The Elephant In The Closet

Grant and Joyce Oka in northern Thailand. Bob Jones photo

I’m not fond of large, undomesticated animals being held in captivity. I don’t think animals exist for us to ogle them – however pleasurable that may be for children and curious adults.

So I had mixed feelings about going on an elephant ride on a recent trip to Southeast Asia. The best I could say about the Asian elephants that live and work at the Karen hill tribe village on the Mae Kok River along the Thai-Burma border is that they don’t have to do heavy-lifting timber work anymore because most logging has been halted.

But the resettled Karen have always had them. What to do with creatures that eat 350 pounds of vegetables and fruits a day? Offer rides to visitors at about $15 per hour. One village to another. Partly in the river shallows, partly on a dirt track, and – disappointingly – partly on a paved road with cars passing us.

Fun, but I’d rather those magnificent animals were free. They are a symbol of wisdom in Asian culture, with the intelligence level of dolphins. Adults have no natural predators except for man.

We’ve long had Asian elephants at the Honolulu Zoo. Animal rights advocates say elephants in zoos suffer chronic physical ailments, social deprivation, emotional starvation and premature death. Elephants in captivity often exhibit rocking behavior, a rhythmic swaying. It is thought to be a stress disorder. One elephant went on a brief rampage during a public outing at our zoo, and a circus elephant escaped from a circus at the Blaisdell Center and had to be shot.

I have to say the elephants I saw at the Karen village appeared to be well fed and healthy and given adequate bathing time in the river. But still, the idea of them foot-tied to chains at night and when unused distresses me – and probably them.

Old-time mahouts (elephant drivers) make their charges obey by stabbing them in the head and body. The Karen mainly use words and light kicks to the backs of the animals’ ears. Occasionally, they use a piece of chain at the end of a rope affixed to a stick.

The elephants yelp when struck.

We could boycott this elephant riding – but for the displaced Karen with no modern-life skills it’s either that or great privation. Which to choose?