“THIS IS POWER in the human hand,” our guide said as she showed us the elephant hook, holding it up for the whole group to see. V quickly shot me a glare. “We use to punish them,” she continued with a smile.
The man behind her, Jay, jumped from his seat. “It’s not for fun,” he clarified. “We have to teach them what’s bad, what’s good.” Sometimes the elephants unlock their chains at night and roam into neighbours’ farms, where crops are sprayed with chemicals. The elephants can get sick or die. Other times they escape and eat farmers’ crops, and the park has to pay for it. Chains are the necessary cost of maintaining a relatively small park, the lesser evil.
Woody Elephant Camp is among the best reviewed elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai. Of its 126 Tripadvisor reviews, 111 are perfect five-star reviews, a staggering majority. The camp is regarded as friendly, ethical and accommodating. The hooks took us by surprise.
Perhaps noticing the air of discomfort, Jay continued his justification. “I feel sad, but I have to do it,” he said in a quieter voice. He then slid his finger along the edge of the hook, proving it was blunt—they were sharp once, but now the staff rely on a Pavlovian response. They are not like the nameless brutal elephant keepers in Northern Thailand who use sharp hooks well into the elephants’ adult lives, stick baskets on their backs for riding and keep bloody sores on the animals’ necks. At Woody, they let them roam free for several hours each day, and make a strong effort to balance the animals’ right to freedom with a demanding tourist industry. It is a delicate line to tread.
“If you respect them,” he told us, “they respect you, too.”
Woody, the park’s namesake owner, is a 34-year-old ex-Muay Thai fighter. We met him down by the elephants’ shelter. He is short and fit, with a buzzed haircut and the grin of a salesman. He explains their habits in arduous detail: their dietary restrictions, ear signals, poo qualities. His affection is obvious. “They are not animals for me,” he says. “They are… more than friends.”
He gave us a general introduction to each personality: the rascally kids, the hefty 40-year-old mother (“My girlfriend,” Woody joked), and the most recent rescue, an aggressive teenager, purchased for something like a million baht (over $30,000), who was now chained down in a corner for bad behaviour. When an employee walked over to feed him, he turned his back to the food.
Some men approached the two larger elephants with a tambourine and harmonica. “They can do shows,” Woody explained, “but we don’t like to do this.” Then, confusingly, they did it anyway: for about 10 seconds, the elelphants made music and vague dance moves. I raised my hand and asked why do it at all if they dislike it. “To show they can” was his reply, as if anyone had doubted him in the first place.
Yes, we did all the tourist kitsch; we learned the Thai commands, wore the silly navy blue Mahout clothes, practiced commanding them from up top, giggled at the sloppy kisses. After lunch we rode them, two humans per elephant, through the surrounding fields and to the entrance of the thicker jungle. V and I were given the largest elephant, Boo-ah Loi, Woody’s “girlfriend”, and took turns leading her. (Unsurprisingly, the staff did most of the leading from the ground, while we futilely cried out our newly learned Thai vocabulary to little effect, ever conscious of the fact that these creatures could very easily knock us off and kill us at their leisure.)
Boo-ah Loi seems a grumpy sort of beast, too old and tired to want to put up with this kind of stuff anymore; by the end of the day she was mostly uncooperative and made it difficult for us to climb down off her back. V, to her credit, is much gentler and what I would call a sucker for cute animals, and could hardly contain her smile as we bathed Boo-ah in the shallow pond, whispering things to her and treating her liked a beloved pet. Their connection was interrupted by the fact that bathing the elephants basically felt like an excuse for the almost all-male staff to splash the almost all-female tourists, but we were all laughing and playing and the elephants sprayed everyone anyway, so no one seemed to mind much.
After our “swim” with the elephants—which involved no swimming at all, just clinging on in an effort to not drown while the staff commanded the elephants to hilariously dunk us as far as possible into the murky water—we showered and stepped out to find the shuttle bus back to our hotel.
Outside, one of the babies was chained by a leash to an older one, a staffer in a black windbreaker commanding both. From atop the adult he thrust his hook deep into her ear and yanked with considerable force to pull her away from a banana tree. V gasped. It was our elephant. It was Boo-ah. Jay smiled sadly and shook his head. “He cannot control her,” he sighed as he opened the shuttle bus door, leading us onto the bus while his friend guided Boo-ah back down the hill, out of sight and out of mind.