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July 2014

The List: Number 13 – Ride/Swim with an Elephant

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Number 13 on The List… after my last post about tigers it’s difficult to come back and tell you how I rode and swam with elephants. I know that my last post was also about animal abuse in the name of tourism and profit and it’s almost as if I hadn’t learnt anything last time, because this is the same line all over again. I did this, I rode and swam with elephants and I did it TWICE because I loved it so much.

It’s less than awesome, I know. 100% wrong, and horrible.

Wild animals shouldn’t be used as tourist attractions to make money.

It’s a weak excuse, ignorance, but the truth was I actually didn’t know. This experience was sold as a delightful add on. It was on The List, and so I said yes. Ticked the box that said free elephant experience if you get the tiger one. See the tigers and swim with the elephants! Fun times all around. Then because the first time was so phenomenal I booked a second experienced when we had a spare day.

Obviously that week was big on animal abuse, one that I recognise I encouraged with my tourist money, and I didn’t even realise. It wasn’t until I got back to the UK a good month later and was going through the photos that I started to wonder, and then I saw the huge outcry that Dooce got when she happened upon a baby elephant unexpectedly… and my heart sort of dropped. I read her post, and clicked through all the links, and followed more down a rabbit hole of how very not awesome elephant tourism is. And then I put some search terms into google and went down a few more rabbit holes.

Shame. That’s how I feel. Uncomfortable shame.

So, I’m going to post the pictures from both days and talk about how easy and amazing it was, and how very wrong the whole situation is. I promise this is the is the last animal cruelty tourist post I’ll write, because I don’t plan on supporting any more of these experiences with my tourist money. My eyes, 100% wide open.

After the tigers, we were driven on our tour out to Elephant Village Muang Sing, which is small elephant park. So small it doesn’t have a website, and is mostly advertised through tour operators. It wasn’t far away, really. First up we went swimming, which ideally was to help bath the elephant.

We got on the back of an elephant, and walked down to the water. Once in the water it was lovely, really. We sat on the back of the elephant has he waded around. Sometimes he sat, sometimes he stood. What I didn’t realise at the time is that he was 100% following instructions from his mahout for our benefit.

It is not okay to train animals behaviour to do tricks for tourists.

But that’s what he did. You stand here, and he lifts his trunk, lifting you into the air. You stand here, on his leg, and he’ll lift you up, a nice board for you to dive off, or pose for a photo.

We have a million photos. Millions of them. I’m actually ashamed to post them all and realised that I was posting two of the more tame ones. Truth is that most of them actually look more like this one:

Oh, sad face.

It is terrible, I know this. But it was also amazing – an absolutely phenomenal experience. Scrubbing away at the elephant with little brushes while he moved around us was really lovely. His skin was rough, and bristly in most spots, and in others (like behind his ears) so soft and silken. He was massive, and I felt tiny and small next to him. It was pretty amazing.

Next up, we had an elephant ride.

Dun dun dun. This was at least really physically uncomfortable. Riding behind the elephants head was a million times more comfortable for us than riding in that horrible chair. It’s even more horrible for the elephant.

Elephants spines aren’t designed to support the weight of humans long term.

Add two humans and that horrible chair contraption, factor in (based on the number of sessions we could pick from) 10 half hour walks a day and that’s a good five hours a day of carrying around a lot of weight on a back that isn’t meant to be carrying that much weight around. Which means the more we ride them, we’re causing some seriously long-term harm. Boo.

I think even worse for me though is that wild elephants won’t let humans ride on top of the. To tame a wild elephant, a baby elephant is basically tortured.

Baby elephants should not be tamed. Baby elephants should not be tortured

It’s horrible. It looks like this:

(source. Photo taken by Brent Lewin / Redux Pictures. Brent won a Science/Natural History Award of Excellence for this image at the Pictures of the Year competition in 2011.)

Here is a video. I actually couldn’t even watch all of it. I got a few seconds in and felt sick (and ashamed, and guilty….)

