Wow, just wow! I normally wait for a while before writing on a particular segment of travel or an experience we’ve had but this was just too good to let sit! DJ and I visited an elephant retirement sanctuary yesterday (Elephant Retirement Park Phuket) and it is definitely in the top 10 of our experiences in our years together!!
Okay, to get something out of the way first. If you are an animal lover, and we definitely are, you know that there are plenty of organizations/businesses that take advantage of these magnificent creatures. DJ and I, like so many other folks, like to think we’ve become quite enlightened over the years. While as kids we might have had a great time at the circus, for instance, we now realize as more educated adults that the elephants (and most all of the other animals for that matter) were definitely not having the time of their lives. In fact, most were very mistreated even if their handlers truly cared for them. This could range from the cramped living space or the necessity of chains in a city environment, hopefully you see where I’m going. And while I realize some might think that, with our visit, we were subsidizing the mistreatment of these elephants I want to assure you, dear gentle reader, that this isn’t the case. Yes, there absolutely are tour companies in the area that clearly mistreat the animals in their care. But DJ did her homework and now, after our visit, I’m comfortable that we found one of the ‘good’ organizations that truly, dearly care about the welfare of the animals we visited and put that above all else.
But now for a little dose of reality. Rescuing animals, especially ones this big that need room to roam, that eat a LOT of food, well that takes money to fund. And the reality is that in order to draw tourists to fund these operations you have to find a balance between just letting the elephants roam freely all day or giving the guests some time to interact. So before you think badly of us or any other tourists that visit the more humane rescue organizations please keep that in mind. And at this particular operation we never witnessed, not one single time, an elephant forced to interact or perform for the guests. Any coaxing the elephants received was no different than what we saw when, for instance, the baby tried to go somewhere he wasn’t allowed (i.e. near machinery he could get hurt by or damage). Yes, there were obviously tons of photo opportunities but these were done around regular elephant feedings as well as the mudding and washing sessions that not only help maintain skin health and keep down ticks, but also that they genuinely enjoy. These guys love to cool down and frolic in the water just like anyone else and they had no qualms about hitting the pool after a good meal!
The short story is that no, they aren’t roaming freely in a large open paddock of their own free from interaction with people. But nobody is going to pay to see that and these rescues – not captures from the wild but rescues from other commercial operations that don’t put the animals first – would not be nearly as well off as they are today were it not for those tourist dollars. A balance for sure but one we feel that is about as good as you, or they, can get.
But now that, hopefully, you see that we tried our best to go the ethical route let me tell you just how much fun this was!!! Seriously, this was more DJ’s pick than mine and while I was looking forward to it I wasn’t exactly gaga over the prospect of hanging with elephants for a few hours. I could not have been more wrong in how much I underestimated I was going to enjoy this experience. I’ve seen plenty of elephants, most of us have. And I may have had an opportunity to touch an elephant at a zoo at one point or another. But to truly hang out with and interact with these gentle giants at this level was just incredible! They are so very, very gentle for their size. There is, of course, a danger of getting crushed or stepped on accidentally but these big guys & girls do their best avoid hurting anyone.
One of the first things we did was feed the elephants, and they eat a lot! Basically, each elephant has a handler, a mahout, and the mahouts let each elephant to a different area of the property to lessen any food aggression tendencies. Before we were allowed to start feeding them we were all instructed to wash up our hands to remove any sunscreen, bug spray, etc. that might make the elephants ill. From there we were given large bags of bananas and allowed to roam among, visit, and feed the elephants that we wanted to get to know. It was made very clear to us that we were to feed the elephants, not to tease them or try to coax them into a specific photo opp. We were broken into two groups and given ample time to leisurely stroll around and feed as many elephants as we wanted and as much as they wanted. Emma, a big girl with an equally big appetite was our first stop and she just came across as the sweetest thing ever! We were told by her mahout to put the bananas directly into her mouth and she loved them! As we progressed around the area and met the different elephants we learned that they often had different preferences for feeding. Some wanted their bananas peeled, others wouldn’t touch a peeled banana. Some actually wanted them *partially* peeled, picky eaters! One or two of the elephants quit eating after a while and they were allowed their solitude while the rest of the elephants enjoyed a bit of extra food, bonus bananas!
After the morning feeding we were all told that it was time to change if we needed to and that we’d soon be joining the elephants in the pool to give them all mud baths. We were also given some safety guidance, particularly to stay clear of the feet of any elephant who laid down in the water, and while it might have been puzzling at first once we were in the water it quickly became clear why this was necessary. These guys & girls were having fun! And while they are mindful of us soft, squishy humans they sometimes lay down in the water and start thrashing about in their happy place. And as you might imagine with perhaps their head underwater they might miss you walking around them and take you out without ever noticing. Great advice and the mahouts, as well as the rest of the staff, made sure we all – elephants and helpers – were having a great time while staying safe. After the fun of a good mud rub down the elephants were then led out of the first pool, hosed down on the way out, and made their way into the second pool where all of us helpers were given brushes and allowed to get all of the mud out. Elephants have lots of wrinkles and while I’m thinking the brushes getting the mud out of all these nooks and crannies helps prevent bacteria and such from setting in I can’t also help but imagine it feels pretty darn good to the elephants too!
Once the elephants were all cleaned up they were led out and about to their different shaded areas and then it was time for us helpers to get cleaned up as well. You have no idea how muddy you’re getting as you do all of this until you hit the showered and wash and rinse and wash and rinse… and the mud keeps coming off! But finally it was done and time for our lunch. We were given a quick class on making probably the most famous Thai dish, phad thai, before enjoying a great buffet to round out the day. And with that, and a chance to buy some souvenir photos (all of which by the way they made clear would be available for free download by the end of the day) we were back in our shuttle van and on the way to another, more thorough shower and then perhaps a little nap to pass the heat of the day.
Great fun, fantastic memories, and while I’m sure some may disagree we felt that we contributed a bit to a better life for the animals in this particular herd.