My Dream and An Elephants’ Work

‘phant 2003, oil on wood panel
(This piece has been lugged around, stored, and shipped so is a little thrashed but I will always keep it. It’s one of only a few elephant works still in my possession)

In thinking about taking a trip to Thailand (I’m hopeful we can wrap-up this COVID-19 thing first) I was listing things I would like to see or do there. Although we’ve been several times since moving away, there are a number of unchecked items on my list.

At the top of this list are elephants. I have always been a lover of elephants. I am intrigued by the depth of their emotional intelligence and, superficially, drawn to the channeled texture of their skin. To me, they are the most majestic animal (after my dog, of course!).

I am enticed to get closer. Thailand has many offerings for a wide variety of human – elephant interactions.  Riding elephants is absolutely unacceptable and it surprises me that this is even still permitted. I decided I’d look into ways of getting up-close but at the same time supporting humane treatment. I’ve seen images of delighted people washing elephants and thought about how much I could enjoy that, too. And all while I’d be helping the elephant cool off. Wouldn’t I?

The thing is that the more research I did, the more my dream got crushed. Thanks Internet! I realized that I would be contributing to elephant employment in almost every situation. Whether it be bathing her or feeding her she is restricted from being an elephant in the most natural way. Of course, an elephant who has lived in captivity its whole life will not fare well on its own, so will continue to be dependent. Her life will likely never be like that of one in the wild. Many of these sanctuaries really do good work and have markedly improved the lives of a number of rescued elephants. The interactions they set up are expensive (as is supporting the largest land animal on Earth) and tourists gladly fork out for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The sanctuaries are doing what they know with the intent of moving elephants from the unnatural conditions and abuse they’ve endured, sometimes since birth.

I actually touched an elephant once in 2006. We lived in LangSuan, Thailand at the time and word came that an elephant was brought to a nearby school for some good ol’ human elephant contact. As soon as we caught wind of this of this we raced there and I touched his bristly, thick skin. It was an emotional moment and I was focused only on my own experience so it didn’t occur to me how this was for the elephant. Looking back, I know he should have been stomping through the jungle, free of those chains. Today I feel ashamed for not thinking of this through at the time. It’s not a shining moment for me.

Duo close up
Black and White detail from Duo, Oil on wood panel, 2003

By looking deeper, I learned that in many of these interactions, the animals are still working for humans and that just doesn’t sit well with me. I feel I have done enough damage already. And so my dream of washing an elephant is dead. It would only serve me, the elephant doesn’t need my help to do this. Ultimately, by participating I am going against what I deeply support – true retirement/freedom for elephants.

Follow me, 2003 Oil on wood panel

As my search continued I was elated to find one sanctuary in Thailand which unquestionably stood out. BEES – Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary in Chang Mai. BEES is the only sanctuary I found that is a true elephant retirement home. These elephants no longer work for humans and if I visit their sanctuary, I will not have a chance to bathe the elephants. The activities I would be involved in there are observing them in their environment, helping to prepare their food, and cleaning the elephant areas. The more I read the more I realized that this is the way I want to help those who have suffered so much already.

This is BEES hands-off policy which changed my mind about how I want to help:

In the early days BEES allowed participants to bath the elephants, pat the elephants and hand feed them. We realized over time that this task was to cater for the tourists needs but it is was not necessary for the elephants. These beautiful majestic animals have spent their entire lives catering for humans in an abusive and exploitative environment. In order for tourists to have such close contact with the elephants, requires the mahout to have more constraint and less freedom of choice for the elephant. Mahouts at BEES would never ‘force’ the elephants to be around visitors, but the elephants have been so heavily conditioned that often they would just stand there and take the pats and feeding because of the conditioning in their previous lives before joining us at BEES. The Sanctuary is a place where elephants can finally BE elephants. This is why we have adopted the No Contact – Hands Off Approach. When you visit us and join the program you can guarantee that you are respecting these animals and giving them a better life without causing them stress and harm.


Alice’s Ellie, Charcoal and chalk on Arches paper, 2004

Supporting BEES would bring me great joy. I am happy to let go of my fascination of bathing an elephant and instead find a better way to help. I feel 100% positive about supporting BEES to give elephants a true retirement. You can visit BEES website here to learn about the elephants in their care, and maybe even consider shooting them a few buck$ to support the important work they do. Spread the word – Liberate Elephants!

It’s important to thoroughly research the things we want to support and attach our names to. Being in support of a cause is more complicated than just saying we are on that side. Without researching the many angles, intricacies, and secondary responses we could find ourselves supporting the opposite of what we intend.

Never forget
Never Forget, Water based ink on wood panel, 2006 (I made 18 of these prints for my 18 favorite students in Taiwan. After teaching them for 3 years, I wanted them to know I would never forget them.)




4 Replies to “My Dream and An Elephants’ Work”

  1. My elephant is awesome too, from the Taichung Elephant Series. Mind you, Rebecca has claimed it now. My Chinese name is 小象, little elephant. Things are coming full circle!

    Liked by 1 person

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