Elephants are one of many tourist attractions in Thailand. Tourists visit tracking camps, circuses and often purchase paintings created by elephants.
The torture and abuse these elephants endure is brutal.
“If you see an elephant at a circus with its leg raised, then it has been electrocuted so many times that it developed a muscle memory,” said Kendra Dubrick, a fourth-year Laurier student, who volunteered with the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) last May.
These tourist attractions that are prevalent in Thailand are income generators but also the cause of “animal cruelty and abuse”, said Dubrick.
As a volunteer, she spent three weeks taking care of rescued elephants in need of proper food and a space to “retire”, said Dubrick who mainly fed, cleaned and walked elephants.
They are denied food until they follow the owner’s instructions, explained Dubrick, adding that the owners are called “Mahuts”. The horrendous training process is called “Penang”, which she said translates into breaking the spirit of the elephant.
Elephants are forcefully taken from their mother, often times after killing the parent, so that the elephants feel vulnerable. Then, the Mahuts lock them in a “dark hole in the dirt” so that they become desperate for food and protection. The Mahut rescues the elephant, so that the elephant knows that the only way to receive food is to obey his instructions. “If you see an elephant swaying, then that means they are begging for money,” she said, explaining how Mahuts do anything they can to make a profit off the animals.
The WFFT sanctuary continuously develops space for the betterment of animal lives in Thailand. The program “heavily” relies on donations said Elliot Carr, Volunteer Coordinator of the WFFT Wildlife Rescue Centre.
The “enrichment” of the elephants helps them to move freely and stay active. The main goal is to help elephants “replicate natural behavior like foraging food like they would in the wilderness,” she said.
The nightmare of abused elephants becomes visible to the rescue workers. “We often receive calls, or hear along the grapevine of really sick or mistreated elephants,” said Carr. Once investigations are done, they negotiate the freedom of the elephants and take them to the sanctuary to retire.
Edwin Wiek, who has lived in Thailand for 25 years, founded WFFT in 2001. The rescue project started with a few animals but has grown immensely. The organization has freed thousands of animals back into the wild.
Alongside the elephants, the sanctuary also provides care for about 350 other animals, including bears, birds, turtles, crocodiles and gibbons, who also suffer from the wildlife trade, tourists and human and animal conflicts.
According to Carr, Wiek is motivating the Thai government to introduce an “animal welfare bill” and is also working to transform a “zoo into a rescue center”.
Although tourists have become more aware of the mistreatment of animals around the world, irresponsible tourism still prevails. “We educate volunteers on the horrible conditions many animals have in the tourist trade,” she said. Volunteers then pass everything they learn on to their family and friends, which helps raise more awareness.
People may choose not to ride an elephant while on vacation after knowing the truth about what happens to the animals so that they can enjoy a fun, Thai experience.
“Seeing elephants that are still abused, and have scars all over them” is the hardest thing to do, Carr said. Some volunteers are very overwhelmed with different emotions as they learn more about how animals are mistreated.
Dubrick’s journey in Thailand has taught her that paying for animal entertainment is immoral, adding that she does not even like going to the zoo anymore.
Dubrick hopes to continue her volunteer work after graduation. Her volunteer work has not only supported the sanctuary and the rescue program of elephants but has also radically changed her own beliefs.
“My perspective on life has changed,” she said.