#17: Now Substituting an Elephant for a Dolphin

It’s a funny thing, life.  #17 on the 30×30, swim with a dolphin, got thwarted twice: I was supposed to go on a cruise in January that offered it as an excursion. When I got laid off in August 2009, that got scrapped. I wanted to go to Discovery Cove in Orlando this summer, but they were booked.

Me and Poon-Sop, bringing sexy back

I did ride an elephant in Thailand. I figured, the 30×30 being a breathable entity, as previously discussed, I could substitute the elephant for the dolphin. I got a little closer to the wild, right? But I’ve been putting off writing the elephant blog for no more discernible reason than laziness.

And then I watched The Cove last week. And the two points above converged in my mind to frame this blog.

Have you seen The Cove? It’s a horrifying look at dolphin enslavement and slaughter in Japan.  These intelligent and compassionate creatures are sold for $150,000 to aquariums/trainers around the world. Those that aren’t bought are massacred and sold for meat.

I’m not an animal person.  I’m not against them, but I’m not going to lie: sometimes animal rights activists annoy me. There are humans starving and dying of horrible diseases. Why don’t we take care of them first? And I know someone will come back at me with Jesus and “whatsoever you do for the least of my creatures” but…I don’t know. People have been eating and wearing animals for a really long time.

I know, have no heart.

I’ve become fascinated by documentaries lately, and how filmmakers choose to tell a story. Documentaries are basically propaganda for someone’s agenda and The Cove definitely has an angle. Still, even my heartlessness can’t find a way to spin jabbing at trapped dolphins with a harpoon in a positive way.

Dolphins in captivity can get depressed, and even possibly kill themselves.  Maybe there’s a reason my two opportunities to swim with a dolphin this year fell through. The universe was mollifying my guilty conscience before it had a chance to be culpable.

I did, however, ride that elephant: Poon-Sop. And I wonder how many of the same issues exist: The Cove has ramifications for any interaction with wildlife from zoos/aquariums to safaris to owning pets.

Elephant trekking is a huge tourist attraction in Thailand.  You pay, you climb into a little two-seater wooden bench on the elephant’s back, and the elephant traipses along a pre-existing track in the “untamed” jungle.

Trying to stay off the beaten path, I discovered the Elephant Mahout Project through my BF Lonely Planet.  This is a more in-depth elephant experience, spending a day with a mahout (trainer), learning about the elephants, feeding them, washing them, communicating with them, and yes, riding them – but on their necks, like the pros do.

She's shy. I climbed on SO WELL the first time. The next two times were much less graceful

This experience is eco-tourism, which is a funny subcategory of the industry.  As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I find tourism slightly uncomfortable, a battle between tourist and local to exploit each other – and I’m not sure who “wins.” Eco-tourism exists mainly to appease the guilt travelers may have for invading (destroying by their very presence) the space of people who are just trying to live their lives.

I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. It probably is better for the environment. But it’s so politically correct, and…you ARE still taking advantage a culture you don’t fully understand. Or care to fully understand. Not to sound judgmental. I do it too.

I felt misled by the Elephant Mahout Project. My mahout, Non, was cool but didn’t speak much English. The only thing he could say was “Do you have a camera?” He took 200 pictures of me with Poon-Sop. So…I didn’t really learn about elephants.  I didn’t discover why elephants are so important to Thai culture, and why the mahout lifestyle NEEDS to be preserved. I know elephants were pivotal in the Thai lumber industry and since that industry has collapsed, the elephants’ place in “society” has faltered: but huh? The elephants were being used to haul heavy stuff and now…we need a new way for them to “earn their keep?” A new way to continue using them?

I don’t know. It’s complicated.

I sat on Poon-Sop’s neck while she ate. That’s it. She walked around until she found some branches she wanted to gnaw on, and then we just stood still in the hot Thai sun for hours.  We weren’t forcing her to do anything.  It was serene. A valuable lesson learned on an elephant’s back: find some food and just be. Stand still. Exist in the moment. Elephants in their natural state are very Buddhist, I guess.

Bath time

View from the top

(Another valuable lesson learned from Poon-Sop: you CAN shit where you eat. But I digress…)

To be fair, the camp is set up for travelers who stay longterm. I think in those conditions, you develop a relationship with the elephants and mahouts, you live the lifestyle. But this camp still has the OTHER kind of elephant trekking, as I saw when a busload of Chinese tourists arrived and dutifully took their thirty minute circular ride. I could see them mentally checking it off their Thailand “to-do” list.

I don’t regret it.  It was a beautiful day and it was nice to get out of Bangkok.  Non basically lives in a hut without walls, so it’s not like anyone’s getting rich off the bit of money the day cost me. Poon-Sop was a lovely, gentle, communicative creature. It was, as they say, an experience.

The touristy version of elephant trekking

I’m just not sure I wasn’t exploiting the poor thing for my own “experience.” Where do you draw that line?

And let’s not kid around, I may be substituting this for a dolphin ride right now, but…

I still want to swim with a dolphin. They are elegant, amazing creatures. THAT would be an experience to remember: I have a bias for sea-faring activities. The Cove is so fresh in my head right now, but eventually, that memory will fade.

Because isn’t that the human way: forget what you know so you can do what you want?

self photo on an elephant head

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Categories: 30x30, Thailand | 1 Comment

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One thought on “#17: Now Substituting an Elephant for a Dolphin

  1. Megan

    My step dad once swam with wild dolphins in Hawaii when he lived there. I suppose that’s the solution 😉

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