"Introduce yourself, say your name, say her name," the guide instructed. I touch her, the rescued, wrinkled giant. "Hi Mae Thai, I'm Leslie." Our guide voices my excitement, "See? She knows her name!" Mae flaps her ears and I find myself grinning as big as she is.
About twenty years ago, I watched a documentary about Elephants. To this day I couldn't tell you many detail about the film, but I can tell you that when it was over, I sat there bawling and muttering something about Elephant Sisterhood and how I had forever been imprinted with a love for these giant mammals of compassion.
My two-decade love for elephants is only a small factor in what an inspiring and wonderful experience I had visiting an Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. The park itself is dedicated to rehabilitating abused and overworked Elephants and acts as a refuge for these animals. The park doesn't allow tourists to ride or bathe the Elephants, but rather observe, participate in their daily activities and be a part of their world for a day.
Most of the Elephants have an incredible back story. It's the type of story that could warrant a lot of therapy and conversations about their parents and bad relationships. Most of them were abused or used illegally. Many of them have at least one foot that was blown up from accidentally stepping on landmines in countries that set traps because of internal conflicts. All of them were rescued at some point and brought to where they could play and eat and live out their lives with other Elephant sisters.
These "sisters" are the family groups we observed during our time at the Elephant Park. Grannies and Aunties and adopted Moms make up all of the families we followed. The male Elephants in the wild go off once they "have their hormones" and live isolated lives except during times of reproduction. The Nature Park carefully mimicked the natural elephant life including this separation of male and female Elephants and even allows the female Elephants to find a mate when the time is right, but never forced. "They get to pick their own boyfriend," our guide grins. I want to ask questions but decide not to and opt to grin back.
We continue our walk to another herd where two Elephants are eating quietly. One has a purple foot and stands close to the other, who we learn is blind in one eye. We are informed, "Sri Prae never leaves her friend's side. She is the seeing Elephant for her friend. Sri Prae, with the purple foot, had her foot blown up from a landmine but she is always taking care of her blind friend, Jokia."
I feed Jokia, before her care-taker comes to see what's happening. Sri Prae flaps her ears and stands close enough for me to touch her wrinkly face. She looks at me and I at her. "Thank you for caring for your friend," I say to Sri Prae. In that moment I feel an appreciation for the work she does to stand with her friend in her time of need. Sri Prae flaps her ears, grins, and moves forward with Jokia.
There are many encounters similar to this. We watch as the grannies cluck and trumpet at the babies. We learn each of the Elephant's names and where they came from and what their lives were like before their rescue. We hear the words from our guide and watch the language of the Elephant tribes. We say little to each other as we follow them in awe. Sometimes we break the silence with a laugh when the little ones play, or we speak in soft whispers as we watch the smallest one nurse, but most of the time we are there as witnesses to their new lives.
I can not overstate how wonderful it is.
There are so many ways we communicate, verbally and non-verbally. The time at the Elephant Nature Park will always be a spacious memory filled with compassion and respect. It's a lesson in kindness, in forgiveness, and in community. If we want to, we can learn a lot from these magnificent creatures. English is not their first language, nor is it Thai or Burmese. It's a deeper language based in connection and compassion.
It was, and is, an honor to have this experience.
Note about Elephant Parks
If I may encourage you to not go to just any "Elephant Sanctuary". Find one that is specifically for rescuing Elephants FROM tourism and illegal work. See More: Elephant Tourism
Also, I added a bunch of photos to Flickr in an album. We still use Flickr, right?