Sunday, May 13, 2007


How to Make Friendly With an Elephant

Someday, if someone runs frantically into the room and shouts, “Can anyone here perform CPR?” they will probably look at me, I will shrug, and the life of that person choking on pastrami in the next room will be in someone else’s hands.

However, if that person comes scampering into the room and asks “Has anyone here ever ridden an elephant?” my hand will accelerate upward like the Space Shuttle Endeavor.

“Maybe you can help me then,” the person might then say.

“Uh, probably not,” I would respond. “I didn’t have much control over the situation.”

My relationship with certain animals, especially the particularly large variety that people like to be transported atop of, would never be described as warm. This is despite the fact that I grew up on a farm in Tennessee, and there were horses, cattle, goats and other animals whose class I’ve probably forgotten all around me.

At an age when I was just starting to learn the difference between the words “no” and “on,” my two older sisters took an interest in riding horses. They had a pair of Appaloosas they quite were fond of riding, and so someone had the idea of procuring a pony which I would use, probably assuming that this was the equestrian version of training wheels. As it turns out, ponies, which are shorter than other horses by definition, were only advantageous for one reason: they represent less of a distance to fall off of.

I’m not sure how many times my pre-pre-pubescent personage came crashing to the agrarian earth before I decided that horseback riding was not for me. All I know is that I faced no pressure from my parents or elder siblings to get back on at that point. After all, when attempting to teach a 5-year-old anything, one may start with lofty ambitions, but soon minimizing the amount of time spent crying becomes the highest priority.

Since then, every time a friend has bribed, threatened or otherwise coerced me to get on a horse, none of the temporary feelings of enjoyment during the experience can ever match the sense of relief that comes after. “If this horse ever gets a sense of how much power it has in our current relationship,” I would say to friends, “please tell my family that I loved them.”

Riding an elephant is very similar to riding a horse in some respects. The key difference being that only one person is typically at a horse’s mercy, whereas an elephant may have up to three.

Thailand’s Chiangmai province is home to many of the remaining Asiatic Elephants, which are an endangered species. While smaller than the African variety, Asian Elephants are still typically between seven-12 feet in height and weigh between 6,000-11,000 pounds. I suppose that when I heard my girlfriend tell me that we would be spending time riding an elephant in Chiangmai, I pictured a tranquil, domesticated creature, large and yet largely passive.

I supposed that their years in captivity had relieved them of their more natural impulses. This may be a politically-incorrect hope, but those of us who’d like to actually interact with nature would rather not play the role of the egg that is naturally crushed under thousands of pounds of pressure.

Not long after my group of 10 tourists arrived at the elephant farm, we saw a sign that read “SOME FOOD TO MAKE FRIENDLY WITH THE ELEPHANT SET JUST 20 BAHT,” which is less than $1. Soon, one of the elephants came tromping into our general area, demanding its share of bananas, and we all got the sense that “making friendly” with the animals is definitely a plus. This was not a full-grown specimen, more of an “early-teen,” and yet up close we could see its saggy, dark, leathery skin, and literally thousands of pounds of strength it has in each gesture.

We each moved in, trying to alternately feed, photograph and touch the beast in between its temperamental gesticulations. There was a sense amongst us that, with but a single abrupt movement of its head, it could do to us something worse than what Lawrence Taylor did to Joe Theismann on Monday Night Football. When it decided to take a batch of bananas from the farm that no one had paid for, the workers protested but declined to intervene.

And to think, this was a smaller animal than the one each of us would be depending on to safely transport us for the better part of an hour.

Each of us paired up and rode one of the elephants while a local from the farm directed the creature using a stick. Periodically, its serpentine snout would curl upwards and backwards, resting on top of its head. This was our signal to “make friendly,” and begin providing our elephant with bananas. So, we would place our unpeeled produce in the oval opening at the end of the trunk. It latched on, swung downward and would immediately swing upward again, until it was sure it had taken the entire bunch.

This cycle repeated itself throughout the journey, although occasionally an pachyderm behind us would see our bananas and, believing that we needed to make friendly with it also, make an appeal for us to donate some of our bounty. When I set foot on the ground again, I had trunk-opening-shaped kiss of mud on the back of my shirt from one such appeal.

The 10 of us who rode that day consisted of two Australians, two Canadians, two Germans, two Japanese, plus one Korean and one American. Yet for each minute we were on board our pachyderms, we were all simply human beings experiencing the wonder of nature, while hoping the wonder of nature wouldn’t be the last thing we ever experienced.

After all, life’s too short to live with too much security.

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