I've been craving elephants.
Not like craving chocolate or a new pair of kick-butt boots. More like craving the humbling, calming, reverent feelings that accompany standing beside an elephant.
Two years ago, my sister and I spent 10 days in Thailand off the beaten path. Boiling eggs in a hot spring, eating home-cooked Thai food after a hot and dusty bike ride through rural temples, threshing rice with the locals, harvesting mushrooms for our meal - it was intense and strange and wonderful. Along the way, we encountered elephants.
Elephants in Thailand are used for work. As in Myanmar (Burma) and other surrounding countries. Mahouts spend their lives training and caring for elephants. The livelihood of many rural Thai people depends on the strength and health and endurance of the elephant. There is even an "elephant day" in Thailand, where the great beasts of burden are given the day off and fed huge platters of vegetables, permitted to swim in rivers and lakes and be lazy. It is an amazing, colorful and happy occasion celebrated by many.
So imagine the complications involved with the use of elephants as draft horses or oxen. Housing, for one. These guys are a little bigger than a horse. Food, for another. The tonage of food required to nourish an elephant is as big as they are. Veterinary care is challenging. You can't bring a sick elephant to the vet. The vet has to come to the elephant. And then there are the people. People who do not care for the elephants, but use them and discard them when they become ill. People who treat them poorly or with cruelty, making calm and majestic animals angry and out of control.
But the biggest complication for elephants in Thailand is actually land mines. Land mines which still litter the borders of the country as remnants of conflicts in the past. Land mines whose locations are unidentified and often around jungle paths used to travel between countries. Land mines which the elephants inadvertently trigger while working or foraging.
As part of our travels in Thailand, we spent a day at an elephant hospital and sancturary. Elephants are brought in from all over the country after suffering injuries, being ill and abandoned, or losing limbs to land mines. We had the honor of spending time up close and personal with Motala, a land mine survivor who was trying out a new version of her prosthetic leg. There were no walls, rails or gates between us and Motala. She was gentle, curious and, well, BIG. But placing a hand on her trunk while feeding her bananas was life-changing for me. Calming. Grounding. Humbling.
So today's piece, though named after and depicting an African elephant, is a tribute to elephants everywhere. And to the people who work hard to care for and heal them.
Learn more about Motala:
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