Working With Rescued Animals in Northern Thailand - Part 1: What Animals Can Teach Us About Healing, Happiness, and Returning to Our True Nature
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The beginning of a legend
In the early 1960s, in a remote part of Northern Thailand, there was a Shaman that saved the life of a sick young man. In exchange, the grateful family of the young man gifted the Shaman a baby elephant. Given the revered status of elephants in Thai culture, the gift of an elephant was honorable.
They named the elephant Thong Kam, which meant The Golden One.
It turned out that the Shaman had a granddaughter named Sangdeaun “Lek” Chailert. Lek in Thai translates to “tiny” and is a fitting description given Lek’s small stature. Even with her muddy work boots on and clothes saturated in sludge, sweat, and rain from Thailand’s jungle climate, Lek barely stands 5 feet tall and might weigh 100lbs.
However, what Lek lacked in physicality, she made up for in courage, tenacity, and infinite love for animals, beginning with the bond she formed with The Golden One.
It turned out that the gift of the baby elephant Thong Kam was prophetic. As if crafted by a team of Pixar writers, Lek's legend has only grown in her sixty-plus years on earth. She is now known as Thailand’s elephant whisperer and has become one of the world’s most important animal rights activists because of her willingness to rescue any animal — not just elephants.
Love and bananas
Sadly, despite the exalted status of elephants within many cultures, the population of wild Asian elephants has plummeted.
The Asian elephant is classified as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Its population has declined by an estimated 50 percent over the past 75 years, and an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild.1 The World Wildlife Foundation estimates that there were over 100,000 wild Asian elephants as recently as 100 years ago.2
The decline of the population is not only due to their loss of natural habitat but also because of how they’ve been appropriated for non-natural purposes. They’ve been used in the logging industry, circuses, and for various other entertainment purposes.
As Instagrammable as it appears, riding an elephant on your next trip to Asia should be a no-go. Elephants aren’t delicately trained to perform the tricks that we pay to see. Typically, they’re brutalized with the use of crude tools and weapons and kept fearful with the overzealous use of a metal hook jabbed into their skull, ears, and eyes. It’s horrendous.
But that’s where Lek decided to step in. She created a different way to work with elephants. “Elephants should be allowed to be elephant…” you can often hear her say. They need to be allowed to be free in the same way we cherish our own need for freedom and the desire to be as we are.
Yet most of the animals she rescues have been traumatized and neglected. They aren’t quite ready to simply be an elephant again. Many of them never had the chance to live wild. Instead, the elephants must first be rehabilitated, physically and emotionally, before returning to their natural way of being.
"You don't need a bull hook to control an elephant. You can guide an elephant with love... and bananas" - Lek
Love and Bananas, the name of a documentary about Lek, is the method of working with animals at her Save Elephant Foundation. With a lot of love and several thousand pounds of bananas, the elephants can learn to trust people again. And most importantly, they can rediscover what it means to be an elephant.
Lessons from nature
This context is the backstory behind why I wanted to visit Elephant Nature Park (ENP) and spend time with the animals.
As an adult, I’ve undergone my own journey of healing and transformation. My trek to the Northern Thai jungles was the next step in my wellness walkabout.
I wanted to see what the animals could teach me about returning to a natural, joyful form.
We forget about the wisdom animals possess. Sure, there are great books on the subject of healing from trauma (one of my favorites is The Body Keeps the Score), and I have benefited from reading them myself. However, the animal kingdom contains tens to hundreds of millions of years of cumulative sagacity and is one of our most excellent teachers.
Elephants themselves are believed to have walked the earth for approximately 60 million years.3 They also have complex social structures and emotions.4 So, I turned to the elephants with a beginner's mind to see what I could learn and apply to myself.
Lessons on healing
When Lek and her team rescue an elephant, they’re typically in pretty bad shape. As Darrick Thomson, Lek’s husband and co-captain at Elephant Nature Park, jokingly said to me, “We have a bunch of old, blind ladies here.”
It was funny, accurate, and a statement of affection. Nearly 70% of their elephants are above the age of 70, and several of them lost their sight due to abuse or old age. A few had stepped on landmines and lost a foot. One hobbled around slowly with a hip that had been dislocated due to forced breeding.
