Within an hour of arriving to the park, I have met my first elephants.
Our van is the first to arrive at Elephant Nature Park, so we drop our bags, and sit down. But, it is hard for any of us to sit still.
There are elephants. Everywhere.
Not just the actual animals, either. There are elephant carvings. Walls covered with stories of elephants. Photos of elephants and their mahouts.
Jack sits us down and goes over the rules: don’t approach an elephant without its mahout; don’t tease the elephant with food; never stand directly in front of the elephant; don’t stand over the line on the feeding platform; don’t place the food directly in the elephants mouths.
They’re basic rules, but ones that could save our lives. We are told to remember, while these elephants are all living here safely, it doesn’t mean that we are necessarily safe around them. They may have grown up in captivity and have been victims of unspeakable abuse at the hands of humans, but, at the end of the day, they are still wild animals. Wild animals with silent footsteps, who weigh upwards of six tons.
“OK, then, we will go feed elephants,” Jack announces.
I can’t believe where I am, what I am doing, as we walk through the mud and fields to meet our first elephant.
Elephants. Real elephants. Standing in front of me.
Our group approaches Mae Tee under a shelter, her mahout standing by her. In front of her are two buckets, filled with halves of watermelon and small bananas still on the stem.
Mae Tee is a former logging elephant. She first worked in the industry when it was legal, and then when Thailand banned it, since it was all she had known, she worked in the illegal industry. Already in poor condition, her owners fed methamphetamine to keep her going. However, after working tirelessly (thanks to the pills), her body began to lose fat and muscle and the cartilage in her front wrist joints deteriorated. Her ankle joints were entirely worn. Because of the exhaustion, she stopped listening to commands, resulting in beatings with the hook, causing deep trenches in her head, to keep her moving.
While not much is known about her past, her owners realized she didn’t have much left in her, so they took her off the job. However, she ended up once again working at a rubber tree plantation, once again logging. Lek Chailert, the founder of the park, found her after she was sold to a nearby trekking camp. When she collapsed from exhaustion and malnutrition, the owners decided to sell her to Lek. Within days of arriving to the park, Mae Tee made friends with another elephant, Mae Kham Geao, who had a similar upbringing.
Jack quickly explains to us about elephant relationships. It turns out, they are similar to humans. They make friends. They have boyfriends/girlfriends. They chat with each other, an adorable clucking sound.
“Go ahead,” Jack coaxes. “Walk up to her.”
We stand there, a few feet away, staring at her. Mae Kham Gaeo is next to her, being fed at the same time.
I’m in pure awe.
A lifetime of seeing elephants in photos, on television, and now … I am so close to one.
We tentatively walk up to her.
“Give her food,” Jack instructs. “Give her a cluster of bananas.”
I watch as one by one, the group begins to grow more confident near her.
Mae Tee’s long, pink speckled trunk curiously reaches towards Sarah’s hand holding the fruit. We can hear her breathe in the scent, and then quickly wrap her trunk around the food and put her trunk into her mouth, depositing the bananas onto her big, pink tongue.
Then, it’s my turn. I give Steven my camera and instruct him to take photos. I feel such an urgency, an importance, in having my first moment with Mae Tee documented.
I stick my hands into the bucket and pull up bananas.
Mae Tee’s trunk is swinging out towards me. For a moment, I hesitate as she begins to touch her trunk on my hand, around the fruit.
I’m feeding an elephant.
My hand touches her trunk. It feels like leather, with coarse hairs sprouting up from her skin. I am instantly in love.
I keep thinking to myself, over and over, how blessed I am to be standing next to this rescued creature. My heart aches for her story, the life she had lead up until 2009 when she arrived to the park. And then, my heart bursts with warmth and joy at the life she is living now.
I touch her and I want to hug her. I want to wrap my arms around her big neck and just feel her skin against my face. I want to cry because the moment for me is just sheer amazing. It is a moment I never want to lose.
She takes the fruit, curls her trunk into her mouth, and chomps on the entire cluster.
The smile on my face can’t be contained as I watch her chew.
We continue to feed her and Mae Kham Geao for about 30 minutes, laughing at how smart Mae Tee is. She likes her bananas, not the watermelon. So,whenever she is handed a watermelon, she accepts it, and then tosses it behind her with her trunk. It isn’t until all of the bananas are gone that she is willing to eat the juicy fruit. In its entirety.
The group of us laughs at her adorable picky eating.
She’s a lucky girl.
I look back at the two elephants as we head to the main area for lunch — something I have heard nothing but raves about from other visitors to the park.
She’s standing there, talking to her best friend. Their trunks tangle together as they softly chatter.
My heart nearly explodes with joy.
For more information on Elephant Nature Foundation and Elephant Nature Park, please visit www.saveelephant.org.
For more information about the elephant tourism industry and why you shouldn’t ride elephants, support circuses and more in Thailand, click here.