By Alison Bowen
Pai Lin lumbers along a dirt forest trail as tourists walk alongside, feeding the elephant watermelon.
Rides on these massive mammals aren't allowed at this refuge run by the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, or WFFT, a haven for rescued animals — including 17 elephants — that's nearly three hours by car from bustling Bangkok.
Long a popular tourist activity in this Southeast Asian country, elephant rides are considered animal abuse by WFFT, which notes that elephants' spines weren't meant to hoist humans.
"What is done to elephants to make them willing to allow human beings to climb on them and ride them is beyond horrific," said Elizabeth Hogan of London-based World Animal Protection (www.worldanimalprotection.org).
Thailand is a "global hot spot" for elephant rides, according to Hogan's group, which in February released a report ranking elephant rides as the No. 1 cruelest tourist activity. The organization estimates that, as of 2010, some 1,300 elephants were held captive in Thailand.
Using elephants for entertainment is an increasingly frowned-upon notion. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus retired its last working elephants this past spring. In October, TripAdvisor announced that attractions with captive animals, including elephant rides, would no longer be bookable on the travel website.
Whether rides are ethical isn't the only issue; human safety is a concern too. Earlier this year, British tourist Gareth Crowe was killed when an elephant the 36-year-old man was riding on the Thai island of Koh Samui threw him and gored him with its tusks.
WFFT Director Edwin Wiek said 49 people have been killed by captive elephants in the past decade.
Many WFFT guests on a tour earlier this year said they purposely sought an elephant site that bans riding and doesn't force the animals to perform tricks.
Any animal-human contact, some activists say, is problematic. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) advises tourists not to patronize places that profit from captivity. Even if elephants are eventually treated well, the group argues, the process to train them in the first place is inhumane.
Trained elephants are often abused with metal bull hooks or wood. Afterward, they may be chained in small spaces. Training is commonly called "the crush."
"The idea is literally to crush an elephant's spirit," said Heather Rally, a Los Angeles-based PETA veterinarian.
The reality is complex; trained elephants might be unable to return to the wild. At Baanchang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai (www.baanchangelephantpark.com), where elephant rides are allowed, the website emphasizes that it's a refuge for animals previously used at circuses and illegal logging camps.
At WFFT, elephants live in specially built enclosures backdropped by mountains. Some elephants have pools to plop into. Trees are available for trunks to loop around. The foundation is raising money for its own elephant hospital.
Some WFFT elephants, like Pai Lin, are accustomed to humans. But others have been so mistreated that even employees steer clear.
World Animal Protection cites reports of elephants being forced to lift tourists by their trunks and babies made to stand upright to pose for photos.
Visitors might witness inhumane treatment without realizing it.
"If you saw a bunch of baby elephants clustered together, people might think, 'Oh great, the babies are together,'" Hogan said. "But actually, that's not really a good sign, because the baby should be with its mother."
At WFFT, one elephant at first delighted visitors by appearing to dance. But a guide quickly explained the swaying and weaving were remnants of a stress response to a small space.
The foundation only offers escorted tours of its facility in the form of day trips or an overnight visit. (A day tour with lunch and round-trip transportation from Bangkok costs about $191 for two people; www.wfft.org).
One of WFFT's elephants, Kaew Petch, has worked with tourists for 30 years. When she was rescued, 60 percent of her body was covered in fungi, Wiek said.
A visit that began with a batch of bananas for Kaew Petch ended with a forest stroll alongside Pai Lin. As guests used a long brush to bathe Pai Lin's muddy back, signs of her previous life were visible. An earlobe exhibited a jagged edge. Small pink splotches showed scars.
The foundation recently rescued a 45-year-old Asian elephant, Nam Fon. After years of enduring daily rides, Nam Fon was brought to her new, leafy home by a fundraiser.
Wiek wrote in a letter to supporters that when Nam Fon arrived, two elephants she'd known years earlier welcomed her with a greeting.
"Elephants," he said, "never forget."
Pictures credit Alison Bowen / Chicago Tribune
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