I have a fond memory from my childhood of a time when the circus came to town. I was about five or six. We didn’t have enough money to buy tickets, but my father took me to the parking lot adjacent to the gymnasium where the circus would take place later in the day. There, an elephant, chained to a handicapped parking sign, was occupying two spaces as it waited for its cue to go razzle dazzle them. I had brought my treasured stuffed elephant Kate so she and elephant could talk to each other and I remember holding her above my head like Lloyd Dobler to try and get her closer to the elephant’s enormous ears.
Since that day, I’ve always had a soft spot for elephants. In fact, if some hypothetical-stuff-of-bar-conversations-with-people-you-don’t-really-know-when-organic-conversation-gets-stale came to be and I had to stop doing my job as a sustainable manufacturing technologist, my second pick would sincerely be becoming a mahout. When I found that my work on this sabbatical would bring me to Cambodia, I jumped at the chance to head to the jungle where a group of elephants were enjoying their golden years at the Elephant Valley Project.
Much is written and documented on the exceptional Elephant Valley Project (EVP), so I will not make you some Cliff Notes here and will instead encourage you to go look into them. I chose them because I was looking for an experience where I could be with elephants just being elephants. I didn’t want to ride them like the Queen of Sheba, or see them playing the xylophone or painting abstract expressionist pictures. I wanted to see them doing whatever they wanted. The strategic direction behind EVP’s work is really impressive as well. Their goal is, simply put, to help elephants. They do this by providing the elephants a safe place to roam and live, but they also look at this issue systemically. For example, in this region of Cambodia, several families might “own” an elephant for work proposes. In some cases the families might not know how to treat a sick elephant or may not have the means to give the elephant what it needs to be healthy. EVP will contract to rent the elephant for a certain period of time and will pay the families consistent with the revenue or cost savings the elephant contributed. The families can also send the elephant with its mahout. In some cases, a mahout was trained to use force to control an elephant because that’s how they learned to get the elephant to do what they wanted it to. When the mahout comes to EVP, they meet other mahouts who have learned more humane ways to treat elephants. In other cases, EVP will purchase the elephant outright and let it blissfully retire after a life of really hard work.
I spent four days with the elephants in the jungle with a group of folks about my age who were also traveling in the region. The program is set up for people to do volunteer work for a few hours, then hang out with the elephants, then relax in hammocks and papasan chairs, then play countless stressful rounds of Uno with the other folks visiting until the electricity goes out at 9pm. I grew a lot in those days. I learned how to machete tall grass, I saw my first scorpion (eek!), I was escorted home to my hut by a friendly bat, I gave an elephant a drink and a good scrub and learned that they feel pretty much how you would expect them to feel but they are way cuter in person, I became semi-preoccupied with elephant feet (but who isn’t??), and feel like I really connected with another elephant who was grieving the loss of her partner.