the nothing whatever...

Riding an Elephant

“I turned to some experienced-looking Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you if you left him alone…” – George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant

A long time ago, I remember once feeding a brushtail possum on our balcony. It crept up cautiously, unfamiliar with the strange behavior of this food dispenser and probably with some sort of primitive possum mantra running through its head that is to the effect of “nothing in life is free”. I distracted it with a banana or an apple or something, and as it came over to take the fruit from my hand, I stroked its back very lightly as you would a cat or a dog, of course expecting the possum to eventually respond favorably when it knew I did not intend to hurt it, nestling into my touch with some sort of gratitude. As I watched it leap in terror from the balcony to a nearby tree and scuttle off into the night, it occurred to me that my views on how the possum should have responded were bizarrely self-centered. It was another level from just wanting to touch the possum, I wanted the possum to enjoy being touched, I wanted it to love me as much as I loved it, to seek out my approval, to abandon its own nature and develop one that compliments my own. But, at the same time, I didn’t want it to be tame, as then it will cease to become “wildlife”, and, as such, lose the novelty of being so. Upon finding my ideal and the reality were incompatible, I abandoned the ideal, and, even it was a little reluctantly, I accepted the position that “if you love something, let it be”. This was my awakening into the nature of the untamed beast, and it makes experiences like elephant riding pretty torturous.

After zip lining through the Thai jungle (something that I will have to skip for the purposes of blog length, but I cannot recommend highly enough), while Tom was cooking our lunch, we were to jump on the back of an elephant for twenty minutes in what was essentially a formality, achieving everything we had set out to in the itinerary. Because of our trip to the markets, this meant that we were the last two to be riding before they were to be released back into the wild at 3pm, which, to my surprise, is something that happens everyday. Bon informed us that the elephants all congregate in the same place every time they are put back into the wild, and at 4am the following morning they are retrieved, re-saddled, and put back to work. At first, I thought about why they wouldn’t just get the hell out of there, abandon their shackles and make a break for it, entertaining the optimistic idea that they might indeed enjoy being ridden and fed by people, or that they shared some special bond with the trainer. But the more I thought about it, it seemed to make sense. Elephants are animals that move in herds, they have highly organized social structures and a strong sense of empathy, and the likelihood of a coordinated escape happening in their state of exhaustion at the days close, particularly one involving an entire herd, would be very low (not that it is the elephants that would be thinking about this in probability terms). I found it really sad that it is the strength of their own bonds being used to keep them in a state of bondage.

And even if I had have self-indulgently accepted the idea that there was a shared connection between elephant and trainer, it wouldn’t have taken long for that idea to have been yanked from my mind by the long sharp gaff that the trainer carried over his shoulder whilst riding atop the elephants head. Ours was the only male on the list, thus it was prone to being the most disobedient and required the most discipline, but, even with its natural heavy and cumbersome movements, Nic and I could tell that the animal was not so much being disobedient as it was exhausted. When it would take too long to negotiate hills, the all too impatient trainer would hop up and down and thrust his pelvis forward, simultaneously yelling something in Thai. The animal would respond with a groan, and eventually follow command. At one stage when we were crossing the river, it began halfheartedly flicking and spraying water up in the air towards our direction. I am not sure if that was something that had been drilled into it (elephants spraying water on people is somewhat of a cliché) or if its skin was genuinely searing from the heat of the sun and the chains around its neck, but after it did this, it remained stationary for longer than a few seconds, dipping its wandering trunk into the water and breathing in huffs. The trainer hopped up and down. The elephant was unresponsive. The trainer kicked his heels into the elephants cheeks. The elephant was, still, unresponsive. The trainer reached up over his shoulder and grabbed for the gaff, inserting the hook of it into the animals ear, and dragging its bowed head up from the water. The creature let out an almighty bellow of protest, a noise that could only be made by the combination of a cavity of enormous size and a powerful rush of air, a sound that reverberated in my ears, filling me with feelings of awe and great inferiority. And then, it quickly followed command.

I think the natural feeling after hearing this would be that of hate towards the man directly responsible, the trainer. I am not sure that is fair, and I think it is important to make this distinction because misdirected hate is not only exhausting, it is completely useless. The trainer received no feelings of satisfaction doing these things to this beautiful animal (I cannot possibly know for sure, but he did not look as though he was enjoying himself), they were done as a last resort when it looked as though it would prematurely finish the circuit. He is a man that is trying to earn money for his family, like many men in this world, and the elephant is a beast that can be exploited to earn that money, in the same way that a horse, a sheep, a goat, a chicken, even a snake, any animal bred to serve a monetary purpose is exploited. In the eyes of this man, why is the elephant exempt from this criteria?

Because it is big? Would you want to ride it if it wasn’t?

Because it is rare and endangered? Would they then fit the category of exploitation if they were abundant?

Is it some species-bias sentimentality that favors only animals that move so slowly and gently, us generously attributing them with being wise and calculative simply because they look as if they are thinking?

Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely not in support of this, but you have to look at the root motive, as that is the real problem. And, unfortunately, his root motive is not evil or perverse, in fact it is a commonality he shares with just about anybody who would be reading this…he needs to earn money for himself and his family. And, it is my opinion that therein lies the entire problem with man’s relationship with nature, but that might be a debate for another time.

After the twenty or so minutes, we finally pulled back up to the station where we could alight from the elephant, both of us harboring feelings of guilt and disgust. The elephant was de-saddled, it was fed some sugarcane, but it remained stationary at its post for our entire lunch, as if waiting for some imaginary signal that would affirm the day was over, the stroke of 5 o’clock. We prepared for our white-water rafting under its ambivalent gaze, and at one stage I could see the dark marks across it cheek area, like heavy bruising or dried blood, obviously not all sustained in our brief ride but accumulated over the course of time; days, weeks, or maybe even years. As we entered the water and floated downstream, the last thing I saw of it was its gargantuan hindquarters trudging their way wearily towards the dense vegetation of the surrounding forest, embarking on his ten or so hours of involuntary freedom.

I can see you reading this with a look of skepticism, not so much at the believability of the story, but at the hypocrisy of it. Yes, we rode on elephants. Yes, we just essentially funded that industry, even if it was included in a package deal. And, yes, if I were to do the trip again, I would make sure that the elephant ride was specifically excluded from the itinerary. But none of that can be changed now. Hopefully, the one positive thing to come out of that ride is the distribution of this story, as by now, you have probably worked out that there is an agenda to this segment. I do not want to harp on about animal rights as that is a tune that has been played many times before by some pretty wacky artists. But all I can really do is just leave you with a final message that might stick when you see the offering of an “elephant ride” or a “bear show” or the sign saying “monkey cage”…

If you love something, let it be.