Walking with the elephants: 1E charity sabbatical

Walking with the elephants: 1E charity sabbatical

It’s my 10 year anniversary at 1E. What a ride it has been!

At the end of this month, it will mark 11 years with the company. I recall the last question my then-to be-boss asked me after 3 interviews, “Being a lifelong contract worker, convince me that you won’t come work for us only to leave when the next lucrative contract comes your way.” My response was, ” I’ll guarantee you 18 months and we’ll see where it goes from there. ”

11 years later…

1E very generously gives employees the option to take a 6-week sabbatical at the 10 year anniversary. There is a caveat, however. You must perform some charity work. 1E takes charity work very seriously, as do I personally, so win/win.

I am an animal lover in general but have been fascinated by elephants ever since I was young and saw them in the wild in India. A lot has changed since then, though. Elephant numbers have dwindled exponentially. If the course isn’t changed, we could see the end of elephants in the wild in our lifetime. Scary stuff.

I chose the Elephant Nature Park in the northern jungles of Thailand as my destination.

old elephant thailand charity
This elephant is a new arrival. Orange marks are turmeric medical ointment on all the puncture wounds the elephant came with.

It’s an organization I have supported for quite some time. I have wanted to visit for just as long. Here is some background to the organization and the treatment of captive elephants in general.

  • Most people are not aware of what it takes to make an elephant do what humans ask them to do, like tricks in a circus or even something as simple as riding them.
  • It’s not as simple as training a dog to do tricks. These are wild animals! Basically, they are constrained in a small space and physically and mentally tortured for days to weeks before their spirit is broken.  This is called Phajaan, the breaking of its spirit. (Phajaan literally translates to “elephant crushing”.) Only then can they be trained to do our bidding.
  • From that point on, they live in constant fear of their handlers, an are further abused to ensure they submit fully.

If that isn’t savage enough, elephants that are broken in this manner are almost always kept in solitude. This is to further ensure full submission.

Elephants are amazingly smart creatures. Their intelligence is only eclipsed by their emotions. They are pack animals that take delicate care of each other with complex hierarchical groups led by females. They express intense love for their young. Elephants even have multiple nannies that care for them, often well into adulthood. Stripping all that away from an elephant so they can do tricks for us is an act beyond comprehension to me.

The sanctuary has a very simple mission: Rescue as many of these working elephants as possible and allow them to live out their lives with other elephants, doing elephant things.

elephant charity sabbatical
An old girl thriving after having been rescued almost starved to death

They essentially pay ridiculous money for old, beat up elephants, though they do have some babies, as well. Volunteering here entails doing a variety of different work, though shoveling elephant-poo is at the top of the list. Elephants are notorious for having poor digestive systems, so they poop a lot, often entire pieces of fruits they eat. (And it gets worse as they age.) Other work involves preparing their food, cleaning their water basins, and tending to anything else needed to ensure a high quality of life.

It is hard work in 90 degree weather with a beaming sun, but the satisfaction is immense.

To see these majestic animals close up is awe inspiring. The fact that they trust humans after all they’ve been through is a testament to their emotional intelligence. And the overall experience is forcing me into deep introspection of my own existence, and what I want to do with the rest of my life.

If there is one thing you take away from reading this, please let it be that we need to take care of our planet and all living beings on it. Species are going extinct at an immense rate, and that is speeding up the demise of our planet. Elephants specifically are so vital to every ecosystem in which they exist that their extinction will have a massive ripple effect on so many things. Their decline already has.

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