Until three years ago, I never imagined elephants would be a part of my world. I was a career-breaker, a solo traveler, a freelance writer … but someone who would drop it all to relocate to Thailand to live as an expat with the goal of raising awareness about responsible elephant tourism? Yeah … right.
And, then it happened. I volunteered for a week at Elephant Nature Park and, standing in the middle of the largest herd, with the park’s founder, Lek Chailert, something in me shifted. Surrounded by rescued elephants, everything became so clear to me: I wanted the next chapter of my life to be dedicated to protecting these majestic animals.
As luck would have it, I ended up returning and being offered a position with Save Elephant Foundation, run by Lek, and I am regularly treated to spending time with elephants at Elephant Nature Park.
In the year-and-a-half with these pachyderms, they’ve taught me a lot about life.
1. Getting dirty is good.
I’ve never seen such joy derived from playing in the mud as the elephants exhibit. It reminds me of being a kid and longing to go and get caked in mud after a good rain storm. If the elephants – at any age – can enjoy something like splashing around and coating their skin with mud, why can’t we as humans do the same? Bonus points: mud serves as a natural sunscreen.
2. Fruits and veggies do a body good. Really, really good.
Elephants are vegetarians and the pachyderms at ENP are really well-fed. Like the elephants, the park serves up a vegetarian feast each day. Living here, I’ve become a vegetarian. If the elephants can get plump and happy with pumpkins, tamarind, watermelon, mango, bananas and other delicious exotic fruits, why can’t I, too?
3. Family isn’t just blood.
Sadly, a very real part of elephant tourism is the separation of families. Many times, a baby is removed from the mother at a young age and taken through training and eventually brought to a camp where they will perform or give rides. When elephants are rescued and brought to ENP, they are usually without family. However, the bonds that grow from these rescued elephants with others at the park is a beautiful thing. Elephants love being social and taking on roles of responsibilities in a young elephant’s life. When a baby is born at the park, the mom usually gains a nanny, junior nanny and more, creating a makeshift family. Proof that you don’t have to be a blood relative to love another unconditionally.
4. Perfection is not required.
There are many elephants living at ENP who have been subject to obscene abuse from being blinded by slingshots for refusing to work after a traumatic experience, to breaking legs in illegal logging. However, these injuries do not stop these pachyderms from living a happy life. It doesn’t stop other elephants from being their friend. In the elephant world it is all about acceptance as you are … something we as humans can certainly embrace.
5. A best friend is with you for life.
We all have friends who come and go in our lives. However, in the world of elephants, particularly those I have spent time with, the friendships are lifelong. These rescued animals make a best friend and are steadfast, always with their partner. No matter what.
6. At any age, a lullaby can be soothing.
Sanguden “Lek” Chailert, the founder of SEF and ENP, has worked with elephants nearly her entire life. I always marvel at her ability to soothe the elephants. At the end of the day, she heads into the large family herd’s shelter and sits under one of the younger girls and sings to her softly. Then, something beautiful happens: the elephant lays down and goes to sleep as Lek sings. Others, even those more grown-up, follow suit. There’s something to be said for a lullaby to calm the soul, regardless of age.
7. Love can heal.
We talk a lot about the power of love in our lives, but do we really understand just how powerful it is? I’ve seen elephants rescued who have suffered, and could not trust people or other animals. And I have seen the work Lek does, showing these elephants they can trust her. She believes love can heal any creature, and watching her work with these elephants, I know it is true. To see how far they have come is so beautiful.
8. It is important to give a second chance to people.
Many of the elephants at ENP have come from harsh and painful pasts. It has been proven that elephants do not forget … but they can forgive. Many elephants rescued by Lek come to the park and are scared, hurt and unsure of humans. She works with these elephants to earn their trust and to show that not all people wish them harm. Eventually, the elephants allow her into their world, giving a human a second chance to be in their life.