Sunday, February 21, 2010

Elephant Owner for a Day:

Mae Mai and me.

My day as an elephant owner began with making friends with Mae Mai, one of the two biggest elephants at the Patara Elephant Farm. She's nineteen years old and about 15 months pregnant. If she delivers in three months it will be a girl. If it takes two more months (20 months in all), it will be a boy. That's the way of it for elephants.

Before I could make friends with her, I had to determine what mood she was in. If her ears were gently flapping and her tail swinging, she was in a good mood and ready to meet a new friend. If not, they would feed her and leave her alone for a couple of hours, then see if her mood had changed. If it hadn't, she would not have been put to work hauling me up and down a mountain.

Turned out she was happy, so I proceeded to feed her a basket of bananas, tamarinds and sugar cane stalks. I had to say "Bow! Bow", which means lift your trunk and open your mouth, so I could place the food directly inside her mouth.

When she did what I wanted, I said "Dee! Dee!" which means "good girl."

Thus began our relationship. I then had to check her out to make certain she was healthy and having no problems. First, I examined her ears and brows on both sides to see if there was dirt (there was) which meant she had gotten down on the ground and slept for the requisite 3-4 hours. Because of their great weight, elephants can't stay down long but they do need those few hours.

Then I checked her big toenails--five on the front feet, four on the back. They were supposed to have a ring of wetness--or sweat--arcing over each nail. This is the only place on their massive bodies that elephants sweat--and if they aren't sweating, they are ill. She was sweating on all four feet.

Finally, I had to check her poop. Healthy elephant poop consists of 6-8 large green balls. The mahout (or handler) must pick one up and break it open to see if its the right color inside and has lots of fibers. It should smell like sweet grass with no unpleasant odor and when you squeeze it, it should drip copiously. This indicates that the elephant is getting enough water to drink. Hard, dry or stinky balls mean a sick elephant.

Mae Mai passed all her tests.

So it was bath time. I grabbed her by the ear and said "Maa! Maa!" meaning "Come!" and lead her down to the river. This was no easy pouring of a few buckets. She had to be scrubbed with a brush and rinsed from head to tail before I could ride her or the dirt on her back would cause chafing for both of us.

Soon, it was time for our 1.5 hour ride to a waterfall and picnic lunch. We were taught the other commands we would need to know and wrote them in ballpoint pen on our forearms so we could remember them. Easy to forget a command once you're up on on elephant! They only "speak Thai" and some Karen hill tribe dialect. All the mahouts at the Patara elephant farm hail from the Karen hill tribe and are dedicated young men learning the newer, more gentle ways of handling elephants.

There are three ways to get up on an elephant. I chose the first, easiest way where the elephant kneels down and you just climb up it. Then I was told, "Oh, so sorry! Mae Mai pregnant so she cannot kneel."

Okay, the second way involves the elephant lifting its foot so you can climb on its knee, grab an ear and a rope around its belly and pull yourself up to the top. (Easier said than done.)

The third means the elephant lowers its head and you sort of "jump" on it and climb up its trunk to its head where you then have to turn around and sit down.

I went with option #2 which seemed to me sort of like mounting a horse--except Mae Mai made for one VERY BIG HORSE. (I think it was sheer willpower and three mahouts pushing from below to get me up there. Oh, why did my beautiful big girl have to be pregnant?)

With knees spread wide apart, I perched on Mae Mai's head and tucked my feet behind her big flapping ears. I immediately knew it was gonna be a long hour and a half up to the waterfall.The only thing you have to "hold onto" is the rope somewhere behind you, which is awkward at best and excruciatingly painful at worst when a sudden lurch half pulls your shoulder out of its socket. (My impulse was to look for reins but there weren't any. And the position has almost nothing in common with riding a horse.)

Off we went steadily climbing, leaning forward on the ups and back on the downs to help balance our elephants on the trail.

The whole world looks different from on top of an elephant.

If you have any troubles, they are small and far away. You feel closer to heaven and the Almighty. (Until you look down, of course. Then it's easy to panic.)

I know from riding horses not to look down unless you want to go there, so I concentrated on looking ahead to where I was going and picking up Mae Mai's rhythm. On an elephant, a walk is a BIG motion--and I don't think I want to know what a run feels like. (Elephants can run as fast as 25 miles per hour.)

At the waterfall we dismounted on a handy ledge which saved me a moment's fear that now that I was up there, how in heck was I gonna get down!

My dear sweet Mae Mai angelically waited for me to figure it all out when we got to the ledge. Some of the younger, smaller elephants, eager to play in the water, were a little less well behaved so I didn't mind being higher up on a more sedate beast. (Each of us had our particular challenges!)

