Thousands of well-intentioned, animal-loving tourists visit Asia each year in hopes of riding an elephant. What most don’t realize is the horrific trauma this entails. Some may have an inkling of its potential issues, but many remain naive, reassure themselves it’s fine, all in the name of grabbing that perfect Facebook photo.
Here’s 4 Reasons NOT to ride elephants in Thailand
If you’ve ever been unsure of the murky debate that is elephant riding, I invite you to read on. No matter what choice you make, please at least make it an informed one. And let me be clear up front: there is no non-exploitive, cruelty-free way to RIDE an elephant – here’s 4 reasons why.
1. Elephants must be starved, beaten, and mentally broken to be ridden by tourists.
Though we view elephants as gentle souls with ear-to-ear grins, the reality is they are wild animals that do not naturally allow humans to ride their backs. Elephants don’t respond to the will of humans by default, nor do they voluntarily trek in hot temperatures with people strapped to them. The way that an elephant is coerced to become submissive is horrific.
First, baby elephants are taken from their mothers and are confined in tiny cages. Next, they are tied up, beaten, and starved for days to enter a state of total emotional depletion. This process is known as phajaan, or “the crush”.
I really don’t think one has to be an animal activist to have empathy for such torture. We would never even dream of subjecting our own pets to this, so why deem it acceptable for elephants, just so we can ride them? Elephants no longer have to be ridden, but this practice continues because tourists pay to do it. Remember, supply has to meet demand.
2. Elephants live in ongoing trauma long after their initial torture.
In other words: an elephant never forgets.
Elephants hold emotional and mental intelligence far greater than most other animals on earth. They recall memories both good and bad, and express trauma and distress through behaviors such as head-bobbing, rocking back and forth, pacing, and repeated trunk weaving. You may notice these behaviors at your local zoo or circus. Elephants have flashbacks, memories, and fears, no matter how kindly they are treated now. Traumatic memories cannot be erased – but they don’t even have to happen in the first place.
3. Tour companies will say anything to disguise misery and earn money.
Tour companies will say whatever it takes to persuade you that they treat their elephants ethically. They may say that rides are okay if a tourist is on an elephant’s neck or without the weight of a seat. The fact is, if a company offers elephant rides, points 1 and 2 have already occurred and are ongoing. Remember: wild elephants don’t let humans ride them, period.
Do not take reassurance in phrases like “we treat our animals safely” when investigating tour companies. Such phrases are readily tossed around with no standards required to use them. If a company offers rides, it is absolutely most likely that chains, whips, and bull hooks are in use – such negative reinforcement is essential to coerce these enormous animals to follow regimented commands.
Everything I’ve read reaches the same conclusions: very few places live up to their claims that their elephants are treated well – and when they do, they don’t offer rides.
4. You can still touch, feed, and bond with elephants in a cruelty-free way.
If seeing and connecting with an elephant is on your wishlist, this can be done without harm. Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chiang Mai, Thailand rescues traumatized and injured elephants from lives of logging, abuse, and enslavement to tourist rides.
These now-freed elephants can be watched up close and personal doing what elephants do best – being giant goofballs who like to get messy and socialize. Without a tourist on their back, they happily toss mud on themselves, roll around in the river, scratch their backs on trees, and playfully swat at each other’s trunks.