It’s ghastly. Horrific. I HATE it. But this is how they tame elephants. They call it crushing (or Phajaan). They take them away from their mothers, confine them to a small space and beat them clubs and prod them with bull hooks. On top of that, they are starved and deprived of sleep. They learn to fear the bull hook, and take commands from their mahout.

We take a relatively relaxed ride through the jungle on the back of an elephant with no idea that, to begin with, this how they train them to do that.

Yeah. Look at that massive big hook that mahout is carrying. He carried that the whole way around our walk.

Shame shame shame shaaaaaame. That’s how I feel. All of the shame.

Afterwards, we fed them. You buy a bucket of bananas and stand on a balcony and they come up and eat. Considering how much they eat, I feel like this little single bit was acceptable. This bit alone was okay (and I did lots of checking, turns out elephants eat bananas if they can find them, and they’re not deprived of food outside of crushing, and they get enough foilage… I was sure at this point that by feeding them I was doing something wrong).

And then we gave our mahouts tips for the amazing experience (because it was amazing, ignorance allows things like this to be amazing) and we went home, uploaded some shots to instagram and talked about how fantastic that whole thing was. What an amazing day! Oh, we had no idea. No idea about the animal cruelty that had been inflicted so we could have had such an amazing day.

It was so amazing, and we talked about it for such a long time that a week later we did it again. This time we were in Krabi, and visited Nosey Parker Elephant Camp (yes, that was it’s actual name).

This time we did a trek on the elephant, which seemed fine enough. This elephant had an experienced mahout who generally guided the elephant around with words and clucks rather than using pain or the bull hook he carried with him. He was pretty lovely, actually. The elephant seemed pretty happy, and was allowed to stop and eat and she pleased. Her daughter met us half way around and they were clearly affectionate with each other.

Which is to say it all seemed so relaxed and easy. It’s hard to align such a lovely ride with all the horrible training that she had to go through to get there.

Sad face.

Next, we went swimming with another lady elephant. This one did an awful lot of pooping, and at one point I was completely surrounded by it, before the current took it away down river.

Otherwise, it was just as lovely as previously. Elephant moves around and underneath you, sprays you with water. Sits down in the water as you swim around her. Again, another lovely, glorious experience. Really difficult to remember that as wonderful as it was, she’d never interact like this with anyone in the wild. Never ever.

She’s been trained to do this, for our benefit, so someone else can make a profit.

Sad face.

So, if I was ashamed before about the tigers, I’m even more ashamed now.

How to help? – Do your research.

I didn’t do enough research, I really really didn’t. I didn’t know about the abuse, or how they train elephants into doing unnatural things. I didn’t know that elephants spines don’t do well with human loads for long hours. I didn’t know that there’s a law loop hole and baby elephants are being trafficked into Thailand. I didn’t know that tourist dollars are primarily fuelling this abuse.

I didn’t know. I didn’t think. I didn’t ask questions. I should have.

Visit sanctuaries, not for profit tourist experiences

If you want to visit with elephants, make sure you’re doing it at a sanctuary like the Elephant Nature Park. This place? Rescues elephants from abuse, exactly like the two places that I visited. The Nosey Parker Elephant Park and the Elephant Village Muang Sing both train unnatural behaviour for tourist + profit. They both crush their elephants into submission.

Visit a place where elephants don’t have to carry people around on their backs for rides. Where they won’t be beaten or prodded with bull hooks. Where they don’t have to be tortured into obeying.

There are places like that. You can still interact with them, apparently. However the elephants aren’t forced into interacting with you.


Donate to WWF. Turns out the Asian Elephant is endangered (there are now less than 2000 wild elephants living in Thailand) and it’s habitat is shrinking thanks to an ever growing human population. Wild elephant populations are mostly small, isolated, and unable to join as ancient migratory routes are cut off by human settlements.

WWF is committed to conserving the remaining wild populations and their habitats. It’s a worthy cause, I think.

