OUR ANIMALS, OURSELVES: Making connections with elephants

Carol Scofield, left, and her granddaughter Bianca Scofield help at an elephant sanctuary. (Photo provided)

My friend Carol Scofield, of Lake Placid, and I always dreamed about spending time at an elephant sanctuary. We talked about going to Africa at one point, but we never pursued it further. We sent money to elephant organizations instead.

Last year I got the call and discovered Carol was finally fulfilling her dream. Carol’s grandson Sammy, who was spending a college semester in Thailand, told her about the elephant sanctuaries near the town he lived in. Her main concern was that some may be tourist attractions enticing people with false claims of animal care and exploiting the elephants like many “sanctuaries” from India to Thailand do. Carol did her research and found the Patara Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand (north of Bangkok). Sammy’s older sister Bianca expressed an interest, so Carol and her granddaughter hopped on a plane and made the 14-hour trip to Thailand and soon found themselves driving down a long steep mountain road to a valley of elephants. The Patara Sanctuary has approximately 50 acres of land where the elephants roam safely and freely.

It’s typical in Thailand to have elephants living and working on family farms, but many families have difficulty affording the copious amounts of food an elephant eats. Other families simply want to turn their farm and elephant over to their children but discover the children would rather head to the city than work on a farm. The Patara sanctuary became home to many of these elephants, and in order for the sanctuary to survive they offer the paying public opportunities to work with some of the elephants as a means of support. There are 37 elephants living at Patara, but the public only interacts with only 12.

Carol and Bianca, prepared for their first day at the sanctuary, cautiously approached the elephants as these gentle creatures lumbered comfortably eating palm fronds and sugar cane. As they were being introduced, my friend and her granddaughter, for the first time in their lives, found themselves standing next to uncaged elephants, reaching their arms out to touch their rough and wrinkled skin and feeling the thrill of it in the pit of their stomachs.

The elephants were familiar with this routine as they all walked down toward the river knowing they would soon be fed bananas that were put directly into their mouths. I tried to imagine doing the same as Carol described the hesitation yet the exhilarating sensation of hand feeding such a large creature. The immediacy of trust that transpired between them was something only felt through instinct.

The caretakers demonstrated how to brush the dirt off their massive bodies, which the elephants clearly enjoyed as their skin was scratched, stroked and cleaned. Once they finished brushing, Carol and Bianca were shown how to hold onto the elephant’s ear to lead them into the water. I might add, at this point, everyone had their bathing suits on. This, of course, meant play time for the elephants, who simply love the water and would splash and roll around playfully feeling the joy and sense of safety that this time gave them. There was a frisky 1-year-old running around in between its mother and Carol splashing them both with a sense of mischievousness.

Bianca was particularly comfortable as she climbed up onto an elephant’s back as they continued to splash around together in the water.

Again, the sense of kindred spirits was established between them, and although an animal that large could have seriously injured her, there was that constant observance of care between the two.

As the day proceeded, any discomfort was quickly dissolved, so a walk through the property on the elephant’s back seemed a natural progression. Carol talked about the apprehension she had as she was hoisted up onto the elephant. There was no saddle or reins to hold onto, simply your legs wrapped around as securely as possible as you swayed back and forth down the mountain path.

Before leaving for their lodging, one of the elephants Carol had been working with lifted its long trunk and placed the end of it on Carol’s cheek and gave her a big smack good bye. What better way to end a day in your life’s dream with one of nature’s most treasured animals?

I no longer have that “dream” to spend time with elephants. Besides, I was able to live this dream precariously through my friend Carol. I would have loved, though, to know what it felt like to be kissed by an elephant.

“Once common throughout Africa and Asia, elephants have declined significantly during the 20th century, largely due to the illegal ivory trade,” states www.worldwildlife.org. “Though some populations are now stable and growing, poaching, human-elephant conflict, and habitat destruction continue to threaten the species.”