Sick From Complicity

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Celine was the first one knocked out from the food poisoning. After 3 days, she managed to make it to one of our morning meetings, looking rather pale, hunched over the table sipping electrolytes and holding a small baggie of anti-nausea medication.

I knew it was just a matter of time before someone got sick. Every day at four O'clock the kitchen ladies set out the food for dinner that was sealed in plastic wrap and covered with stainless steel lids and sat for 2 hours in the eighty-five degree late afternoon heat before we were allowed to eat. Staff and volunteers were only permitted to serve ourselves after the overnight guests had filled their plates.

Ann was the next one taken down. She spent most of the day on the bed next to me in the small air-conditioned office where I was reading the Elephant Sanctuary study guide. Ann’s hand rested gently on her lower abdomen. She only moved slowly from side to side during the several hours I was reading about how sensitive, emotional and intelligent the elephants were.

As a tour guide, I heard tourists say the same thing I did, I wanted to make sure I was coming to a true ethical animal sanctuary. It made my stomach turn.

In a country with a centuries long history of treating the elephant as a machine for hard labor, using it as a street beggar and regarding it as a nuisance to local farmers, there’s a long road toward shifting the perception and treatment of the elephant. And of course there is the element of greed. Money appeared to be the driving force behind the decisions made at The Elephant Sanctuary, not the wellbeing of the animals.

I’d seen things contrary to the, we work for the elephants, motto and I’d heard disturbing things about the treatment of the elephants by some of the mahouts; the people who take care of the elephants. Some of the mahouts believe regular beatings of the elephant reminds the animal who is in charge. I saw aggressive and forceful use of the bull hook which wouldn’t be necessary if the elephants weren’t forced to do activities for the tourists.

The bull hook I held up in front of international tourists during the morning safety talk was a fraction of the size of the ones the mahouts used on the animals. I saw bloodied ears, threatening motions and repetitive strikes on the animals but every morning I lied and told tourists, In the past, the bull hook was used to abuse the elephants, but we only use it as a guiding tool.

As I led my tour group through the property, undoubtedly the question arose, Why is that elephant chained to the tree?

We were told it was because some of the elephants were too dangerous. But when I saw most of the elephants chained up at some point during the day, it was impossible to deny they did not have freedom of movement. They moved when it was part of their daily routine; chained to the feeding platform for 2 hours before the tourists fed them a fruit basket, led to the river for the tourists to view them, brought to the mud puddle to show the tourists how they play, led to a feeding station to eat sticky rice balls and then dragged into the river for tourists to brush them before they were brought to their designated night time areas where they were chained for fourteen hours. Elephants only sleep for 4 – 6 hours a night. 

Day after day. Seven days a week this was the routine.

Instead of building enclosures for the elephants to roam freely, the construction on the property was for parking areas and tourist viewing platforms. The welfare of a sick elephant at the medical center wasn't considered when loud tractors destroyed the shade trees behind its temporary home. By the time I saw that, I knew not to call the office. No one cared. The owner was the one who ordered the construction.

I felt sick from the choking afternoon smoke. Each breath I took on the long walk back to the reception area with my tour group at the end of the hot day was singed with burning debris.

My body was weak. I was overcome with exhaustion and retreated to the dim and cave like coolness of the office / infirmary where I laid down with my head toward the fan.

The rhythm of the soft whirring blades and the intervals of cool relief on my face and shoulders settled my nausea and allowed me to doze off.

But my weakness wasn't from the smoke. I was the 7th person to get the food poisoning. Or perhaps my spirit felt sick knowing I had been complicit in the ongoing mistreatment and abuse of the animals I had travelled eight thousand miles to love and care for.

I doubted myself, my instincts, my better judgement. I believed the excuse, It's the Thai way. Is it possible there are no Thai people who truly have an elephant's wellbeing as their primary concern instead of their profit? Was this a true cultural difference or had I been manipulated to go along with the status quo because at least the elephants were being treated better than in a trekking camp?

And while that's true, the elephants were treated better than in a trekking camp, what does it say about the erosion of ethics when it's acceptable to abuse an animal less than it would be abused elsewhere?

Was I too American, first-world, idealistic, naive or stupid?

I was told the issue of elephant tourism in Thailand was complex. Maybe I am unrealistic in my belief that the ethical complexity of a situation should not equate to immoral complicity.  

I gave notice that I was leaving the program early. I couldn't wait to get out of there. I felt disgusting for going against my values, for supporting their business, for believing the bullshit.

The heaviness of The Elephant Sanctuary stayed with me. In fact it may still be with me. But I can and will use my words, both written and spoken, to inform and educate people about my experience.