So then, I did #13 and #72 in the same week, and I have to say I’m not proud of having done either.

The List: Number 72 – Pat a Tiger

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Okay… so this was on The List. And I did this… Our third day in Thailand we did a tour, drove out the many hours to Kanchanaburi and paid to see and interact with tigers. It was all kinds of amazing, exactly like you’d expect it to be… except I do have put up a really big disclaimer: I didn’t think I was doing a bad thing.

Which is to say – I was absolutely doing a bad thing. Because at the heart of it?

Wild animals shouldn’t be used as tourist attractions to make money.

No wild animal should have to pose for a photo with me. No animal should be bred and then forced into interaction with people. I point blank didn’t realise while I was out there what I was doing, and yes, I fully 100% agree that supporting the tourist fuelled animal abuse trade is horrific.

When I think about it now, I feel guilty. It was an experience of a lifetime, and I didn’t stop to ask the bigger questions, and I didn’t see the subtext.

So, photos first. Because it did happen and it was absolutely a highlight of our trip and I feel slightly ill thinking about it. Then why these photos are terrible, and what we can all do about the horrible horrible things.

Tiger Temple is not a conservation project

So, at the very start of the day we stopped and got food to donate to the monks. We had a wad of cash for donations to the temple too. We met the monks, kind of. We stood behind tables and they walked by us. As they went we put food in their baskets. It was awkward and weird.

We then met our very blonde, very young and very very American lady guide who told us thus: The monks at Tiger Temple took in a few rescued tigers. Originally they were circus animals, or possibly poached orphans. And the amazing monks cared for them and since then everything has gone swimmingly. They operate as a conversation project, and their main goal is retraining tigers to hunt and letting them loose on a reserve, and caring for those that couldn’t fend for themselves. They let nature do their thing (which is to say, the tigers breed and have babies). They now have over 100 tigers, and we were lucky to be see a part of the whole big project while it was all going on.

Mm. After I left I started doing a bit more research. Turns out the Temple is neither a sanctuary nor a recognised conservation NGO, despite us paying out ‘donations’. To be a conservation project you have to promote the well being of the animals in captivity. You educate people about the animal and fund protective programs for animals in the wild. As a conversation project you fund the money you receive back into conservation and protection, right?

As I understand it and from what I saw the first one seemed to be on par (from my very limited, non-existent expertise). There weren’t any education centres or displays about tigers at all. The protective programs in the wild also seemed non-existent (our blonde lady didn’t have any answers about how they train tigers to return to hunt, and just said they weren’t in the habit of releasing animals who can’t help themselves into the wild…)

Tiger cubs shouldn’t be removed from their mother for tourist photos

Next, our young blonde american guide gave us a run down of the rules. Remove all red clothing. The smaller ones are a bit like domestic cats, but sometime they bite. When it comes to the bigger tigers, don’t touch the tigers faces, if you get permission to pat the tiger from the minder, only the back, and only the top. Don’t turn your back on the tigers, and always pay attention to the minders. They’re there to keep us safe.

And with that, they let us loose. We bottle fed some of the youngsters. Oh man, you guys they were adorable. Some were tiny and small and some really weren’t. Each tiger had a minder or two, and we were able to move freely between them. Sometimes feeding them, sometimes patting them. Whichever. It really was a free for all.

Some of the larger cats were chained to the side… at the time it made sense from a safety point of view. Now? Now I think that perhaps there is a reason why tigers are mostly solitary and there is a reason why mother tigers feed the cubs, instead of human tourists. Perhaps being tied up to feed isn’t the most awesome of things.

Now, here’s the thing. These cubs were tiny. Some clearly less than a month old. The bigger ones which weren’t even a year weren’t as cuddly as the younger, smaller ones. If cubs are meant to stick to their mother until the two year mark, then these tiny little babies were being removed purely for us. The tourists, to take photos of and feed and pat.

I feel a bit ill, really. I was so happy at the time, but now? It’s horrific. I had such a great time and it makes me uncomfortable to think about it. Sad face.

