Please Don't Feed the Children to the Elephants

Jarunee is one of the most dangerous elephants we have at The Elephant Sanctuary. She spends most of her days alone on a strip of land between the water flow from the River Kwai. For good reason. She has bullied other elephants and been aggressive with people. There is only one mahout who's willing to work with her, and I do believe he's a bit reluctant to do so.

The other day, while the founder of The Elephant Sanctuary was recording the tourists during the afternoon fruit basket feeding, I removed two children from feeding Spy, the small young female who is a bit unpredictable and mistakenly placed them in front of the mammoth and even more dangerous, Jarunee. But their parents were so high maintenance that I didn't dare try to remove the kids again.

The founder kept recording and didn't even give me a raised eyebrow as if to ask, What the hell are you doing?!

Som, a Thai staff member who is also a guide, looked at me with great surprise and disbelief, "You put kids with Jarunee?" His jaw dropped. Jai, a previous volunteer who came to help during this unusually busy time, offered his slack-jaw as well. The three of us hovered near the unsuspecting children, ready to pull them back to safety should Jarunee decide to grip one of them with her massive trunk. A trunk that can hold eleven hundred pounds. She probably could have taken out both of the kids with one curl of the trunk.

Thankfully, the founder didn't see my mistake and no harm came to the children during the feeding of the elephants. 

In my short time of being a tour guide, I've seen many different parenting styles from the families who've traveled from Germany, England, the US, Australia, the Netherlands, China and New Zealand. So far, one woman stands out as the kind of mom you're lucky you didn't have.

Two families were traveling together with two special needs kids. They arrived late and scrambled as best they could to manage their collective children while acclimating themselves to the thick heat. They were a bit distracted and chaotic. The parents, not the kids. The two families happened to be in my group for the day. The parents set up their fancy cameras and Go-Pros to document every moment. Most of their conversation seemed to center around the pictures and video they were taking and instantly reviewing.

During lunch, one of the mothers told me about her peanut allergy. We checked with four different Thai staff to confirm which of the lunch buffet dishes contained any peanut products; oil, powder or the nuts themselves. We were told nothing had peanut products. Just cashews in the papaya salad.

Thankfully, she brought her epi pen. Within half an hour her husband approached me to tell me of his wife's allergic reaction. I kicked into high gear, knowing how dangerous a peanut allergy can be and found Veronica. 

She took two steps back, "Go tell Elise. I don't know, I don't know."

I found Elise at the reception table. "Can you please talk to the husband of the woman who is having a peanut reaction?"

"Did you check with the Thai staff about the peanuts? They will know what has the peanuts. The ladies in the kitchen should know."

"We did check. With four of them. She's having an allergic reaction. That's the husband, there," I pointed to the man, "Can you please go talk to him?"

"What did she eat? It should not be that she has this allergy if the Thai staff said there were no peanuts."

At this point, I shrugged, "I don't know. He's over there. You can ask him." And I walked away.

The non-allergic mother wore a beautiful flowy tropical print jumpsuit, large rimmed round sunglasses and glistening peach gloss on her permanently pursed lips. While we made sticky rice balls to feed the elephants, she stood off to the side with her camera and instructed her daughter on how to pose for the candid pictures. Her son, who I believe was on the autism spectrum, didn't want to get his hands dirty from forming the sticky rice balls and sat patiently as his mom reviewed the moments from minutes before through her playback screen. She seemed to have very little interaction with her son other than to ask him to stop whining.

Our elephant arrived at the feeding area and the boy decided he wanted to try feeding Tangmo. I shook off some of the calcium powder coating the rice ball and placed it in the boy's open palm. I'd be on edge if my parents were standing behind me cheering me, Come on, just put it in his mouth! Just do it. Don't back away. Don't be afraid!

The boy lifted his open palm toward the giant elephant. When the rice ball hit the ground, the boy let out a howl of frustration but was determined to try again. He grabbed another rice ball from the tray which slipped from his hands and fell to the dirt.

He was very frustrated with himself, "I keep dropping things!" he blurted out.

"It's okay," I offered, "As long as we have gravity, we're going to drop things."

Later in the day when the woman who survived the peanut allergy came back to life, she rejoined her friends. Pantsuit diva immediately seized the opportunity for a photo shoot. Not of the elephants. Not of her children. Just a solo photoshoot.

She handed her freshly revived friend the camera and immediately struck a pose. Side profile while looking pouty off into the distance, 3/4 profile glancing coyly at the camera, Look at me! I'm in Thailand!

Her hard-earned pilates arms draped over the back of the bench in ownership. Click. Click. Click.

She moved locations and switched photographers. "You're doing it wrong!" She admonished her twelve year-old daughter who was in charge of an Out of Africa style photoshoot of the mom strolling down the dirt path, looking over her shoulder in surprise as if an elephant had just whispered to her.

When I was twelve, I recall my mom being more interested in taking pictures of me or the two of us together. Have times changed because of the digital age and how each member of a family has access to smart phones with cameras? Have we become more selfie-centered because of technology?

Have we lost the art of being in the moment because we're so focused on capturing it to share with our social circles later? I remember my trip to Alaska and how majestically the glaciers and mountains stood so proudly from the earth. I clicked picture after picture until my battery finally wore out.

Oh, well. I guess I'll just have to remember this because I won't have any pictures. 

But a photograph won't capture the afternoon breeze or the head to toe relief when you step inside the air-conditioning of a 7-11 store after dripping sweat walking around one of the crowded nightmarkets. A photograph doesn't capture the call of the birds and the silly vocalization from the Geckos that I'm certain are saying something rather obscene.

I am loving this moment, gazing over the pool where I will submerge my aching bones within the hour. Listening to a melody of children squealing and splashing gleefully with their father brings me back to the poolside afternoons with my grandparents in West Palm Beach, Florida. My brother and I played in the pool for hours, only drying off for egg-salad sandwiches at lunch. We'd head straight back to the pool after waiting the obligatory thirty minutes after eating and stay there until the sun settled into the palm trees.

The air in Kanchanaburi Province smells of smoke from the small piles of debris and trash burned throughout the area. It is both a shocking reminder of the horrible practice of burning plastic and other garbage and at the same time, it is part of the endearing and contrasting landscape of Thailand. 

Can I be an impartial observer and not be quick to judgment? With the burning trash or the pantsuit mother? Can things just be the way they are without my labeling them as good or bad?

Patty Blue Hayes is the award winning author of  Wine, Sex and Suicide – My Near Death Divorce and the creator of  You Can Heal Your Heartbreak, an audio program based on her book, My Heart is Broken. Now What? Her life coaching helps people rediscover themselves after divorce. Connect with her at www.pattybluehayes.com