Still, the elephants' old age and shabby state didn’t stop many from restoring themselves to a natural, calm, and playful condition. They found a way to heal, even after decades of abuse. I wanted to discover how.
#1 - Love and safety
The first step in rescuing an animal is to put it in a safe, nurturing, and patient environment. It must feel safe before any other work can be done to improve its condition. Just like you can’t teach a dog to sit when it's whimpering in the corner, you can’t begin to rehabilitate an elephant until it feels safe.
"We have to first thing, heal them. We have to heal them with love… We have to let nature rehab them. We have to make them feel that this is a safe place for them. Trust is the first thing that we have to go and do." - Lek
The video below shows how Lek tries to make elephants feel safe and loved. She sings a lullaby while fanning the elephant to keep it cool — a practice she performs for many of the elephants at ENP. Lek’s gentle lullaby remains the most iconic demonstration of love and safety. A mother’s love is recognizable, even across the boundaries of species.
#2 - Nurture the body
The animal also needs its physical health to be nurtured. Proper rest, lots of quality food, and any necessary medical interventions are provided. The elephants that they rescue are often malnourished — to the point of revealing their ribs — and need lots of rest to recover from the physical abuse from their prior captors.
A growing body of scientific literature shows the relationship between physical activity and mental health. Unlike the dated model of mind and body as two separate systems, it’s become clearer how mind and body are one integrated unit.
#3 - Bonding and connection
"I never think 'Elephant is an animal,' I think they are a person, so that is why when I talk to them, I treat them like my family… We understand even if we speak a different language. But we understand each other." - Lek
It’s also essential that the elephants begin to form new, healthy bonds with other elephants and sometimes with their human caretakers. Most important is the relationship that the elephants have with one another.
When an abused elephant connects with another elephant that has also been abused but has returned to its natural form, the elephant gives itself the chance to feel trust and love once again. It also re-learns what it means to be a socially connected being.
Elephants have profoundly complex social structures reflecting their deep, intrinsic social needs.5 They are wired for connection as much as any other mammal is.
Below is the counter-example of what happens when an elephant doesn’t get the socialization that it needs. This video was shot at a neighboring location that doesn’t have the financial support it needs to properly care for the animals in the way that ENP can.
This elephant is chained up and isolated from the herd due to an illness. Notice the back-and-forth swaying. That’s a sign of mental stress. This elephant was very thankful to receive some food, socialization, and freshwater from us during our visit.
#4 - Have fun
Once the elephant has been rehabilitated physically and understands that it is safe, it also needs to have fun. It’s an enrichment of the social experience in several dimensions.
As this research has demonstrated with chimpanzees, a whole host of benefits come from play within highly social mammals. The gist of the research is that play helps animals achieve critical developmental milestones, such as increased reproductive success.
#5 - A consistent routine
Recovering animals need a consistent daily routine. The predictability of their daily schedule reduces stress on the animal and allows it to adapt more quickly to its new environment. Just like your pet dog or cat likes to fall into a routine, so do many other animals, including elephants.
I shot the below video at Elephant Nature Park during the daily 4:30 pm pre-bedtime routine. The elephants are called up the river to receive a treat of bananas, watermelons and other fruits. They trumpet and growl loudly with excitement no different than your dog or cat when it knows it’s treat time. Listen to this one with the volume up! Now I know where Jurassic Park pulled their audio effects from.
#6 - Exercise
The elephants also need plenty of exercise. It’s typical for a wild Asian elephant to cover up to 13 miles daily while casually searching for food and water.6 Exercise is as central to their overall well-being as it is for us.
In an ideal situation, we could return captive elephants to the wild to have all the space they need for daily exercise. Yet not all elephants can be returned to the wild, which is why the leading sanctuaries do everything they can to give them as much space as they can afford.
#7 - Connect with nature
While some of the physical needs of animals may be met in captivity, the conditions of confinement and exposure to humans can result in physiological stress. The stress response consists of a suite of hormonal and physiological reactions to help an animal survive potentially harmful stimuli.7 The stress of enclosure can easily be seen in captive elephants, like in the video below.
