Happy Lunar New Year! Hope you and your furry friends are having a healthy and a great start this year! In traditional Chinese culture, there are 12 horoscope signs representing each lunar year, and this year, is the year of the Pig.
In northern part of Thailand however, many provinces replace the pig by the elephant.
The Asian elephants have a complicated relationship with Thai people. (Actually all animals whose natural habitats are altered by either human exploration or pollution due to civilization all have a very complicated relationship with the human species) Culturally, they are the symbol of Thailand, and the white elephants* are considered especially noble and belong only to the king for the religious reasons.
Historically, elephants in Thailand had been used for wars, logging, and later in tourism since Thai government banned logging in 1989. In the early 1900s, there were an estimated 100,000 elephants domesticated in Thailand. In mid-2007 there were an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 captive elephants, and roughly a thousand wild elephants left.
Over the past 4-5 years, more and more Western travel agencies have eliminated elephant riding and performance from the trip itineraries due to ethical and animal welfare concerns, and more and more tourists opt for spending time at an elephant-friendly sanctuary rather than engaging in activities that potentially contribute to elephant exploitation. As a member of the animal-loving community, Vetcreations encourages you to learn more about elephants in Thailand and globally, (even in some parts of the U.S. and U.K., it is still legal to have elephants and/or other wildlife animals to perform in a circus) as well as ethical tourism, and to decide how to think and do about the issues on your own terms. You can find more articles below under “resources.”
Today, we just want to tell you a story:
Chang Sam is a 16 year-old male elephant who was rescued from a circus, and now lives with other rescued elephants at a big open space where they can roam around freely, and there will always be food provided by the sanctuary staff. Chang Sam was separated from his mom at the age of 1 week. Traditionally, in order to put elephants to work and to obey people, all the babies need to go through the process of “breaking the spirit.” Chang Sam was chained and starved, threaten by loud cursing and yelling, occasionally beaten with sharp bullhooks once he was separated from his mom. Till one day, he forgot who his mom was, and all he remembered was to follow the instructions given by the trainer. Chang Sam was popular in the circus because he was cute, he knew lots of tricks, and he was especially loved by the young audience. They would scream his name and offer him lots of bananas and sugar canes. The trainer taught him to raise one of his front legs as a gesture of “thank you” whenever he was rewarded, and the “handshake” always won him more prizes and excited screams.
After 3 years living in the circus, he has developed habits of swaying side to side, pacing back and forth constantly, out of stress from being confined in a small space, as well as lacking of natural habitat and normal socialization. Relatively lucky enough, Chang Sam was negotiated and successfully rescued by an elephant sanctuary, to retire from being a circus star.
When we visited Chang Sam at the sanctuary, he had already been living there for almost 13 years. He seemed content and at ease. He was surrounded by other elephants, and there was no chain tying him down. He didn’t need to perform, to do tricks, to be ridden on, in order to survive. No one would yell at him, beat him, or punish him. All he needed to do, was just to be.
As we offered him some bananas, he raised his right front leg.
I often think that we as human beings are not that much different from the animals. We have incredible strength, and yet we are vulnerable and easily to be conditioned. Just as Chang Sam, he thinks he needs to “shake” in order to be rewarded. But he doesn’t need to do that anymore. He gets to decide where he goes and what he does now, and the order of lifting his arm is now not from a trainer, but from himself.
In the year of the Elephant, maybe it’s time for us to claim the ownership of our own beliefs and behaviors, in order to let go of the ones that have been chaining us down. Are you ready?
*Fun fact: Do you know that the “white elephant game” we play during the holiday season, was originated from Thailand? Legend had it that in the days of Siam dynasty, Thai kings would gift the precious white elephants to the rivals as a gesture of peace, or to the people whom the king favored. However because the white elephants are considered sacred and could not be put to work or be given away. As a result, the people who received the white elephant ended up being stuck with this supposedly noble and yet labor intensive, expensive “burden”—hence the holiday exchange game.
Helen Chiu, DVM, CVA