I knew I didn’t want to ride an elephant. We saw that mess near Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Tourists, sometimes 3-4 people at a time, sitting on a chair, perched on top of an elephant’s back, being lumbered about a temple. I had read accounts of elephants being chained, abused and forced to work while obviously suffering. I wanted to stay far away from that.

So I was very interested when I saw a poster for an elephant sanctuary outside of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. A place where elephants go to retire. A place whose tag line is, “We work for elephants, not elephants for us.” I wanted to learn more about Elephant’s World.

Elephant’s World was founded by a Thai veterinarian named Dr. Samart Prasitthiphon. He saw the great need for elephant sanctuaries in his country and started his own. It has been running for nearly 5 years, able to support itself on his money, donations and volunteers. Of course it has branched out into the tourist market to earn funds. Sometimes adding a tourist element to these sanctuaries can feel exploitative for the animals, yet I felt they found a good balance. You decide, based on our experience.

We paid US$50 per person and spent over 7 hours at the sanctuary. On arrival we were given a release to sign and told the rules by English-speaking volunteers. While there are Thai people on staff, many cannot speak English well enough, so the volunteers’ work is very important. We went to work right away, hand feeding the elephants and getting a close look at their giant beauty.

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The sanctuary currently has 9 elephants, 3 of which no longer have any teeth. Typically a wild elephant changes its teeth 6 times within its life. If they make it all the way to the final falling out of teeth, they die of starvation. The 3 at the sanctuary get by on a diet of soft fruit and a rice ball concoction that we helped make for them later in the day.

Our day included cleaning up after the elephants, preparing the rice balls for the toothless ones, cutting down banana trees for those who could rip their food up like tree chippers, eating our own lunch, watching the elephants get vet care, joining them on a river bath and scrubbing their tough, bristly skin.

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When not involved in eating, bathing or walking activities, the elephants are chained to trees. While this practice is frowned upon by animal rights groups and is hard for us to see, the sanctuary does not have a fence to keep the animals in. It is costly to let the elephants loose, because they get into nearby farmers’ fields and start munching the crops. So until the sanctuary can raise the funds for a fence, the elephants will be chained.

We were always under the watchful eye of the volunteers and the mahouts. Mahouts are elephant handlers, usually men, who have been trained in elephant care and manipulation, for lack of a better word. They give commands to the animals and know what to do, should one get out of line. Most of the mahouts at this sanctuary are Burmese, many of them under the age of 20 years old. Along with the mahouts, there are a few paid staff members, including a vet. They have 2 to 4 volunteers, acting as tour guides and doing the work for the elephants when no tourists are visiting. Interested in volunteering for a month? Believe me, I was tempted. Elephant’s World also has dogs, cats, dairy calves, water buffalo. The newest arrivals are a flock of ducks who were rescued from the Bangkok floods of late 2011.

While visiting and talking at length with the volunteers, we met Thomas Taylor. He had spent the last three years in Thailand working at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, a huge wildlife sanctuary about 2 hours south of Bangkok. He gave me his contact information so I could learn more about visiting WFFT and maybe plan some volunteering there. Then a funny thing happened.

While viewing their website, I started to read about a terrible event unfolding. The short of the long story was that WFFT and Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai were starting to speak out about wild elephant killings by poachers and cover-ups by the Department of National Parks. The DNP was retaliating against the parks that spoke out through arrests and animal confiscations. It’s a harrowing story, filled with corruption and way too much Thai pride (considered “saving face”). The biggest sufferers are the innocent animals. Many of whom who had been rescued from abusive environments and healed. They have been taken and most likely put back into abusive environments. Although no one from the organizations knows where the animals are. See, the raids were conducted by about 100 people, 30 of them armed. The DNP was not playing fair and not willing to share any information. The sad fight continues. Donations are surely needed, and more importantly, an international outcry about this situation and how animals are treated here. Thailand is a hub for the illegal trade of wild animals and animal parts. And the illegal gathering of animals for use in tourism. It’s huge money for them. Until more people get very vocal, this may never stop. Both organizations are on Facebook and would appreciate your Like.

I have decided to keep the rest of my wildlife viewing in Thailand within nature. While I am delighted that elephants and other animals have a restful place to call home, I wonder if my actions are exploitative. What is the best solution to caring for our wild and unwanted animals when our world is full of people in such dire need? I wish I had the perfect answer.