#8 - Authenticity
Elephants have unique personalities and preferences, just like we do as people. As such, it is essential that they are allowed to be themselves.
For example, they don’t force the elephant to have a specific personality type or to bond with a particular person. In Thai culture, an elephant caretaker is known as a Mahout.
When the elephant is rescued, it is eventually paired with a Mahout. However, it isn’t forced to bond with a specific Mahout. Elephant Nature Park observes the elephant’s natural preferences and notes which Mahout a particular elephant prefers.
They also allow the personality to emerge as the elephant is integrated into the pack and slowly rehabilitated. If the personality is a calm, social one, then it can stay in the pack with that personality. If the elephant is anti-social and only likes to connect with particular elephants, then it is allowed to live in that way, just as it would in the wild.
In the following video, you can see how one of the elephants (Kham La) grabs Darrick’s hand to lead him away from us (she can get quite jealous!)
Model of care
Overall, the point is to let the elephant be an elephant again. Allow it to regress back to the gene and be what it is supposed to be. And the way to do so with a neglected and abused elephant is with this 8-point approach.
With this approach, Elephant Nature Park has shown that it can successfully rescue and rehabilitate even the most traumatized elephants. It takes this 8-fold approach and an awful lot of love and bananas.
As Lek said:
"When one day they start rolling in the mud, they start to enjoy trumpeting, swim on the river -- and that is the day I have a tear ... I have a tear of joy."
How this applies to you and me
The care model for rehabilitating abused and neglected animals is nearly identical to what I believe is essential to helping people. Like elephants, we are also highly intelligent animals with complex social needs. It stands to reason that what works for them would carry over to us.
Safety - we also require a safe, nurturing environment. That may mean we need to cut out toxic people, set boundaries with those that regularly transgress our boundaries, and begin to associate with supportive people and institutions.
Physical Health - to feel our best, we need to nurture our most essential bodily functions, such as what we eat and how we sleep. The mind and body are one integrated unit, contrary to the dated model of mind and body as completely separate entities. Take care of them both to nurse them back to health. One of my favorite things about spending time in Southeast Asia is that delicious, nourishing food can be found everywhere.
Connection - Surround yourself with loving, supportive people. We don’t do well with prolonged isolation. Look for ways to connect with others in a group environment, especially if that involves helping others and working as a unit.
Routine - life doesn’t have to be complex and disorganized. Still, we allow it to be that way. Take a moment to do some spring cleaning with your calendar. Strip life down to its essential features. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Fun - I regularly speak to people working through their psychological distress. Often, they feel conflicted about integrating time for rest, relaxation, and fun into their emotional healing work. Eventually, they come to learn that fun is a necessary part of the healing process. Fun brings us into the present moment and energizes our inner child, allowing the kid in us to take center stage. It’s also through having fun that our intuition kicks in. We shut off our minds and allow the wisdom contained within us to poke through the noise of our minds. That’s when breakthroughs happen.
Exercise - recent research has demonstrated that physical exercise can be just as effective as an anti-depressant.8 Get up. Move your body. Break a sweat. It doesn't have to be intense. Whether it be dancing, walking, lifting weights, or gardening, it doesn't matter much what the activity is. What matters is you're putting your body to work.
Nature - a growing body of research is showing what we’ve intuitively known to be true — nature therapy is real. As this comprehensive report states, “We found evidence for associations between nature exposure and improved cognitive function, brain activity, blood pressure, mental health, physical activity, and sleep. Results from experimental studies provide evidence of the protective effects of exposure to natural environments on mental health outcomes and cognitive function.”
Authenticity - we suffer when we aren’t allowed to be ourselves. The word “depress” means to push something down. From my experience, the people that are depressed are those that have been pushing down their authenticity, secrets, and unprocessed emotions.
To push those down any longer is the path to inevitable suffering. To unwind our depression, we have to open the valves and release what we’ve been pushing down. The challenge we all face is in expressing our individuality within a world that seeks to suppress it and drive each of us toward conformity.
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
What inspires me right now
I’d like to close out this post by sharing something that I’m inspired by. It’s a touching example of transformation. And, it has dogs in it, so you can’t lose. I hope it inspires you as well.