We spent almost the entire hour before lunch playing with the puppies in the back yard. It was amusing how fixated we were on them, considering the elephants we came to see were about two meters away. Even they struggle to compete with puppies huh? However, Laura demonstrated why not to be near elephants without their Mahouts shortly afterwards, as the "baby" knocked Laura over with her trunk. That's a trunk with 40,000 muscles in it. Lunch was a Thai salad, rice and deep fried chicken or pumpkin for the vegetarians. Meaw kept trying to encourage us to take her sweet and sour sauce, and she found it hilarious how much us Westerners struggled with spice. Even the salad was spicy! Though delicious, of course.
We commuted back to the Centre for a discussion with Tongdee Salagnam - a 53 year old man who's spent his life training and caring for elephants. In Surin, elephants are passed down families through the generations, and Tongdee learnt how to raise elephants from his father, who learnt from his father, and so on. May and Meaw translated for us, as we asked him as many questions as we could think of.
"Why do you not release the elephants back into the wild?"
That was Caitie, and it's a question which ties into my own feelings of discomfort for animals in captivity. Although, as I have been learning through this trip, the elephants in the homes and in the village are treated much closer to family than animals - like we would treat our dogs and cats. The major difference being that elephants are much bigger creatures and hence much more dangerous. For the safety of both the elephants and the humans, the elephants are chained for the majority of the day. This is confronting for obvious reasons, beckoning the question of why they are not brought back into the wild.
Paraphrasing Tongdee, elephants will find a way back to their owners. They have been raised in captivity and have special bonds with their Mahouts. They do not like suddenly having to find food for themselves, and they are only welcome into herds for a short amount of time. The herds can recognise that the stray is in need of help, but it is expected that the stray will step back and leave the herd after a few months. Tongdee said that regardless of how far away the elephants have been taken, they will know where their home is and travel back to where they grew up. On their journey back, elephants often stop at farms or human homes to look for food and may trample property or hurt people who retaliate by harming the elephants. This is both dangerous and unsustainable. Alternatively, elephants are taken to other countries and sold into tourist entertainment and trained through incredibly cruel methods.
We learnt a lot about the factual elements to elephants and the industry, but my favourite stories were about their personalities and emotions. May told us that elephants go from mate to mate and have many sexual partners in a lifetime. I asked if they ever "fall in love" and stay with another elephant for life, to which May laughed and said that that was not the case. They like to share, not to be tied down by one elephant. May told us that they had to find a new partner for Bank after her first baby, because she decided she had no interest in him anymore.
However, elephants form incredible friendships between one another and with their Mahouts. They grieve like humans would. They will visit Mahout's houses who have died, and trumpet and cry and be visibly distressed. If an old Mahout re-meets an elephant for the first time in decades, the elephant will remember. Even on walks away from the village, May said that the elephants will walk slowly and drag their feet, but on their way back they will speed up and be excited to go home. The saddest story for me was of elephants who reach a certain hormonal stage and go into unrecognisable states of anger and emotion. Sometimes (rarely) elephants have killed their Mahouts in this state and when they come out they do not know what they have done. They will keep the Mahout's body close to them to protect them from the danger that killed them, without knowing they did it.
We saw the makings of a temple at the Study Centre before we left, with gorgeous elephant structures coming out. Chen Yang and I may have gotten lost in there. But we made it out, back home for dinner, then straight to the markets. There was literally everything there; from food to clothes to toiletries, though Meaw messing with Krystal on the way back was the highlight or me by far. Meaw was yelling to Krystal that she was the last one back to the truck (she wasn't), and Krystal ran while Meaw just laughed at her. Oh, and we may have seen buffalo being walked along the road on the way back.
The day ended with some good old card games and stories. Let's just leave "Emma" to the memories of the people in that circle.