Lao Elephants

by Andrew Stein

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Elephants are majestic creatures.  Confident in each step, calm with each bite, all the while towering over most other animals.  We adore elephants; want them to be treated kindly, fairly, and humanely.  That said, we were faced with the dilemma of wanting to ride an elephant.  We knew that there is clear research that shows that the trekking chair that goes on the elephant’s back is damaging and painful for the elephant, so we stayed clear of this experience.  That said, we also learned that there is mixed opinion about riding elephants bareback.  It’s a difference that goes back to cultures and economics.  Docile female elephants that are already domesticated and need to be financially supported can be kindly ridden on the back of their necks.

We made sure that these elephants walked no more 4 hours a day, which is the number considered ethical under most temperatures and terrains.  In addition, most of the elephants at the sanctuary we visited were rescued from previous horrible conditions – the one that I rode had previously stepped on the edge of a landmine and was missing a giant toenail.  We made sure that the place we visited didn’t use bullhooks or trekking chairs.  And we made sure that elephants were watched over and given plenty of food and water to be healthy and happy.

Now that we’ve made ourselves feel better about riding a elephants, the experience was awesome.  The connectedness that we feel when riding elephants just behind their ears makes us feel both terrified that we’ll fall about 10 feet but also thrilled to feel the muscles undulate with every step and movement the elephants do.  To try to stay on, both Lindsey and I tense our legs with our knees tucked behind our elephant’s ears and use our arms to try balance on the elephant’s head.  Although it’s clear no one is worried we may fall off, Lindsey and I are still slightly panicked – especially when my giant one (about 1 or 2 feet taller than the rest) decides to pass the other elephants while climbing a steep hill.

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We love the experience from learning to ride an elephant without a chair, helping to wash the elephant in the Mekong, and learning about the history and wonder of elephants all the while.

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