On Thailand & the Abuse of Elephants

I recently posted a (hopefully) delightful, if not inspirational, synopsis of my recent return to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. I have some additional, more controversial thoughts that I thought I’d save for a separate post. So here goes.

I talked about how visiting the Elephant Nature Park is uplifting because of the contact and connection with beautiful, graceful, and gigantic creatures, yet sobering because of the stories of abuse those animals carry with them. When one has such an experience—both inspirational and heartbreaking—it’s tempting to become judgmental. During both my visits, I had heard other tourists ask, “What’s wrong with these people? How can the elephant be so sacred to Thai culture but so misused?”

I’ve contemplated this question quite a bit. And I think I have a possible explanation. It’s rather simple: poverty. It’s a matter of hierarchy of needs. It’s not as easy to take an idealistic perspective about the treatment of all living things when your own life hangs so dangerously in the balance. And desperation often leads to desperate action.

A good way to illustrate this is by examining the mahouts themselves. On the one hand, you have the logging mahouts, who resort to violence and abuse to punish the undesired behavior of elephants. On the other hand, you have the Elephant Nature Park mahouts, who reward desired behavior with food. When they want an elephant to go somewhere, they lead them with food. When they need to calm a distressed elephant, they placate them with food.

In my estimation, a stick or a hook is much cheaper than several tons a day of watermelon and bananas. There are two concepts in practice here: for-profit businesses will often seek the lowest bottom line even at the expense of living things, and people will almost always prioritize themselves over others. Moreover, it seems to me that the fight for the humane treatment of animals needs to happen alongside the fight to end human suffering.

It’s easy for Westerners to point the finger, while ignoring the fact that much of the prosperity that fosters their “enlightened” attitude towards animals stems from a history of exploitation of other people, particularly nonwhite people. This is not to excuse the actions of elephant abusers. Far from it. Many of them are probably cognizant of the degree of suffering they cause to these wonderful creatures. But perhaps they continue to do it because life must go on and quotas need to be filled. Who knows? Maybe they even regret it. Maybe it even keeps them up at night. All I’m arguing is that compassion should be universal to all species, including our own.

It’s important to fight for the lives and dignity of the innocent and defensive, no matter what species they are. So the efforts of the Elephant Nature Park are nothing but admirable and inspirational. But for me the inspiration doesn’t end with the story of the animals. I find it inspirational that a woman whose father was a healer in her humble village could have acquired the means to purchase over 60 acres of land, as well as the elephants themselves from their abusers.

Can you see the parallels here? In the same way fighting for the rights and dignity of animals involves a fight for the rights and dignity of people, the stories of rescuing those animals from abuse don’t start or end with the animals themselves. I reject the divide we place between nature and humanity. We’re linked. It’s a denial of that link that has led to such atrocities to begin with. Once we embrace that link, we can begin to solve the problems that face animals and humans alike.

Hanging Out With Elephants

The elephants eating straw and grass at feeding time. Clearly eating out is just as much a social activity for them as it is for us.

The truck sped through the field, zigzagging around clefts and dimples in the ground. Behind it, a herd of elephants stampeded gently in tow. They pressed around the truck glutinously, raising their trunks and smiling with eagerness. Some just couldn’t wait, and reached out their greedy trucks to grab a handful of grass from the bed of the truck. The mahouts gently coaxed them away with watermelon halves and bananas to give the driver enough time to rake the piles of grass out of the bed. It’s feeding time. Of course, here at the Elephant Nature Park, it’s always feeding time.

Founded in 1996, the Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center about two hours outside Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. The founder, Lek, has a passion for giving these animals a safe haven from the abuses they receive in the logging and tourist industries that have victimized and endangered them.

A "family" of elephants with their mahout (the good kind). At ENP, most of the elephants aren't actually family, but they form social groups that behave exactly like families. In other words, they take care of each other.
A “family” of elephants with their mahout (the good kind). At ENP, most of the elephants aren’t actually family, but they form social groups that behave exactly like families. In other words, they take care of each other.

In these industries, mahouts—the Thai term for an elephant guide—use sticks and other abusive tools to coerce elephants into performing the difficult tasks required of them in “domesticity.” Whether they’re pulling logs in the mountains, carrying tourists in parks and trails, or dazzling urbanites in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, elephants have for a long time been pulled from their natural habitats and exploited for the economic enrichment of human beings. And the ritual involved in initially breaking elephants in the logging industry is nothing short of sadistic torture.

