Volunteering among a group of amazing elephants, while traveling or as a standalone activity, is a great and rewarding way to be among animals. Gain experience, get to know other people and possibly even stretch your travels financially. In this post I will share my volunteering experience at ElephantsWorld (Thailand). And although everyone will have a different experience during this month, reading this post might give you some things to consider before diving into this great and exotic experience among the wonderful and wise giants.
Read my other post if you want to know a bit more about the organization and their day-program.
I heard of ElephantsWorld (EW) because my girlfriend visited this place a year before our trip. She loved the experience and wanted to learn more about this world and thus suggested us to volunteer there for a month. Working among and for these marvelous and rescued creatures seemed like a wonderful idea. It’s vegan-friendly, I’m helping other beings, gaining experience and it’s cheaper than traveling. I’m in!
THE FIRST DAY – RIDING ELEPHANTS
The first day all the new volunteers are treated as visitors, you are only observing and enjoying. It was a first time for me seeing these friendly giants from this close. The other volunteers seemed nice so I could see myself working here for sure! We received lots of information about the elephants and the sanctuary itself. Later we prepared sticky rice balls for the elephants and cut down banana trees for them to snack on throughout the day. We could see them wash themselves in the river (and help if we liked to) and the more vital (younger) elephants played around.
At the end of the day we were allowed to sit on the neck-, shoulder-area of the elephants while they were standing in the water. Only during this time visitors are allowed on top, to rub their heads and get that beloved new profile picture taken. We were told that because of the elephants being in the water, the weight will be experienced much less. Also sitting on their strong neck instead of their fragile back made this a more elephant-friendly experience.
I knew that indeed water forces objects back up so the weight will be experienced less. So I wasn’t questioning this practice anatomical-wise. And my ethical opinion on this, as a new vegan, was still evolving throughout my stay. But when a couple of visitors did not want to ‘ride’ the elephants, since they “specifically came to EW to not ride an elephant but see them act naturally“, I was forced to truly reflect on this myself. I think, and I’m not trying to excuse myself, this is a common phenomenon. Like the people working at zoos or SeaWorlds (also to be seen in the documentary Blackfish), you often don’t question the things your ‘teachers’ and bosses tell you. Sometimes out of trust, fear of losing your job if disagreeing and sometimes (or mostly) because of a lack of skepticism.
From a vegan point of view, sitting on an elephant for entertainment purposes is a no-go. Although some might compare it to horseback-riding, but that is another discussion on its own. But it could also be seen as a transitioning-phase between a trekking-camp and a true sanctuary. Although I am sure EW will still survive and keep attracting visitors if this activity is being stopped. Ask yourself; do we really need to be on top of an animal to feel connected and have fun?
VEGAN FOOD (OR NOT)
Before we arrived I notified the manager that I was a vegan. She replied pretty nice by explaining how the average (vegan friendly) buffet looked like. And because she couldn’t promise that as a vegan I would get all the nutrients needed, she suggested me buying a small stash of supplemental-food for myself.
Before I’ll write more about the food you can (and can’t) eat at EW, I want to write more about food at animal-sanctuaries in general. To me it seems odd and as a double standard to offer animals in forms of food at an animal-sanctuary where we give (some) animals a wonderful life. But I found out soon enough that even for most people working at an animal sanctuary, not all animals were the same. I was naively under the impression that people here couldn’t be so conditioned by our Western norm nor had blind spots when it comes to animal-ethics.
Both visitors and volunteers would be in immeasurable disgust if we would have offered them (baby)elephant- or dogmeat, but offering other animals such as pigs, cows and chickens seemed perfectly fine. But I’m glad that some sanctuaries stick to their core morals and only offer vegetarian (or even all-vegan) food such as ElephantNaturePark in Chiang Mai and Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia.
Some might then argue that if we didn’t offered meat and labeled the buffet as vegetarian or vegan, people might start complaining. But what if we just offered some kick-ass tasty and healthy food, that is vegan and therefor totally animal- and environmentally-friendly by default, but maybe not labeled like it. Although, labeling and education about food can become a task of sanctuaries as well, but this might come with the risk that people feel judged. The offered food that turned out to be vegan was much enjoyed by everyone (including me!), so it’s not that the kitchen staff was lacking some vegan-chef skills! :)
Instead of only bashing the current system I wrote down some possible changes and tips for places like this. You can find them listed at the bottom of this post.
EDUCATING THE MASSES
Sometimes big groups of Thai people came along and walked around the area to watch. Also among the Thai public there is much to learn about animal ethics, especially when the use of animals (including elephants) is still widespread. But in general the Western tourists are the biggest chunk of visitors at EW. This makes EW an organization with a wonderful chance to educate and inform the masses by telling them about all the wrong-doing against elephants, sharing interesting facts about these creatures and at the same time giving people an enjoyable time. This is what they are doing at the moment to a big degree.
