I had the pleasure of working with many animals during my volunteer veterinary stint at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand. But the animal I felt closest to was a 55year old elephant Boonmee, who had only been at the centre a short time and was a very cheeky old girl. We had to get Boonmee into an elephant crush every day to flush a large abscess on her side, that we suspected had been caused by a bullhook (an instrument used to make elephants 'behave'). She always showed such personality, tricking new volunteers into giving her mass amounts of delicious treats while we cleaned her abscess and washed her down. I always felt like she could look into my eyes and see my soul, elephant eyes show such great understanding and wisdom.
But the moment I truely bonded with Boonmee wasn't when I worked with her one on one, it was one night when she probably didn't even realize I was watching her. It was around 10pm and I heard trumpeting from her enclosure, which was metres away from my room. A few of us then watched Boonmee running around her large enclosure throwing hay onto her head, rolling her toys, jumping in her water and just generally being a silly elephant. It was so beautiful to see this elephant who had lived in chains or pens or whole life enjoying herself so freely like she hadn't a care in the world.
Boonmee worked hard for 40 long years. She worked in the logging industry as a young elephant and for 25 years worked in the Thai Elephant tourist industry. This meant for 25 years she had one, or two, or even four people riding on her back day in day out. Although she was not mistreated at the elephant camp she also wasn't well cared for.
Unfortunately Boonmee's story is not unique, or even unusual. Currently there are over 2,500 domesticated elephants working in one way or another in Thailand, and the last recorded data on wild populations of elephants in Thailand had their number at a low 1,900. It is a sad world we live in to think there are more animals enslaved in a population then living free in the wild.
Perhaps the cruelest aspect of elephants in captivity is the 'breaking of the spirit' which is a common practice used to tame wild young elephants. Calves are taken from their mothers, beaten, deprived of food, light and water for days on end. Then finally their mahout (elephant trainer) 'rescues' them from this abuse and the elephant for ever looks upon them as the savior.
Fortunately there is a lot of education on the cruelty inflicted upon elephants all over the world, making tourists much more aware of what goes on. And for individual animals like Boonmee there are centres, such as the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand that provide 'retirement homes' for elephants.
If you want to get up close and personal with an elephant I would strongly suggest volunteering or doing a tour of an elephant refuge such as Wildlife Friend Thailand, where no body is allowed to ride, hurt or make the elephants do anything they don't want to do.
For more info on the centre visit my Take Action page