January 23rd, 2014 will always be an anniversary of sorts for us. This is the day we visited Elephant Nature Park and in that single visit we were already planning our return and knew (like many others before us) that this gorgeous place set in the lush valley saves not only animals, but people as well.

Prior to arriving in Thailand, I was so excited to get close to the asian elephants. They are the symbol for the entire nation, loved and revered and I figured the only way I could get close to these beauties was to get on their back. This option tugged at me since I remembered being 8 years old and riding an elephant at a fair once. Her foot was tied to a pole and the “ride” was just the elephant completing 3 laps around the pole. This poor girl did this… all day. I can remember feeling like shit as I sat on top of her, my skinny frame felt like I’d break her any second and I could swear that her hopelessness seeped into my skin when we touched. My excitement of seeing an elephant outside of a zoo setting, was crushed by seeing this magnificent beast chained but I figured I was just being a moody pre-teen.  I still misspelled the wordelephant sometimes, so what the hell did I know?

Turns out, there was something there in that exchange. It wasn’t my imagination and 22 years later, as I sat in my cubicle I come across an article that outlines something called the Phajaan or  ”the crush” (Google this only if you want to ruin your whole day) but every single domesticated that is used to “perform or work” (i.e. logging, painting, elephant rides, circus tricks, forced breeding, street begging, etc.) has undergone this ancient form of extreme abuse. Every. single. one. So by riding an elephant (as I initially wanted to do) I would be supporting this disgusting act.

In this disgusting act, a young elephant is torn from their mother and tied into a small cage called “the crush”. In the cage, they can’t move, sit, turn or lie down. There they are deprived of food, water, and sleep and day after day, they are repeatedly beaten with an array of sharp weapons. Sticks with nails in them are used to stab the baby elephant in their sensitive ears and trunks and only after the local shaman performing this “ritual” is satisfied that the wild spirit of the free elephant is crushed, then it is time to train them. Sick!

Of course, any “mistake” an elephant makes during it’s lifetime, it’s beaten again and again by a “mahout” armed with a bull-hook. In fact, this is a tell-tale sign. If you visit a tourist trekking / riding camp and a man is carrying a stick or sharp weapon while with the elephant, it’s not there for decoration… you better believe he uses it!

Enter Elephant Nature Park…

Thankfully, before we touched down in Thailand I learned of this organization and all the amazing things they’re doing to get the word out about this abuse and more specifically, their work in saving the lives of many of these elephants. One elephant’s story in particular that haunts me is Jokia. Despite being pregnant, Jokia was used in an illegal logging camp and while pulling a heavy log up a steep hill, she went into labor and gave birth. Her baby rolled all the way down the steep incline and her “mahout’s” would not let her stop working to see if her baby was alive or dead. Once at the top, she collapsed from despair and refused to get up. Her “mahout’s” then shot her in the eye using a sling-shot. She did not get up. Angry, they beat her and stabbed out her other eye, blinding her for life.

Jokia’s past is traumatic and sad, but her future became bright when Lek Chailert (my hero and brain-child of Elephant Nature Park) intervened and brought Jokia to ENP. Now, her rightful mahout armed with nothing but words and a gentle push in the right direction, works hard to make sure Jokia is happy and healthy. But he’s not alone… an elephant named Mae Perm has taken it upon herself to act as Jokia’s eyes and personal bodyguard and the two are now inseparable.

Jokia and Mae Perm = Best friends forever!

Jokia story is just one of the 37 elephants here. But now they’re all retired and free from having to do any work or entertain anyone (even though they do naturally, just by being themselves) the mood here in the park is one I’ve never experienced in my life before. I’ve seen elephants in a large zoo enclosure that I would define as “happy” but this was something different, these beauties were truly content and it was contagious. We were so honored that they’d let us stroll along with them, feed them and even bathe them! It was a just another Thursday for them, but for everyone there you could tell it was a punctuation mark on their vacation or on their lives. Forever touched, forever changed.

Tiny Lek. Elephant sized heart.

Cracked hip from forced breeding. She’s now free at ENP!

It’s amazing that in one lifetime these creatures will know humans as their greatest nightmare as well as their saviors. Elephants may never forget, but they always forgive.

We’re ENP fans for life!

We can’t wait to go back and get our hands dirty! For more photos of our day, check our facebook album out here

If you’d like to sponsor an elephant, volunteer or even adopt a pup (they have over 300 pups!) then please visit their website here or here (for pups)

Or visit their Facebook page here

Oh, and check out these bad-ass mahouts here

For a visual of what our day was like, see our YouTube video here: