This is me. Riding an Elephant in Thailand.
Back then this was the highlight of my backpacking trip, the thing that I was looking forward to the most. One of the things I spoke about at length when I arrived home to family and friends, and my cover photo on Facebook for a long time.
Earlier on in our trip, our tour guide had given us the choice of going to the infamous Tiger Temple. Half of us went, the other half including me stayed at the hotel, having heard of the drugging horrors of the concrete palace. Fast-forward a year later, and a travelling companion persuaded us to visit a zoo in Belgrade. I walked around that zoo with tears streaming down my face as I watched starving wolves fight each other for food, monkeys and bears sat in tiny concrete boxes and ironically an elephant stood alone on a tiny island, chained at the feet with nothing but despair in her beautiful eyes. I left feeling horrified, dirty and ashamed of myself that I had ever been persuaded to pay into such an inhumane organisation. So why was it that I was so against these places, yet riding an Elephant didn’t even cross my mind as cruel?
I love animals. I honestly love every single animal I see. I can’t walk past a cat or a dog in the street without commenting on them (ask my boyfriend) and I can’t stand to see an animal suffer. I grew up on a farm and have been around animals my whole life. I have learnt to respect them and their power and I have learnt to look after them with kindness and love. Many animal activists may argue that I am hypocritical; after all, my farming roots go against everything that they have been campaigning for. While to a certain extent I agree, my family’s herds honestly do have an amazing life and I grew up knowing that no animal should ever die for fun or suffer for human entertainment. As farmers go I would say my family are pretty spot on and I would never hear anyone say otherwise.
Although I have always loved animals, I guess I was naive in many ways to what counted as animal cruelty. I was against all of the obvious spectacles, but I was not educated enough to realise the more subtle signs of animal abuse.
Cue my third year at the University of Exeter, where as a Sociology major I decided to take an Anthropology module named ‘Human Animal Interactions’. Let me tell you it was a wake up call. I learnt so much over just one term, everything from the obvious forms of cruelty such as zoos and shows, to less obvious forms of animal abuse such as the use of therapy animals and how they are often over-worked without adequate breaks. We debated for hours about factory farms, hunting, ‘Wildlife Tourism’ and everything in between. I began to form a new perspective of non-human animals and how we as human animals have no more right over the earth than the species we share it with. I went away and I did my research, I watched Blackfish and cried for the Orcas who lost their babies when Seaworld stole them and I also came across the horrific torture that Elephants go through before they are used for tourist purposes.
The treatment of Elephants has been widely shared on social media channels of late as the public begin to hit back at Elephant tourism in popular destinations such as Thailand and Sri Lanka. In order for these majestic and powerful creatures to be ‘domestic’ and ‘controllable’ they are put through Phajaan AKA the breaking of an elephant’s spirit. Baby elephants are beaten, burnt, tortured and mistreated until they are submissive to humans. They are then sold on to work in the tourist industry.
When I read this for the first time my heart broke. How could I have not done my research before I rode an elephant? How did I not notice the vacant, sad expression on his face, the bid for freedom he made after my ride that everyone laughed off and how was I not perplexed by the mighty hook which was being used on his head to guide him around the park? The truth is I chose to ignore them because I didn’t want to think about it. And I am ashamed. And I am angry.
When I visited Thailand 4 years ago, it wasn’t a popular destination among my peers. But since then I have seen an increasing number of people I know visit East Asia, visit the tiger temple, and ride elephants. I want to shake them and tell them they’ll regret it, that they’re buying into a cruel trade. I learnt from my mistakes and I don’t want people to follow my lead or cause these beautiful creatures any more pain.
When I embark on my next trip to Thailand in January I will not be riding elephants. I plan to spend a week at the Elephant Nature park in Chiang Mai to volunteer with the elephants they have rescued and the dogs they have saved from the streets. I want to learn more about the Elephant’s plight and I want to watch them begin to rebuild their spirit. I want to look those beautiful creatures in the eye and say sorry and I want them to be able to forgive me; and for me to to begin to forgive myself.
We will all make mistakes when it comes to animal welfare. Whether it’s eating meat you know was from a factory farm, participating in tourist activities abroad or even killing a bug on your bedroom wall. We are only human and that’s OK… As long as you’re willing to own it and do better. I urge every single person to educate themselves on animal welfare before they go away and think about more than your latest social media post.It is amazing that the world is becoming more aware, making a stand against animal cruelty in ways we never have before. But there is always more that needs to be done and we need to continue to make this world a better place for all species of animals. As the species who have taken over, and ruined this world we owe animals everything. Yes I rode an elephant. It is not OK and I will regret it for the rest of my life. Don’t let yourself make the same mistake.