The Elephant Keepers

A palace was the last stop before venturing to the elephant place. It was an extremely scenic spot, with a large water monitor cruising through the river like a crocodile guarding a castle. The area was full of history about the progression of Thailand, but the heat was unbearable. Apparently knees are too scandalous, so we had to rent floor length wrap skirts to cover ourselves. We later found out that they were not rentals and we purchased the heavy, brightly coloured wraps. Oh good.

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After packing and one last sleep in air conditioned glory, we were off. The university managed to set us up with an elephant retirement home. It uses visitor fees from people who want to come watch the elephants eat and frolic in the water to pay for their care. When we first arrived, we were told that the people who work and volunteer there were responsible for making sure all the elephants had to do was eat, sleep, and shit. Sounds like a decent life. They have to put up with people gawking at them for a portion of the day, but the majority of them had been removed from terrible logging work, or tourist camps where they were treated poorly. They work closely with the vet school, to treat the elephants when needed, and send them to the hospital for long term care.

People from all over the world come to see the elephants, or spend a month volunteering here to teach those who visit.

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The elephants are magnificent creatures, who are gentle for their size. Though, they are not always that way. When working with large animals you have to constantly be aware of what they are capable of. Elephants have complex social relationships, an amazing memory, and are the only other creature known to suffer from PTSD. Traumatic experiences can harm them psychologically, as with many other creatures. The elephants here that are more dangerous are marked with a red rope around their neck. There is one elephant here that pulled the arm off someone at the logging camp she was at before she was rescued. Never underestimate them.

There are signs here not to take selfies. Not for social shaming, but to ensure unsuspecting tourists don’t turn their back to them for long periods of time. Sure, they appear gentle, and they can move so silently you forget how much power they have behind those enchanting eyes. I am all for appreciating their beauty, but don’t expect them to want to cuddle. You have to approach them respectfully and slowly. Even then, you have to remain vigilant.

The park here does what they can to ensure people act appropriately around them, and they have rules in place to create distance between them. However, when treating them, you have to be up close and personal with theses massive creatures. I have a new-found respect for elephant vets.

Some of the activities here involve watching them frolic in a mud bathing area, which I really enjoy. The elephants just get to do what they want. Watching the youngest one play around in the water always makes me smile. The other activities involve feeding the elephants, which they seem to enjoy as well, and bathing them in the river. After their mud bath, the Mahouts or ‘elephant keepers’ take them to the river to scrub them clean. Sure, they can douse themselves in water, but it doesn’t quite do the same job and a good old scrub brush and bucket. It is quite fun. I always enjoy having a spa date with those beautiful ladies. They flap their ears and make their t-rex like grumbles to let their people know they enjoy it too.

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We are here in a weird in-between context. We aren’t tourist, but we aren’t tour guide volunteers either. We get to enjoy the activities that the visitors do, but in our own time and also spend time learning about elephant care and what treatments the university has arranged. We help out by organizing the clinic area, discussing different aspects of medicine, assisting with the daily work of the clinic and care of the elephants. So basically, I love it here.

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