Chai hands us each a huge bundle of bananas as we suit up in our rain gear.
“For our walk,” he explains.
I pull on my gum boots (with socks this time) and pull my poncho over my head, tucking my camera under it securely so it won’t get rained on.
The clouds have been threatening all morning, and now, after our filling lunch, rain begins to spill from them. Big, fat drops of rain that hit our eyelashes and make us blink back the water so our view of the park isn’t obstructed.
The volunteers are split in half for this walk through the park — something every visitor to the park gets, whether they are volunteers or tourists up for a day or two. It doesn’t cover the entire 20 acres, but it gives us an idea of what goes on at the park, and a briefing on the elephants who live here and the programs the park is instituting to show tourists and locals there are other ways to earn a living from elephants that doesn’t cause them further harm after the brutal crush.
We start with the two girls I met the first day — Mae Tee and Mae Kham Geao — the chatty best friends. Then, we head over to a shelter where we shoveled earlier in the day and meet some elephants over there. I get distracted when I look to my right and see an elephant being trained with a clicker and bananas. She stands behind a wooden frame with beams at different levels. When the clicker goes off, she puts her foot where the noise comes from, and is then rewarded with food.
The positive training method being taught. A method that does not involve pain or suffering.
We then head over to her and give her even more bananas before we walk by a giant mound of earth, sprouting fresh grass and new trees.
“This is Lilly’s grave,” says Chai. “She died here a little while ago. We buried her near her best friend, Mae Keow’s, shelter and planted grass and trees.” He tells us of Lilly’s struggle in her last days and her best friend’s unwavering support and reassurance as Mae Keow stayed by her side to comfort her.
I can’t help it, I get emotional just looking at the giant grave rising above the long blades of grass below. I can almost tell there is an elephant buried there, the way the mound is shaped.
“Her best friend was very sad when she died,” he explains.
I get even sadder when I realize how similar elephants are to us.
They can feel the way we feel. They can experience grief and loss. Holy shit.
We continue our walk, past huts of staff members, through enormous puddles, stomping through foot prints of elephants who have walked on the same path we have.
It beings to boggle my mind as we walk deeper into the habitat of these creatures.
Along the way, Chai stops us at different elephants, telling us their stories. They are all similar and all heart-wrenching. Illegal logging. Fed methamphetamine to keep them working. Forced breeding. Street begging. Trekking at camps. Each situation is gut-wrenching, painful to hear.
I can’t believe these animals have been treated this way, and people like me unknowingly send the message to the industry that it is OK by riding them, going to circuses, buying elephant paintings.
Then, I look around. We’re not the only group on this tour today. In fact, there are quite a few groups touring the park and learning what we are learning. After they are done, they will watch the same DVD we watched the day before, and their eyes will be opened.
As we head back to the compound, I shake off the sadness and am comforted when I see Jokia, the elephant who lost her baby and while she was mourning, had her eyes shout out by slingshots by her mahout because she refused to work. I see her and her best friend, Mae Perm, gently touching her trunk to let her know she is by her side.
And, that makes me feel good. It reminds me that despite the abusive and awful pasts these elephants have endured, here, on these lush 20-acres with loving people watching over them, they are safe. And won’t have to go through anything like this again.
This is their sanctuary, and I am so fortunate to have been let inside to experience these creatures for myself.