Me and my family visited an 'Elephant Sanctuary' in Hua Hin Thailand and as they are my favourite animals I was obviously extremely excited to go. The elephants are supposedly saved from hunting in the Wild, but after spending 40 minutes walking, feeding and washing a baby elephant I'm seriously questioning if they have any quality of life at all in their new 'home'. The lady who owned the sanctuary tried to impress me by telling me 'they dance', explaining to us how the elephant 'likes to wonder about' as if that wasn't an obvious statement when it comes to any 'wild animals'. I'll admit, when we arrived I got extremely emotional in front of a crowd of Thai workers and tourists waiting for their turn with the elephants. It felt wrong that I was to pay for this baby elephant stood chained in a small enclosure to be my entertainment. Songkran's small space of a few metres which I was enabling her freedom from alongside the money i'd spent supposedly 'helping' the elephants was the reason I pulled myself together and started walking and feeding her.
I've definitely never classed myself as a stereotypical animal lover, but It took me by surprise how distraught I was seeing an animal living in this way. This seriously made me question why I eat meat if I can't even see another animal being tortured in such a way. We walked Songkran the baby elephant and it was honestly heartwarming feeding her with my bare hands and stroking her, although her moment of freedom only really lasted for about 15 minutes.
We were then invited back into her tiny enclosure to give her a wash, partially enjoyable, although it was clear that this process was one the elephant knew all too well. I didn't find out how many elephants they had in the enclosure, but after my brother spurred out a multitude of interrogative questions we were disappointed to discover there were very little. My family were obviously against seeing the elephant show so I could not tell you how many animals are taught tricks, but I can share my emotional experience and encourage people not to go and watch them perform. My opinion hasn't changed on the animals, they are sensitive and beautiful, but I wish I could have done more. Once we finished washing her the man told us we could 'take pictures'. Innocently I stood next to the elephant, reduced to tears as the man directed the animal to the floor, making it cross its behind legs and front arms, completely UNNATURAL. Again I was reduced to tears and told the man to get the elephant to stand up, taking one photo hugging Songkran for the memory. The elephant didn't 'seem' in pain, that's not what made me upset. As we left the elephant appeared with a basket held in its trunk with money in it. I looked at the man who gestured towards us to put money in the basket; I felt a sense of anger within me. The sympathy trick worked and we put money in the basket, but as his wife covered in pink garments and excessive jewellery looked at us and tugged Songkran's ears, I seriously questioned the moral intentions of the sanctuary. SongKran's gesture should have provoked sympathy from me, a Tourist, to then put money in the basket. All I saw was a trained Wild Animal crafted into behaving in a certain way. As we got ready to leave I stroked the beautiful elephant and gave her a hug, honestly quite content that I got to be so close to my favourite animal.
It was only until I walked away that it all dawned on me that the whole purpose of this tourist attraction was to entertain us, just as the hunters do in the wild, we selfishly make these beautiful creatures something for our disposal. It brings me to tears writing this just thinking about how we walked away to the sound of music booming through the outdoor speakers, men shouting at the poor animal as it practiced for its 'evening show'. The last image I can remember of SongKran was her with a Harmonica in her trunk, moving in patterns which mimicked dance moves. It disgusts me how we are tricked into believing their quality of life is OK, it definitely isn't. A show or not, every movement of these elephants lives are rehearsed, they are performing animals 24 hours of the day. A tug of her ear made Songkran look as though she was smiling, but I don't believe these animals can ever be truly happy living in these enclosures.
I can't look at pictures of Songkran because it makes me so sad. Hunting is vile and of course I will never condone it, BUT that doesn't mean I will condone Elephant dancing because it's a 'better option'. I'm sure not ever 'sanctuary' is the same as the one I visited, but I can't help but share my experience and beg anyone who considers these shows or elephant rides to just not do it.