Have you ever traveled abroad and unwittingly supported an activity that was harmful to animals? I bet most of us have. When I volunteered abroad in Thailand at an elephant sanctuary I learned that almost all of the tourist activities involving elephants support an extremely brutal practice that most tourists are unaware of. This practice is called the pajaan.
The pajaan is a centuries old training method used to break an elephant’s spirit. It involves separating a baby elephant from its mother (which alone is extremely traumatic), at around 4 years of age, and placing it in a cage like structure called a training crush. The goal is to literally crush their independence and make them forever submissive to humans. The cage is just big enough for the elephant to fit inside it and it is tied up with ropes so it can’t escape. The elephant is then beaten by multiple men and stabbed repeatedly with sticks that have sharp nails attached to them. This intense beating lasts for 4 – 7 days. Throughout this period of “training” they are deprived of food and water and subjected to sleep deprivation to heighten the trauma. The more the elephant struggles, the more severely it is beaten. They get stabbed repeatedly in the most sensitive parts of their bodies – their inner ears and eyes. Some elephants go blind from this abuse. Throughout the pajaan the infant is petrified, confused, in pain and in the end, broken.
When the pajaan is over the abuse continues as they are put through weeks of more training. As you know, elephants never forget so these giant creatures learn to forever be fearful of humans and to always do what they’re told. All domestic elephants in Thailand are subjected to this ritual.
I don’t write this to imply anything negative about Thai people, they are truly wonderful, warm, and endearing people. This is a tradition that goes back for so many years it’s become part of their culture, they view it as a necessity. Cultural traditions are not easy to change. As I mentioned in my previous post, the founder of the elephant sanctuary I volunteered with is working to change the way people train their elephants. Training can be done with positive enforcement instead of fear. Many elephants put through the pajaan become extremely distrustful of people and aggressive and have later killed people in retaliation. Elephants trained with love and trust would remain the gentle giants they were born to be.
When you travel make sure to do your research before participating in any tourist activity that involves animals. Use your tourist dollars responsibly. If you travel to Thailand, don’t pay to feed elephants on the street. These elephants lead horrible lives where they are forced to walk up and down busy city streets begging for food. They are often malnourished and have no access to clean water. Don’t support elephant riding camps or worst of all, elephant painting or music playing. These elephants are subjected to months of intense brutal training and they are chained up whenever they are not performing. They are only able to paint pictures because they have been trained to follow certain lines with their paint brush and they know what will happen to them if they don’t. They are isolated, alone and in many cases continue to suffer abuse. They are often owned by people who only care about tourist dollars, not about an elephant’s welfare. Elephants in Thailand are the foundation of the tourism industry yet they have virtually no legal protection from abuse.
Circus elephants in the United States are not treated much better. Trainers take a baby from its mother and put it through brutal training regimens forcing it to perform dance steps and stand on its head for fear of the consequences. Elephants were not meant to be doing stupid things like this. Yes the fact that they are capable of learning this is amazing but what does it say about us that we want them to. Performing elephants never get be with their families or roam for hundreds of miles per day as they would in the wild. The constant chaining often causes them to develop abnormal behaviors like rocking back and forth. If they finally lose it and act out with aggression, they are killed and labeled as “crazy”. Unfortunately, it’s not the elephants who are the crazy ones…
As long as tourist dollars support unethical activities, they will remain intact. Instead support and volunteer with animal welfare organizations that celebrate the natural beauty and behaviors of elephants and treat them with respect and kindness. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that they visited Thailand and engaged in tourist activities that they later found out were harmful to the elephants involved. For me, nothing could ruin my vacation faster.
Money is power. Do your research, use your money wisely, be a responsible tourist. The more people support responsible tourism, the faster those industries will grow.
Farm Sanctuary Fundraiser Update: I can’t believe it but I am a mere $90 away from my $1,000 goal!!!! Who can help me get there??!! I’m so close!! So many thanks to all the generous donors so far!!