The Elephant Nature Park is among the first of a steadily proliferating tourism attraction, where the appeal of the elephants is not riding them or seeing them perform in culture shows, but seeing them in their natural habitat and being a part of their daily peaceful lives. Instead of putting sticks and hooks in the hands of mahouts, Elephant Nature Park gives them satchels full of watermelons, bananas, and other nutritious treats. Instead of punishing animals for undesired behavior and goading them with brute force, these mahouts reward the elephants for desirable behavior and lead them with tenderness and tastiness.

Two soul sisters and their mahouts.

When I visited the park for the second time in April, I was not only pleased to see not only the progress they’ve made in only two years, but that the power of the experience does not diminish with repetition. I simply cannot adequately express how inspiring it is to be among these majestic and playful creatures. Their intelligence is uncanny; their personalities so rich. It is truly rewarding to be peacefully among these gentle giants feeding, them, petting them, and even
bathing them. Their gentleness is matched by their power, and when they charge across a field and trumpet their warnings, it’s frightfully awesome.

Three elephants at another feeding time. These three ladies stick together at all times and protect each other. The one on the far left is the one who has a broken hip. If I remember correctly, the one on the right is blind in one or both eyes.

Yet the experience isn’t wholly positive. It’s bittersweet. As I spent time around the elephants laughing at their antics, I learned their tragic stories one by one. Some elephants have been blinded, thanks to their misuse in the logging camps. One logging mahout actually stabbed out an elephant’s eyes when she “misbehaved.” Since forced breeding is a common practice in that industry, another elephant’s hips were disjointed from a male elephant that didn’t like her but was forced to mate with her. Several elephants have mangled feet from stepping on land mines while logging in formerly militarized areas.

While we were there, it was the birthday of one of the elephants. Some of the volunteers made a “cake” out of greens and fruit. As you can see, they’re all chowing down at this little trunk party.

If you ever plan to visit Thailand (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), I highly recommend making this sanctuary a part of your itinerary. It’ll be worth every penny—er, baht—to both you and these marvelous animals.

As one can imagine, the baby elephants were the most popular and most playful. The adult pictured with this one isn't his mother. She acts as his guardian or foster parent. Because the calves don't have the negative experiences of their guardians, they were much bolder when approaching humans. This proved dangerous for us since their guardians immediately charged in to keep them away from us.
As one can imagine, the baby elephants were the most popular and most playful. The adult pictured with this one isn’t his mother. She acts as his guardian or foster parent. Because the calves don’t have the negative experiences of their guardians, they were much bolder when approaching humans. This proved dangerous for us since their guardians immediately charged in to keep them away from us.

Return of the Expat

Wow! How sneaky time is! You think you’ve got it locked up in the barn, but then it makes its slip in the middle of the night. If time weren’t so astucious I might have written this post much sooner, when its sentiments were in their infancy. Now, I’m afraid the sentiments are geriatric, and thus dulled by old age. Try not to yawn as they sit in their rocker begrudging their faded youth.

Inside Pudong International Airport, whose terminal looks like a permanent circus tent with high arching supports extending downward from a sloped metal canopy, I tried to soak in as much Chinese culture I could. Or at least I tried to soak up the overpriced gilded version of Chinese culture. I sat in a teashop, a small cubic structure that, like all of its neighbors, didn’t seem to fit the aesthetic of the vast cavern that houses it. I had ordered a pot of lemon tea, and was now sipping it as I sat hunched over my laptop beginning preliminary preparation for my new literature elective in the coming school year. It’s not a fun way to spend one’s holiday, but it beats losing hair while frantically scrambling in the days before the students return.

As I was slurping and clacking away, I detected a familiar sound—English. And not the broken English I’ve become so accustomed to in Thailand, nor even the Mandarin-induced broken English of Shanghai. It was native-speaking English. American English. Excited, I sat up and listened. For once I could eavesdrop. Lucky for me, it was coming from the table next to mine. But then I noticed it. Ugh, Californian English!

 As I listened to four UC Irvine students talk about professors and classes, I started to form an image in my mind of the speakers. They were all white girls, probably sorority chicks. “Like” and “you know” nestled themselves between every independent clause and prepositional phrase. Inflections rose at the end of statements like the voice of a karaoke singer who can’t find the final note. “S” sounds sharp enough to cut my tealeaves.

Why must I be so judgmental? My irritation—especially with a dialect of English that I was all too happy to indefinitely leave behind—led me to measure myself some self-loathing. I turned to force myself into the conversation, hoping that making a human connection would alleviate my cynicism. I was shocked to see not a single white girl in their company.

I took my self-loathing onto my connecting flight to San Francisco. Carry-on item number three—a burden none of the airline staff made any fuss about. As I sat waiting for takeoff, reading over materials for my literature class, I heard it again, this time from across the aisle and slightly behind.