Next up we took the tigers for a walk. Which is to say, they handed us leashes, and we got a minder and we walked very carefully behind our tiger. Seriously, if he had wanted to bolt we wouldn’t have been able to do anything to stop him. We stopped when he stopped. We walked when he walked. We followed him. The leash thing was a bit a of a misnomer, really.

Still, he had a belly full of milk and knew where he was going and was happy to go there. So off we went.

Seriously you guys, that grin on my face doesn’t even come close to the joy I felt just then. Being so close to a tiger, the delight at following him around. It was amazing. Which I think in part is why I feel so guilty now. That little itty bitty tiger shouldn’t be forced into interactions with humans, let alone paying tourists like me.


High risk interactions between tigers + tourists is not cool

He didn’t really like what came next, either. We gave him a bath, which was less than fun for everyone. It’s a bit bizarre to have your hands on the back end of a tiger, and then FEELING him rumble his unhappiness at being washed. He wasn’t loud or vocal about it, other than the occasional ear flick. If I hadn’t had my hands on him when he did it I wouldn’t have noticed. Still, he doesn’t look happy or comfortable, does he?

Which as I read it back, is kind of ridiculous.


What the actual fuck, you guys. There is no way that is safe. After a quick google search I found this. That actually happened at Tiger Temple, a girl got mauled doing exactly what I was doing. Holy shit, you guys. I’m actually blown away by how cool but really not cool this all is.

A tigers diet needs to include red meat

So, after washing our grumbly tiger, We fed him chicken after to appease him. However, because he’d just eaten not an hour before he wasn’t that interested. When I asked the keeper what they fed them, she pretty much waved the chicken around and said ‘this’

Apparently red meat is too expensive? As I understand it tigers need to eat red meat regularly to get the enzyme taurine and other essential vitamins for their muscle development and long-term health… I’m really not sure about this, because while I’m sure that running the temple is expensive, but we paid a fuckton of money (“donation”) to the temple, and counting the 20+ tourists in our crew, knowing they do it every day that’s a lot of cash coming in. You’d think that red meat would be up there on the priority list…

Next up these young critters went back to their folks (or so we were told) and we walked one of the bigger cats down to the enrichment centre. When I say ‘we’ I mean the entire group of twenty. We got to walk behind the tiger, each taking a turn of about half a minute, snapping some photos and then moving out of the way for the next couple.

I’m actually kind of ashamed at my grin.

Next up, enrichment with the teens. This was actually really fun, and bar the completely not safe-ness in it, this part of the show seemed at least to be good for the tigers. They were very active, and played as they pleased. In fact, mostly they behaved exactly as a domestic cat would, if you had an enticing bit of string. Some weren’t interested, and that was fine too.

We each had a minder and a stick of recyclables to wave about. I remember that one of the tigers lay down in the water (it was a stinking hot day, easily 40°C+) and he lay on my foot, wrapping his tail around our legs as he watched the bottles from above.

As you can see there is no barrier between us and the tigers. They were RIGHT THERE. Oh man. It’s kind of mind blowing now, but at the time it seemed like the most natural thing to do in the world. So easy, and everyone assured us perfectly safe. Being in that context with people ushering you around and encouraging this kind of behaviour it just seemed so natural. You couldn’t go there and make a fuss about being in a space with tigers, really. Better to not go at all I think.

Afterwards, we were ushered into much larger area, and had photos with an adult tiger with his head in your lap.

Okay, I personally don’t think this tiger was drugged. Considering that tigers are mostly nocturnal, and it was hella hot, I can see this tiger being pretty placid. Apparently this tiger had been trained to do this, and had been doing it for such a long time he knew the drill and wasn’t bothered by it (this doesn’t excuse the practice or make it safe… my point is I don’t think he was drugged). I think even more telling was that once we’d all had our photos, he got up and was just as active as the other cats.

