Forever Changed

words :: Lillian Clark illustration :: Dave Barnes 

On Thanksgiving Day 2016, I found myself barrelling down a remote dirt road in Northern Thailand. I was on my way to volunteer for a week at Elephant Nature Park, home to seventy-some Asian elephants, each rescued and rehabilitated from the logging, circus or tourism industries. As I soon discovered, these survivors harmoniously coexisted in a lush and spacious sanctuary with 475 rescued street dogs, hundreds of roaming cats, herds of water buffalo and one very fat pig.

This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List

Introducing our Curated COVID-19 Isolation reading list. Editors from each of our publications have gone through and compiled a list of pieces from past issues of Mountain Life for you to enjoy, and we’re excited to share them with you. Sit back and relax, because we might be in this for the long haul. But most importantly, let’s not forget to do this together.

When I booked the trip six months earlier, I wasn’t feeling thankful for much. Navigating a rough patch personally, I felt I didn’t have much to show for my 35 years on the planet. Seeking a mental and spiritual reset, I needed a trip that would not only help me vacate my life, but also fill my soul. Elephant Nature Park did just that.

Along with some four dozen like-minded individuals from all over the world, I lived seven glorious sunrises, seven stunning sunsets and seven joy-filled days among the elephants. We spent countless hours under shady trees delighting in the interactions of these intelligent, emotional and cognizant creatures; we were drenched in warm rain while they played in the mud; and we silently observed as they ate, scratched, swam and trumpeted through the grounds. We listened attentively as our hosts shared each elephant’s habits, humours and idiosyncrasies. Not unlike humans, they formed groups made up of babies, aunties, nannies and grannies connected by both blood and bond. They took care of their disabled and were fiercely protective of their young. We heard stories of elephants grieving their dead, of overcoming immeasurable physical and emotional trauma, yet every day we saw firsthand their unapologetic and boundless affection for one another. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life. But it came at a cost—for with every beautiful elephant we met was also delivered a terrifying and tragic history.

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Each moment of joy we experienced bathing elephants in the river or watching babies wriggle playfully in the mud came with the understanding that there had previously been only pain.

Nokia (“eye from heaven”) had been born in 1960 and enslaved in the logging industry for over 35 years. Suffering a miscarriage while dragging logs, she’d been forced to leave the stillborn calf behind, causing her extreme physical and emotional pain. Refusing to work following the incident, she was deliberately blinded by her owners. Faa Sai (“clear sky after a storm”) was rescued from a circus at a young age, but had been so traumatized by the pajan—or “crush,” the unimaginable ritual of stealing baby elephants from their mothers, caging and torturing them until their spirits are broken, then training them through physical and emotional abuse—that for weeks after arriving at the park she would aggressively charge any human who ventured near. When her leg chains were removed, she continued to shuffle for weeks, having barely known life without them.

Each moment of joy we experienced bathing elephants in the river or watching babies wriggle playfully in the mud came with the understanding that there had previously been only pain. It was a punch to the gut. Yet this hard-knocks schooling on responsible tourism and the cruelty of man was a wake-up call I previously wouldn’t have thought necessary. After all, I already considered myself thoughtful and compassionate where animals were concerned: I used only cruelty-free cosmetics and cleaning products, always refused plastic straws, avoided clothing brands that sold fur, and never visited aquariums or zoos. But as each elephant’s horrifying story was recounted, I realized how little I was actually aware of, or just not thinking about as a tourist. What other abuses could I unknowingly be participating in when even a teak table might have a barbarous backstory? Clearly, we can’t be too hard on ourselves for things we don’t know about, but when we’re faced with the knowledge of atrocities committed against animals and we choose to ignore them, we become personally culpable. My eyes were truly opened to the unwitting part we can play in the demise of these magnificent creatures.

Elephant Nature Park is a haven, but it’s also a school to teach visitors about what the human race is doing to some of Earth’s most precious residents. Lectures are designed to help people tune in to subliminal messages of animal cruelty hidden in plain sight—the faintest of chain marks on legs caused by decades of restraint, strange scars and the signs of starvation, the behaviour of an animal taken from its family at its most vulnerable age—all challenge one to think before visiting a circus, aquarium or zoo. To ask some hard questions before taking a selfie or paying for an interaction with an exotic animal at a roadside attraction or resort. Where did these animals come from? Where are their mothers, their young, their families? Is my entertainment and desire for a souvenir more valuable than this animal’s freedom and well being? Is there a more ethical option? (The good news: chances are there is.)

I am forever changed by this experience. It has made me slightly more cynical and arguably a little less fun. But in exchange, it has awakened in me an acute appreciation for all things great and small. It has made me a more thoughtful and aware consumer and traveller, and a passionate advocate for animal rights. Most importantly, it has reconnected me with my humanity.

I can still close my eyes and be transported back to those calming sunrises in Northern Thailand, sound-tracked by humming crickets, barking dogs and trumpeting elephants. I can feel the power of those rough, wrinkled trunks under hand and the thrill of being in the presence of a creature of such strength yet also such tenderness. Though I can vividly recall each elephant’s sad and painful history, I’m both hopeful and happy knowing that their future lives, however long, will be filled with love, play and peace.

And for that I am truly thankful. —Lillian Clark