But it wasn’t the UC Irvine students. It was a girl from Kansas and a guy from Vancouver Island. Two non-Californians. The Kardashian effect in demonstration. I eavesdropped again.

During my visit back to the homeland, what annoyed me most about my fellow countrymen (and women) was not simply a problem of inflection or dialectic infusions. It’s not that I’ve suddenly become British and loath anything that isn’t “proper” English. It’s the content. Americans—especially young Americans—have very short-lived experiences, and gain residual amounts of information about something, and suddenly they’re experts.

Miss Kansas and Mr. Vancouver are classic examples. They talked about healthcare in Thailand. Mr. Vancouver had been in a motorbike accident and became acquainted with Thailand’s healthcare system—or at least the upscale, private end of it. Miss Kansas and Mr. Vancouver talked about how wonderful Thailand’s healthcare system is, how unbelievably cheap it is, and how good the doctors are. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Thailand’s healthcare system, per se. And Miss Kansas was right to point out that if you’re seriously ill or injured in Cambodia, Laos, or Myanmar, you’re better off paying to get flown to Bangkok. But where her lack of knowledge betrayed her was in the claim that Thailand “has the best healthcare system in Southeast Asia.” She meant other than Singapore, right?

And for Mr. Vancouver to claim that Thailand’s healthcare is “so quality yet so cheap” is to ignore the fact that the average monthly income in Thailand is less than 14,000 baht. Thailand’s high-end healthcare is wonderful—I’ve experienced it firsthand. But it’s only wonderful if you make more than 30,000 baht a month, and have group health insurance and emergency savings. Otherwise is simply unaffordable, and you go to the overcrowded, under-qualified government hospitals.

Don’t get me wrong—I ended up having a pleasant conversation with Miss Kansas and Mr. Vancouver. These are two people who are well travelled, and more knowledgeable of the goings-on of our globe than most Americans. But I talk about them to give an example of why my return to the homeland proved to offer me more culture shock than I anticipated after only 6 months’ absence.

I walked down University Avenue in Palo Alto, California feeling more accosted by pretension and privilege than I ever had before (and when I lived there I was already well aware of the ills of affluence). And yet, I entered bars where I didn’t feel sick to my stomach. I watched men and women chatting and sipping craft brew and felt a level of innocence—maybe even naiveté—to it all that Pattaya’s bars greatly lack. I wondered if affluence is good for something when it’s not tiptoeing off the backs of the planet’s poor. Then I wondered how many of the silver-haired executives patronized the seedy go-go bars when they visit Pattaya.

And in San Francisco there exists a sort of dumb camaraderie, as if we’re all going to hold hands and peace will just descend upon us as we sing “Kumbaya” from our frothed, hopped up lips. And in Concord, New Hampshire, there’s this shrunken sense of existence. The world ends at the Massachusetts border. One’s domain is everything up until the dirty ice drifts demarking the edge of the road.

As I walked America’s cities, I was reminded that, unlike Thailand, here was a place where an entire race of people was enslaved for centuries, only to be “freed” into a system of inequality. It’s a history that confounds my Thai friends. As I watched America’s news, I was reminded of the shallow politics and the egocentrism of the American perspective. When I was in the Castro, I thought of how open-minded Thailand is to LGBTQ people.

When I think of my country of birth and country of residence in comparison, I see many differences, but I also see some similarities. Both countries exhibit hyperbolic sensationalism. Both countries fear outsiders and blame their problems on them. Both countries have a self-inflated sense of cultural worthiness, and cite their national ideals as self-evident premises on which to base political and social discussion. Both countries see the world through their own eyes, shake their heads at the atrocities of other nations, and ignore their own sins.

America sits in its own vibrating easy chair spilling crumbs between the cushions while binge-streaming high-budget TV shows on Netflix. Images of my new home rarely enter the living rooms of the bearded metrosexual, the fully vested executive, or the cackling valley girl. And so during my visit I endlessly told stories of a place completely foreign—so foreign and unknown it may as well be another planet. I told my stories until my voice went hoarse. I described my experiences best I could without making anyone feel more privileged or less grateful than they should. And then I sipped my craft brew and scratched my beard.

Dengue Fever

People back home have been absolutely mystified by the idea that I came down with Dengue Fever. It’s like I’ve battled some rare dragon. But the story of my battle won’t feature shining armor, balls of inferno, or wielding heavy swords, or anything like that. It’s not that interesting, really, but here it goes.

