seemed unnecessary and from the start all of it could’ve been avoided, better managed, and handled much more tactfully. In the end, all that was accomplished was the loss of support from a dedicated group of people, along with a number of donors who wanted nothing more than to help Big Life continue the good work they’re doing in Africa, even if they’re unable to do similarly good work back home. And, of course, it was a loss for the elephants, who seemed so easily forgotten in the process.

Somewhere over Asia

Somewhere over Asia

The same weeks that the Big Life committee both began and ended, so did the Woodland Park Zoo Elephant Task Force. Reeling from bad publicity caused by an excellent Seattle Times expose on elephants in captivity, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo looked to stem the public outcry over the care and treatment of its three elephants: Bamboo and Chai (Asian), and Watoto (African). The Times was scathing in its assessment of elephants in zoos in general (for every elephant calf born in captivity, two die) and WPZ in particular (112 failed attempts at artificially inseminating Chai, as one example). The Zoo impaneled a fifteen member task force to investigate itself. Four of those fifteen members currently sit on the Zoo’s Board of Directors. A fifth, one of the panel’s two co-chairs, is a former board member. The rest had zero expertise or background in anything remotely related to elephant welfare or behavior. Yes, even in “progressive” fleece vest wearing Seattle we still keep sentient animals in cages for public display and amusement, call it conservation through creating “empathy,” and pass off an obviously stacked, self-appointed shit sandwich of a review board as being “objective and transparent.”

The Task Force met monthly, and between its hearings and the Big Life committee meetings Kim and I both felt run down and ragged. And, unsurprisingly, it felt that the topic of both – elephants – was being lost in the noise of each. Predictably, the Task Force’s final report (PDF) found that Woodland Park Zoo’s elephants were in excellent health (despite chronic joint and foot issues), that their exhibit space is adequate but could be improved slightly (despite having less than an acre to share among three elephants who would normally travel dozens of miles daily in the wild), that the Zoo is a shining example of elephant conservation in the wild (despite spending a measly $267,805 in conservation efforts between 1998 and 2012), and that should the Zoo choose to continue its breeding program they bring in a bull elephant (a fourth elephant into an already too-small exhibit space). Saddening, angering, but not at all surprising.

After the Big Life fundraiser was canceled, and the Task Force report was released, we had only two weeks to go before our trip, and by then we were well ready for an extended break. Not from elephants, but from all the bullshit that seemed to be so inextricably and unnecessarily tied to them. At the airport bar on our outbound flight we had our obligatory “we’re getting the hell out!” drink with our trip mascot, the adorable Ollie. A short hop to San Francisco followed by a fifteen hour flight across the Pacifc found us with a long layover at Hong Kong’s airport watching a mob of young girls crush on an Asian pop star while Stevie Wonder slipped quietly by afterwards in relative anonymity. (We’d return for a two-night stay in Hong Kong on our way out.) In Chiang Mai we’d spend two nights on arriving and a third night upon leaving the country, using our time to explore the old city’s temples and to wander through and sample its Sunday market.

Besides the sheer joy at being surrounded by so many beautiful elephants, and how exhausted and worn out we felt at day’s end, our first few two days at Elephant Nature Park were relatively uneventful. Cold showers were back on the menu and they never felt better. On our third day at ENP, I found myself in a deep discussion about elephants and volunteering with Canadian filmmaker David Ridgen, who had been onsite for the better part of a month working on a documentary. Somehow that conversation led to me being interviewed for the film and I only hope I came out an articulate advocate on their behalf. At least, I hope I didn’t embarrass either the elephants or myself.

Tsui Wah Eatery, HKG

Tsui Wah Eatery, HKG

That evening I finally cajoled Kim to go introduce herself to Lek. Even though Lek had previously agreed to let us interview her, Kim felt understandably nervous in introducing herself and, more importantly and more understandably, committing herself to seeing the interview through. Lek was traveling to Cambodia in the morning to oversee one of her other elephant projects and, as I told Kim would probably happen, she was up for doing the interview… now! To put even more pressure on Kim, she wanted to do it in one of the elephant barns while seated among her pachyderm family.

We rushed back to our room to gather Kim’s questions, along with my camera and audio gear, and then sped over to the barn. Inside, Lek was seated underneath Faa Mai singing the calf a gentle, sweet lullaby, while the elephants there browsed on fresh cut grass. The door was closed, which meant we’d need to either climb over the railing or squeeze through the bars. I went with the first option, thinking I could leave my gear at the bottom and pull it through the bars after I was inside. The reptilian part of my brain warned me about leaving my gear unattended, but my pack was outside the barn and seemed to be well enough away from any curious elephants. “Plus,” I said to myself as I started to climb up, “I won’t be longer than a few seconds.”

That’s when Kim screamed my name.

The elephant who grabbed my bag was in an adjoining stall. Lek immediately ran over and began yelling at her to put it down, but the big burglar was having none of it. She threw my pack left, right, up and down, onto her back and then onto the ground. As Lek climbed over into the stall to try and get it back the elephant put it under one of her front feet. They say elephants know exactly where their feet are at all times – it’s one reason why Lek feels so comfortable sitting underneath them singing lullabies. So when the elephant put her foot on my bag I breathed a sigh of relief because she did it ever-so-gently, as if understanding it didn’t belong to her. I thought to myself, “That’s good. She realizes it’s not hers and she’s not going to…” CRACK! “…break it.”

Lek apologized profusely, and I apologized back even more adamantly. I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t upset. I was utterly embarrassed for having left my bag unattended when I should’ve known better, and I was upset with myself for having put Lek and those with us in potential danger while trying to retrieve it. Even more embarrassingly, I hadn’t yet officially introduced myself to Lek and Kim had yet to do the interview. “Hi, I’m Craig. Nice to meet you! I think Kim’s ready to interview you now.”

My bag retrieved and the contents examined – camera crushed, lenses and audio gear strangely unmarred – the situation quieted down significantly. And as Kim began interviewing Lek the only other thoughts going through my head were, “Our trip has just begun!” Followed by, “This is going to make for a very interesting insurance claim.”

But it didn’t matter. It was the Year of the Elephant for us, and nothing could take away the joy in, once again, being on an adventure with my sweetie; following our passions, working towards something good, and trying to take a piece of it away to hopefully inspire others to think a little about the world in which they live and the majestic things we share it with. One camera left with indelible elephant prints was a small price to pay for the journey we are on.

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