Picnic lunch

We enjoyed a delightful picnic lunch on a platform in the trees overlooking the waterfall and river. Some of the other "owners" went in the river with their elephants, sitting on them and trying to keep from getting tipped off as the beasts rolled and trumpeted and played. (I noticed all the elephant poop floating around in the water and thought better of it. Not sure I can balance on a wet, rolling elephant and didn't want to end up under one. Then I was told that Mae Mai wasn't going to be allowed to swim with the boisterous younger ones for fear she might get hurt. So it all worked out.)

Elephants playing in the river.

Swimming with elephants. A fellow rider from England.

After lunch and swimming, it was back on our elephants. I assumed we had faced the worst and it would be downhill from there. We all had shaky legs from using muscles we don't normally use. "Oh, no!" we were told. "Now we go climb rest of mountain!"

This translated into straight up the mountain on a trail so rugged no horse could ever make it. Dodging teak trees and branches, we went up and up the mountain on an old logging trail that proved why elephants are the only suitable animals on the planet for clearing forests in the mountains of Thailand. Even machines cannot handle the terrain as they tip too easily.

Going up actually eased my burning muscles because I could lean forward and rest on Mae Mai's head. It was when we finally reached the top and started descending that things got a bit difficult. For this, you must lean back. Way back. Five tons of pregnant elephant squeezing between trees, feeling for each step with her trunk, and climbing over boulders and toppled trees on extremely steep terrain gives new meaning to the word "adventure."

I had to cling to the rope behind me with one hand and brace my other hand on her hairy head to keep from diving head first down the mountain.

Oh, and I had to keep saying "Bai! Bai" to encourage her forward and "Dee! Dee"" when she kept going.

Several times, she stopped and gave a big elephant sigh, as if to say, "Why are we doing this again?" I quite agreed with her that this was a dumb idea even though elephants, even pregnant ones, need this kind of vigorous exercise to stay fit.

We forged a bond on this journey--brave, gentle Mae Mai and her thigh-quivering rider.

I love this elephant. We shared something on the mountain that will live with me forever. I trusted her completely and I think/hope she trusted me...and really, that's why I wanted to do this insane thing that left me hot, sweaty, dirty and hardly able to walk afterwards. (Wonder how long the sore muscles will last!)

I wanted to experience "elephant-ness." And if I were lucky, to touch and be touched in the most elemental, heart-felt way by one of the most magnificent creatures ever to make the earth shake wherever she walks.

Mae Mai, I'll never forget you...

Wish I could have given you more than just a basket of bananas when we got back to the farm. You deserve it, girl.

Mae Mai and E-lah, her mahout.

At day's end, a male elephant comes over to say hello!

At least, I know that Mae Mai will be well cared for here at Patara--and so will her "little" one. He or she will help to ensure the survival of this fabulous, amazing species.

Like Lek, Pat and Dao, the hands-on owners of the Patara Elephant Farm are a beacon of hope for Thailand's elephants. They are finding ways to make it possible for elephants to co-exist in the modern world with mankind.

Thais really do love their elephants and most have no idea that the old ways were often cruel and violent. Mahouts give their entire lives to their elephants, living side by side with them--one mahout, one elephant. Many grow up believing that painful early training is "the only way" to break an elephant to service--but after that, they will care for it meticulously and love it like an only child.

Happily, the old ways are slowly changing and Patara Elephant Farm is leading the way. Happy, healthy, fit elephants--loved by mahouts and visitors alike--are the goal. Elephants cannot simply be turned out to live in the wild though this might seem to be solution. (The government tried this once and it was a disaster.)

Domesticated elephants are like cats and dogs. You can't just say, "Sorry, Fido. No more Alpo for you. Your ancestors were wolves, so go out and make your own way again."

Elephant-tourism offers new opportunities not just for elephants but for folks like me who cherish a chance to get to know these majestic animals one-on-one.

Goodbye, Mae Mai. Long may your kind endure!

Footnote: I took very few photos on this wonderful day because I was just too busy--and because a photographer was getting it all for a DVD. We were supposed to get the DVD the next morning delivered to our hotels. Mine never got there before I left but I have asked to have it sent to me if possible. If/when I get it, I'll post whatever shows me actually riding Mae Mai. Would like to see that myself!


  1. Checking elephant poop? Oh, dear. We are hoping the reason you chose a pregnant elephant was so there could be no elephant trickery going on. And, btw, very smart move not to swim in the river among the elephant poop -- even if it does smell like sweet grass!

    Thank you for a wonderful glimpse into the world of Thai elephants. Can't wait to see a picture of you riding Mae Mai. You should put it on the front of your Christmas cards this year.

  2. Aww, souunds like so much fun!


  3. that sounded like an awesome experience, good for you!

  4. How tall is an elephant compared to a horse? They look like such friendly beasts. How could anyone hurt them. You look happy with your new friend.She will remember you as "elephants never forget" Judy