To begin with, let’s get into a little Dengue 101. Dengue Fever is passed exclusively by mosquitos. Yet another reason to hate the little suckers. There are four types. Their prevalence depends on what part of the world you’re in. In Bangkok, Types 1 and 2 are most common. In Pattaya, apparently all four abound. Types 2 and 3 are the mildest, while 1 and 4 have been known to cause death. In fact, Dengue Fever Types 1 and 4 have claimed 42 lives in Thailand last year alone, according to my doctor.

When bitten by a host mosquito, the virus travels to the human host’s liver, where it incubates for 24 hours. Then it moves to the bone marrow, and there attacks the platelets and white blood cells. Thus, low platelet and white blood cell counts are good indicators of an infection, and can help doctors monitor the progress of the immune system in combatting the virus.

The morning of April 30th, I woke up with eye pain. I have had numerous corneal abrasions in the past years, so I knew that wasn’t what the pain was. It was a muscular or nervous pain behind the eyeballs. It hurt to look sharply left, right, or up. At that point, I took ibuprofen (huge mistake with Dengue as the virus thins the blood), and ignored it. When I woke up the next three days with the same pain, accompanied by back and neck pain, I decided that if the symptoms persisted, I’d go see a doctor.

But the pain diminished by day four. I was feeling much better. I even went out that night to party with my girlfriend and her friends. The next day, I went about business as usual, including teaching English lessons to staff at a restaurant in Jomtien. After the lessons, my girlfriend and I went to the beach to eat and watch some people practicing in preparation for a volleyball tournament. That was when I noticed red spots all over both my arms.

That night into the next morning, the spots had spread all over my body. I looked like a ginger from hell (I know, I know, they’re all from hell). And in the morning the eye and muscle pain returned in full force, accompanied now by a fever. I was no longer going to fuck around. I read the literature on my group health insurance and headed over to Bangkok-Pattaya Hospital, a private hospital nearby my apartment.

After checking my vitals and screening me for Dengue, the doctor was led to believe I had the measles. He asked if I had had all three boosters for MMR. I couldn’t remember. My girlfriend would later retrieve my immunization records to discover I’d only had two recorded. Further evidence to the doctor that I must have the measles. He didn’t suspect Dengue because I told him I had only had the fever starting that morning. Typically, Dengue Fever features pain and fever for three days, then they diminish, only to return with spots. He found it odd that I only reported a fever the same day as spots.

He admitted me into the hospital and began a series of daily blood tests. I was given an IV to help with protein (my protein count was alarmingly low due to the illness). I ate three square meals a day, slept a lot, and watched a lot of banal television to pass the time.

By the end of my second day at the hospital, my platelet count had dropped to 74k—a typical platelet count for men my age should be at least 250k, although the last blood test I’d had in the states when in good health measured about 136k. By that time, my screening for Dengue Fever came in positive. It was confirmed—not measles, but Dengue Type 3.

The next morning the doctor advised that I should stay another day in the hospital. Apparently, many patients go into shock immediately after the fever drops. There was also the risk of low capillaries, and thus internal bleeding. He put me on medication to prevent bleeding. There’s also a small but relatively significant risk of hepatitis. He told me he’d discharge me once my platelets were back on the rise.

After three nights in the hospital, and a gradually waxing strength and appetite, my platelet count showed a significant rise, from 74k on the second morning to 118k the third morning. My spots disappeared, and the fever had stayed down for 48 hours. The doctor felt comfortable discharging me, scheduling a follow-up three days later.

I’ll pause here to talk about the hospital quality and cost. For three days in a private room at the hospital, frequent doctor visits, routine medication, and a fairly large nursing staff, the total bill was 48,000 baht (approximately $1,400). I had to pay 16,000 baht (approximately $500) out of pocket. The hospital was as state-of-the-art, clean, and diligent as the best hospitals I’ve been to in the United States. The doctor spoke immaculate English, was very informative and compassionate, and the nursing staff were also quite fluent and caring as well. Although I had to stifle laughter when the first nurse asked me before I went to sleep, “How many times you pee-pee or poo-poo?”

By the time I saw the doctor again, I felt fully recovered. They tested my blood at the hospital before I saw him. My platelets were at 135k. He checked my liver to make sure the inflammation was gone, and told me I could return to work. On a side note, he also reported that I have positive immunity against the measles, so I won’t need another booster.

Apparently, I’m immune to all types of Dengue Fever for three months. After that, I’ll be immune to Type 3 for life. There’s no inoculation against any type of Dengue Fever barring suffering the illness. So now, I’m vigilantly fortifying myself and my apartment against mosquitos. And the rainy season hasn’t even started yet. Yikes.