It is feeding time at the Elephant Nature Park, a 200-animal sanctuary in northwest Thailand.
To get here, I have traveled 44 hours from my Philadelphia home, not including the two-day stopover in nearby Chiang Mai set aside for jet lag remediation and the fondling of hand-embroidered textiles at the city’s night market. The weather is hot and stultifyingly humid—it is June, the start of monsoon season—and I have come to spend a week among elephants.
In this country, elephants are celebrated on temple walls and beer labels but also accorded the legal status of livestock. Over the past century, their numbers have fallen from more than 100,000 to about 3,000, and fewer than half of those live in the wild. ENP, as the park is known, is a tourist-accessible sanctuary established in 1995 by a Thai woman named Sangduen Chailert. Its herd consists of 34 females and three males, ranging in age from two to 89. Many are disabled, many were abused.
ENP’s philosophy is markedly different from that of other vacation-destination elephant camps dotting the surrounding Mae Taeng Valley. Beyond making themselves available to be fed and bathed, elephants here provide no services, no entertainment. There is no watching them paint or do tricks, no swimming with or riding on them, no pretending to be their mahout (keeper) for a day.
I have paid $400 to be a park “volunteer,” as have 18 others who arrive the same day from countries such as the Netherlands, Australia and Japan. We are adventure seekers and animal lovers and gap-year takers who want to satisfy our curiosity about the world without leaving footprints. As ecotourists, we trade our money and labor for exposure. Given the weather, that means we will sweat buckets and use towels that never dry. We will shovel dung, build fences and partake in other unfamiliar tasks in exchange for quality hang-out time with the park’s celebrity residents.
To be clear, I am not against luxury. I like high thread counts and desserts you have to order at the beginning of the meal. If I don’t get a decent cup of brewed coffee every morning, I can’t be held responsible. So when the stars in my life lined up for a big expedition, I surprised even myself with this choice.
Certainly my enthusiasm for elephants pales compared with that of some volunteers. I grew up on Dumbo and Heffalumps, but I didn’t drag around a stuffed Babar. I may have lived within walking distance of Philadelphia’s zoo, but being a prosaic child, I favored dogs. I possess no elephant tattoos, and I don’t buy the elephant-adorned notepads and jewelry in ENP’s gift shop. But I do feel an insistent fascination that began five years ago, more or less by chance.
In 2006, I was asked to write about Tennessee’s Elephant Sanctuary (a refuge led by a charismatic if slightly human-averse former animal trainer). Simultaneously, a histrionic article on rampaging elephants appeared in the New York Times Magazine, and my childhood zoo shut down its elephant exhibit after determining it to be inadvertently cruel. For months afterward, I pounded friends with facts about the earth’s largest land mammal: They mourn their dead! They send messages for miles through low-level vibrations humans can’t hear! They live in families! Except for the adult males! They can be separated for decades and still recognize each other! They have skin that’s more than an inch thick! But it’s super sensitive! Flapping ears indicate happiness! So do entwined trunks! And rumbles! And bellowing! I went on and on.