This post is very dear to my heart, and it something that I wish I had read about more before my trip to Thailand. You have probably seen the pictures all over social media of people with exotic animals ranging from elephants, tigers, snakes, and smaller animals such as pangolins and lorises, birds, etc...but at what cost to the animals did those pictures come?
I am an animal lover, that is for sure. However, I am also a promoter of education and I believe that zoos and places like Sea World really do have the animals welfare at heart. The regulations within the United States ensure that animals are taken care of to a pretty high degree. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other countries especially in places like Southeast Asia. Admittedly, I do not know the laws protecting animals in Thailand, but I do know that they are hard to enforce and that government corruption is an issue.
Of course I wanted to see elephants while I was in Thailand, and it was mentioned in the Chiang Mai area in the Lonely Planet guidebook. One of the facilities mentioned in the book was the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) that is located just outside of Chiang Mai. It is the place that I thought was the best to go in order to not contribute to animal cruelty. According to their website, the TECC was founded in 1993 under Royal Patronage, it is Thailand's only government owned elephant camp. They pride themselves on making the elephant experience accessible and affordable, and are often visited by Thai school children. They promote a few different conservation efforts to increase the wellbeing and care of Thailand's elephants, which you can read about here.
Personally I felt that the center was exactly as they describe themselves on their website. Courtney and I were some of the only obvious tourists visiting, and the workers actually asked us how we had heard about them and why we chose to visit them. They told us that they don't usually get many tourists because it is kind of off the beaten path, we had to take a local bus and get off at a stop given to us by our tourist information lady, otherwise we would have been lost for sure.
It costs 200 Baht for admission, which if I recall includes admission to the elephant show, otherwise it is an additional 200 Baht for that. It is also 500 Baht for two people to ride an elephant for 30 minutes.
Courtney got to play basketball against an elephant and we watched them paint different things~ one elephant painted elephants!! It was awesome to see.
Here is where I am conflicted and feel guilty, but we did ride an elephant for 30 minutes. Since coming home from Thailand I have been informed that ALL elephants that are ridden and trained to paint, etc. undergo horrible torture to essentially break their spirits.
There are many sites that go into detail about the process and this is what the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary has to say about it :
However, the TECC published the Elephant Care Manual for Mahouts and Camp Managers, written in the native language of the mahouts, and it details the proper way to train and care for elephants. One of the major problems with animal care in Thailand is lack of education combined with cruel old traditions but they have made great strides towards correcting that.
I would also like to state that torture is not the only way you can train an elephant to be ridden or to paint. Although the bull hook has been demonized as a cruel instrument for inflicting pain to elephants, that is actually not the intended purpose of it. I would compare it more to that of a leash for a dog, a tool used to train an animal and to also keep the handler safe. The American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF) has a great article describing the benefits of training for elephants in captivity, as well as the proper methods for it. Essentially they describe that the tools are not inherently cruel, but the old traditions that many still practice for elephant training are bad. You can read the article here. Again, education is key to solving this complex problem.
I personally refused to go to a Tiger Temple, but from what I read, most places drug the animals so that they will interact with tourists, and although they may preach conservation most places breed animals that are later killed for their fur and can never be released to the wild.
So if you are heading to Thailand and want to see some exotic animals in captivity, I would suggest you do your research too. Hopefully someone finds this post useful because I wish I had something like this to read before my trip. The WFFT seems like a great resource and I recommend you take a look there.
Stay curious friends,