What I remember though, is that his head was really heavy. Ridiculously heavy. His fur wasn’t as soft like I imagined, but thick and a bit rough to the touch. He was amazing, and huge. The size of him was overwhelming. He watched lots of people but after a while was happy to close his eyes and snooze in the heat. He was pretty aware, if someone came too near he opened his eyes to look at them. It was pretty awe inspiring.

In saying that, it 100% isn’t okay to train a tiger to do this. It 100% is not okay to pay money and have an animals behaviour changed for tourist photo opportunities.

It is not okay to train animals behaviour to do tricks for tourists

Next up, we were corralled into a little pen (mostly a flimsy fence tied together with string. True story) and we watched some of the adults play. They had been chained to hoops in the ground, but once loose mostly hung out. It was really really hot, so while some of them were reluctant to play, one or two could be coerced into chasing the bag of recyclables on a stick.

After the show we went on our merry way. As I was thinking about it after, there were a few questions I wished I’d ask, but didn’t. Or if I did ask, was redirected or shut down.

Illegal tiger trafficking? That shouldn’t even be a question.

One of the questions I had is if they’re allowing the tigers to breed naturally (which they are, when I asked I got a haughty american accent with the comment ‘I don’t know why anyone would say more tigers in the world is a bad thing’) then if there are 100+ tigers breeding, with a reproductive cycle of a litter a year, and it’s been around for over 15 years… shouldn’t there be more tigers? A lot more tigers? Where are all the other tigers?

Where are the trained professionals?

Our blonde guide was blissfully in her first season as a paid professional. Previously? All her tiger experience was here, as a volunteer, which is kind of disturbing. Also, I’m pretty sure the minders we had didn’t have degrees in zoology or biology (or whatever it is that people who work with animals are meant to educate themselves in). To be fair, they literally just seemed like people pulled from wherever they could find them. The complete opposite of what I’d expect of a sanctuary.

Sad face.

There were many terrible things, but this trip was amazing.

So, there are many things which are less than awesome about this place. But what I struggle with most? This trip was amazing. Being so near the tigers was amazing. Having a tiger comfortable enough to snooze in my lap was by far one of the most phenomenal things I’ve ever experienced. I struggle because all of things were so very amazing to experience, and I’d love to do all of it all over again.

I also know that this practice is terrible. Morally I’m 100% opposed to animals in captivity being trained unnatural behaviour to do tricks for tourists. It makes me uncomfortable, and it’s not something I want to encourage.

However, the pull of all of the amazing is really really strong. I actively have to keep thinking that in a way it’s a kind of rape (forcing an animal into unnatural behaviours) to pull my feelings about that day into line with my moral values.

So, then….

Should you go to Tiger Temple? No.

I want to say no. Don’t go. Don’t buy into animal cruelty. But, I get that some people are a bit dubious and have different morals than me. This guy volunteered there, has a whole bunch of posts about it and came to a similar conclusion. If you go, he says be aware that your money is not supporting tiger conservation. The tigers, which are the stars of the show are practically working in a circus. It’s a tiger business.

Sad face.

How to help

Donate. Donate to WWF’s TX2 Tiger program. A program across 12 countries with an aim double the number of tigers in the wild. Apparently there as few as 3,000 wild tigers left in the world. Part of it is a lack of habitat, part of it because some cultures still believe that tiger products cure ills (they don’t), which creates a demand for poaching.

TX2 aims has six aims:

1. End demand for tiger parts, but educating consumers away from tiger products.
2. Reduce the means by which tigers are culled, through anti-poaching measure and the political scene.
3. To protect tiger habitat, to establish protected areas and corridors between them.
4. Encourage knowledge around research and monitoring techniques
5. Reduce conflict between people and tigers.
6. Increase political will, funding and commitment moving forward.

As far as I can tell from the research I’ve done, this seems to be the most efficient and forward thinking campaign for tigers at the moment.

So. I went. #72, done. I think this is the first time that I’ve ever had regret over completing something from The List. Sad face.