Okay, so even though it wasn’t quite as magical as seeing elephants in the wild, seeing elephants at the Samui Elephant Haven was still pretty magical. We were able to get up close and personal with these weird, giant animals. We got to feed the elephants. Elephants have thick, rubbery skin, covered with stiff bristly hair. I know because I got to pet them, too.
Ethical Elephant events
“Big deal!” you might be saying to yourself. “I read that you can take baths with elephants in Thailand. You can even ride the elephants. So, why is it a big deal that you just got to feed and pet them?”
Well, first of all, there’s no need to be so negative, you cynical bastard. Just because I couldn’t ride or swim with the elephants doesn’t mean that my experience wasn’t magical for me personally. It was still special!
Also, riding elephants is actually quite bad for the animals. They have to be “broken”. That is, beaten severely until they’re docile enough for people to ride. The labor of hauling people back and forth for hours a day can be literally backbreaking. Elephants weren’t built to carry people or things on their backs.
Bathing seems milder, but still can be pretty inhumane. They spend an entire day in the water, which can lead to all sorts of infections and diseases for the elephant. There’s a whole article in the Guardian about it if you want to read more.
Why Samui Elephant Haven is different
Thai people have used elephants as labor for centuries. Elephants can traverse the mountainous jungle terrain more easily than horses or even machines. Our guide at the Samui Elephant Haven put it this way: “they think of the elephants as tractors.”
When the tourism boom happened, those tractors fascinated millions of travelers. Elephant trekking and riding took off. You could argue that giving rides to tourists is better than logging. Maybe that’s true, but it still isn’t great.
The Samui Elephant Haven was started by a Thai man whose family raised and trained elephants. Rather than viewing the elephants as tools, this man started to look at them… as pets? as friends?
In the end, he opened his sanctuary to give tourists a way to interact with elephants in a way that isn’t harmful to the elephant. (Or to the tourists. Some captive elephants actually do snap and kill people.)
Every elephant has a name and personality. I forgot their names, but I remember the grandmother of the group, who would look after the elephants. There was also an elephant girl gang that adopted each other as sisters and always hang out together.
The animals are all rescued from other, less ethical, elephant tours or circuses. They don’t do any daring elephant robberies. “Rescued” means they use the money they get from tours to purchase the elephants.
I have some pretty mixed feelings about animal rights overall. On the one hand, I think elephants are really cool. I would feel pretty shitty knowing I was visiting an abused animal.
On the other hand, who the hell am I to tell the Thai people what to do with their elephants? After all, they’ve been using elephants as work animals for centuries. And the culture respects elephants. There are elephant statues all over the Thai royal palace in Bangkok. Even the national beer is called “elephant beer.”
The concept of animal rights has yet to become a thing in Asia. And our well-meaning desire for the welfare of animals can sometimes be chauvinistic, and maybe even a little racist. Or, if you’re Morrissey, calling the Chinese a “subspecies”, blatantly racist. Even if you aren’t Morrissey, the question remains: why do we often care more about animal rights than human rights?
I worked in the meat department at a natural food store for years. Every day customers asked about the welfare of the animals whose meat we served. Were the cows treated well? Were the chickens well taken care of?
Never once did anyone ever ask about the wages or conditions of the farmers or slaughterhouse workers.
Am I a hypocrite for wanting to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary, while at the same time eating meat from factory farms? Am I an even bigger hypocrite for giving my money to an ethical elephant sanctuary, but doing nothing to alleviate poverty in Thailand?
Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. I just know I think elephants are cool and I don’t want to be a vegan.
Messy moral quandaries aside, if you’re in Southern Thailand and you want to hang out with some elephants, you could do worse than Samui Elephant Haven. It costs a little more than others, but it’s worth it to know the elephants are happy.
You can book tours on their website: https://samuielephanthaven.org/
And if you aren’t in Southern Thailand, there’s a list of ethical elephant sanctuaries here: https://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/elephant-conservation/travel-guide/elephant-sanctuaries-which-we-do-and-dont-support