Although the problem can be that they also give away a double standard in the way the day-program works and the food being offered. We all detest people using elephants for our pleasure like sitting on the back of an elephant but EW still gives this opportunity to its visitors, although in a more animal-friendly manner. So the underlying concept of us humans not having to be on the back of an animal, is not being shared. And thus the idea that we can use animals for our taste and/or entertainment persist.
EDUCATING AND EMPOWERING THE MAHOUTS
The ‘cowboys’ of the elephants are called Mahouts. Most of them come from either Thailand or Myanmar since taming and using elephants is still in their cultural heritage. This is often learned from elders in their families. The risk in this fact might be that it’s outdated knowledge and their family mostly used the elephants for working, thus possibly having a different mentality when it comes to humans vs animals. Although if we’d like to, for the betterment of elephants, change mentality with its roots in a specific culture, we risk acting too colonial. But I believe there is a respectful and sustainable way to achieve this, if done properly. Feel free to give your input on this!
Sanctuaries and other organizations might benefit from actively offering education, such as English-classes or other languages, in-depth study-time on more recent animal(or elephant)-studies or other studies deemed helpful. Of course all on voluntary basis, with mutual respect and with maintaining cultural-freedom. This empowerment can be a win-win. All of us can gain new knowledge and organizations can use this as part of their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility).
THE ‘DISCUSSION’ AND DOUBLE MORAL STANDARDS (A SUMMARY)
This is one of the parts I doubted to write about for a while, but definitely had an impact on my experience at EW.
After some weeks, an emotionally charged, ego-driven and fierce discussion occurred; picture yourself an ego-insulted angry mob against me, the “self-righteous vegan”. Some might say the chances are too small to encounter this again, since the group of volunteers regularly changes, so why write about it?! But since it apparently happened once before me, with two other vegan-volunteers, I decided to include this story in this post. I will keep it short so it doesn’t take over the post :)
All of this started after I wrote a story on my personal FB-wall about the subjectivity of labels such as ‘animal lover’ and also about the complexity of our double moral standards, which were easy to see within our group (and society as a whole). ElephantsWorld houses more wonderful creatures alongside the elephants, such as; water buffaloes, wild boars, sheep, cows, some cats and a lot of dogs. Most of the volunteers (and of course visitors) only came for the elephants and didn’t paid much attention (nor care) to these other living souls, especially those resembling the animals they commonly eat themselves.
But instead of seeing these (to me valid) points I made, all of them felt personally attacked by this text. Which then resulted in personal insults and threats from the mob, a fierce but totally not effective discussion, and a tense vibe afterwards. But also tons of gained knowledge for me on how to communicate effectively with some kind of (younger) people and which triggers will put people into a heavy defense.
SO SHOULD YOU VOLUNTEER AT EW?
Doing the day-program first can be a perfect way to see for yourself if the sanctuary and staff seems nice to you. Try to feel the vibe, the people and of course the elephants. Whether or not you will fit as a volunteer may depend on what kind of person you are but even more; the kind of people the group of volunteers will be made of during your stay. The wonderful elephants and other creatures will give you an amazing time for sure, so you can always focus on them a bit more if needed. But I want to warn you for being an outcast (if you are a vegan) and finding a lot of resistance against veganism, but again: this might be different with you. If you want to be sure, just bring along at least five vegan buddies as co-volunteers and you’ll be safe ;) If you are a natural discussion-avoider, or a master in communicating effectively and are dying to see elephants, go now straight away!
All of this is written as constructive criticism. Discouraging the existence or visiting of sanctuaries, with flaws or not, is the last thing I want to do. Although excusing organizations and practices like these simply because they are “better than the norm”, or because it’s culture, are non-arguments in my opinion. We can always strive for better and lead an example, even if it might cost a bit more effort! Onto a world where unnecessary suffering doesn’t exist and compassion prevails :)
– Convert to a vegetarian (preferably vegan) buffet, which would enhance the equality message and practiced Buddhism. Shove those double morals from the plates! :) Also the environment will benefit from this choice, another win for sanctuaries!
GO INTO THE WILD
If you truly wish to see elephants in their natural habitat and showing natural behavior, try to go to a national park and join a ranger for some wild elephant spotting. If this gets popular, the national parks might expand and protection reinforced. Check out all the Thai National Parks, Wild Elephant Watching near Kui Buri , spot wild elephants in Khao Yai park (Read about MostlyAmelie’s experience) and check out the Forest Program of EW.
Website Elephantsworld: http://www.elephantsworld.org