Monthly Archives: March 2013

From The Mouths of Mahouts

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During a recent trip to Baan Ta Klang elephant village in Surin province, I struck up a conversation with Khun (Mr.) Tiew, mahout to 13 year old female elephant Gam.  K. Tiew, I had heard, does not like to use the hook with Gam.

The village itself is an ancient Kuy (or Suy) settlement.  The Kuy people are traditional wild elephant hunters, capturing and training elephants for war.  The village is part of the Elephant Kingdom Project, a Thai government initiative designed to keep elephants off the streets by providing a modest salary to mahouts who bring their elephants to Baan Ta Klang and participate in shows and riding.  Desperate mahouts often resort to street-begging to earn money from tourists, despite it being illegal in big cities.  You can learn more about the Kuy people in this short NPR report.

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The Abhorrence of Hand Feeding Elephants

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The number one thing that the average elephant-loving human can do to instantly make the lives of captive elephants better is to stop invading their personal space to give them food.  I will support this with three reasons.

Reason the first: an animal does not distinguish between a treat fed from the hand or placed in bucket.  They just don’t.  Adult animals do not hand feed each other.  To put it loosely, one of the roles of matriarch of a herd is to keep the herd alive by finding food and water; if human carers are providers of the food, there is no distinction in the animals mind as to the mechanics of how that food is transported to their mouths.  To them, the food is provided by the human carer and they are grateful for that.  A captive/domestic animal will learn which humans carry treats and seem to lavish attention on that person, but they would be equally happy if the treats were deposited on the ground and they were left in peace to gobble them up.

Secondly, lets get into training.  Positive reinforcement is a term bandied around a lot these days.  But it is just a part of the type of learning known as Operant Conditioning, along with negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.  Operant conditioning teaches by using consequences to modify behaviours.  I won’t get into the nitty gritty of it all here, but encourage you to study the practice more if you are curious about the science of how we learn.  “Pavlovs Dogs” is a good starting point.

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I, Monster

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Let me tell you a story.

Horses are intelligent, sensitive teachers, with endless patience and a disposition to turn the other cheek again and again.  I was drawn to them for their honesty.  In a world of complicated humans that I couldn’t figure out, horses were a constant and I knew where I stood with each individual on any given day.  Sadly, the human world did not equip me to deal with my growing frustration and anger and I took it out on the horses.

I did many things that I am ashamed of doing simply by being a horse rider.  Horse training is an openly violent method of dominating an animal through force, pain and fear.  I was a part of that.  What I don’t often tell people is the things I did to horses that were beyond simply being a rider.  I at time used unnecessary force, was unreasonable, lacking in empathy, unsympathetic, anthropomorphising and generally seeing myself and all my problems reflected in the horse and raging at them as I did inwardly at myself.

The first time I heard a natural horse trainer speak about his life and work, I cried and gushed and generally made a fool of myself.  It grabbed me on a very deep level that I resonated strongly with.  I never knew such people existed and the things they were saying made such perfect sense to me.  To say I was ecstatic is an understatement, and I still have close friends that I met on that day when I burst my enthusiastic and slightly gooey “truth” all over the place.

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Why Everyone Needs Wild Elephants

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Elephants are a “keystone species”.  Cast your mind back, if you will, to history class, where you learned that the keystone is the final piece put in place to complete a stone arch.  Without the keystone, the arch cannot be self-supporting.  An arch with no keystone will not look like an arch anymore; it will be sight more akin to the aftermath of a great tragedy than a triumph of the human collective.

Without elephants, the African savanna would not be the savanna anymore.  Mega herds of wildebeest, for example, play a great role in keeping down the scrub and trees to maintain the grasslands, but none play so big a part as the elephant.  Consuming copious amounts of vegetation – at least 200-250kg of food per day – roaming across vast distances, the elephant spreads seed and fertilizer like no other, not to mention their penchant for scratching against anything resembling a post until it is reduced to mere twigs.

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