By Emily Seuss
While I was in Bali during my recent trip to Asia, I had the chance to participate in an elephant riding excursion. When this opportunity was presented to me, I of course immediately shut it down. I was asked several more times throughout my trip if I wanted to change my mind because this was a “once in a lifetime experience”. Needless to say, having someone tell me that the exploitation of an innocent animal was something I should enjoy and cherish forever, had me a little annoyed. I have publicly stated on my blog and across my other social media platforms that I am passionately against the exploitation of animals for profit. So, things like elephant riding excursions, swimming with dolphins, and any other “up close encounters” with wild animals, are never something I would endorse or participate in.
At this portion of my trip I was traveling with a small group of a people, so when the day for elephant riding came along, even those like myself who weren’t participating, still went to the elephant camp. Now, I’ve never been close to a large wild animal like an elephant and I was not previously educated on the biology or behavioral habits of elephants prior to arriving at the camp. Seeing them in the small circular pens they were individually held in when not out for a ride with a large wooden basket and two humans on their backs, I wasn’t technically able to make any assumptions about their well-being; however the look in their eyes gave me an extremely unsettling feeling and led me to do more research.
I think that if more people understood what really goes on behind these wild animal excursions, they would certainly think twice before participating. So, after doing relentless hours of research to confirm the horrid truth I was already almost certain of, I’ve decided to summarize and share my findings with you today, in order to shed some light on this very controversial issue.
First, let’s talk about the elephants themselves. They are truly incredible creatures and I’m so glad I took the time to learn more about them. Elephants are actually a lot like humans in terms of their social behavior. They travel and pretty much exist exclusively in groups. They have families, friends, and social circles. When elephants are torn from their families and moved out of the wild into these camps as a “tourist attraction”, they’re often kept in secluded pens and not given the opportunity to engage in many social interactions with other elephants. This causes them to become depressed and act out abnormally; they may stop eating, or refuse to move and are thus are abused with bullhooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails until they perform at the request of their trainers. Elephants are also capable of feeling pain and more elaborate feelings like happiness and sorrow, as well as experience perception, consciousness, and create perception.
Training these elephants for interactions with humans is an incredibly cruel and malicious process with the end goal being submission to their trainers. This is achieved through seclusion, starvation, sleep deprivation, and abuse with various weapons. These torturous training regimens are widely accepted across Asia and considered part of their long time culture. As a traveler I am very respectful of other cultures and I love embracing them, however I definitely do not believe the torture of anyone or anything has a place in any culture. This practice may have been acceptable hundreds of years ago, but in today’s world, it’s completely out-dated and unethical.
Despite their incredibly large size, elephants actually cannot support the weight of humans. Carrying tourists on their backs all day inevitably leads to serious and irreversible spinal injuries. Not to mention, the chair that’s attached to their backs causes a long list of problems on its own. The chair rubs against their back throughout the day causing blisters that are often left open to infection and go untreated. The long days the elephants are put through also take a toll on their feet. Many of them experience serious foot infections and injuries.
The life span of elephants in captivity is significantly shorter than the life span of an elephant left in the wild. Loneliness, depression, harmful diets, and infections as well as other injuries resulting from their training or riding, often cut the already horrid life of a captive elephant short.
There is also the concern of elephant tusks being used for ivory. Of course, I couldn’t find any clear information from any elephant camps in regards to this; however what I did manage to find out was that elephants can survive if their tusks are chopped off. However, the treatment required after doing so is extensive, time consuming, and most importantly; expensive. This is why poachers typically just kill the elephant solely for the purpose of its tusks, because it’s too much trouble to give it the adequate care after chopping them off. With that being said, in the elephant camp I was at, I did notice elephants with tusks that had been chopped off, so I can only assume that a large tourist attraction like that must have the resources to “treat” the injuries after taking their tusks. This does not at all justify the process of degrading and exploiting an animal for a piece of its body in order to make a profit.
As a rule of thumb, any tourist attraction offering close up encounters with wild animals is not ethical and tortures its animals during the training process. Despite any claims otherwise about the treatment of captive animals, there’s no way to “domesticate” a wild animal without getting it to submit to its human trainer, which can only be done through a long process of torture that conditions fear into the animal.