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.
So-called traditional training techniques abound. A quick stroll through the village bears witness to babies separated from their mothers, adults and teens chained too far from their friends for social contact and a circus-style show; all the while larger elephants carrying tourists on their backs plod by. Not one elephant stands contented, instead swaying or walking in circles trying to deal with the social isolation they are forced to endure. I don’t find it a particularly pleasant place to be.
Along with 12 other mahouts, K. Tiew is a volunteer participant in the Surin Project, a privately funded initiative to promote better captive management techniques that prohibits the use of the hook and requires the elephant to be off their chains for a certain number of hours per day. In return for their participation, the mahouts receive an supplement to their salary.
K. Tiew thinks that it is cruel to use a hook to inflict pain on an elephant; why should a human be so cruel to the biggest animal in the world, he reasons. In a society where peer pressure can be crippling, K. Tiew does not know to what extent his friends and fellow mahouts agree or disagree with his thinking. He understands that everyone has a different point of view and believes that every mahout loves their elephant the same, but have different ways of communicating together. He has pity on those that feel they need to resort to abusive violence.
But K. Tiew wasn’t too keen to open up to me, yet another white face asking “hard-hitting” questions to change the world. After finally releasing him, I set my brain to the old head-scratcher: how to earn the trust of mahouts in order to affect real change.
Days later, I hit on what I consider a fairly novel approach; at least one that I have not come across in my meanderings thus far, despite hearing of a string of Western elephant/animal trainers coming to impart their wisdom and institute new handing methods. Mahouts are animal trainers. I am an animal trainer of some miniscule ability. Something in common! I thought that I could gain something from a mahout through my understanding of how they feel as animal trainers and using that to craft the aforementioned hard-hitting queries.
But what is in it for the mahout?
The average mahout doesn’t know or care what I have to say about methodology. He doesn’t gain anything from the interaction; certainly it does not give us a connection. To him, his way of communicating with his elephant works just fine. What we do share is a love of huge animals that are extremely smart, wily and can be dangerous; we love to be with them, explore relationships with them, play with them, to ride them, to feel they are a part of us, to feel that somehow we are a part of them. I know from my own experience that you can beat an animal while loving it to death.
My revised approach to mahouts is to give them everything of me before I demand of them even the most basic of answers, neither to inquire after the health of their wife nor how many children have they been blessed with. I will not challenge them with thought provoking insights, rather set them at ease with a shared understanding of how rewarding it is to care for a being such as an elephant or horse; how much bloody great fun it is to hang out with a big beast and ride it around. All else aside, all moral quandaries and ethical concerns notwithstanding, it’s just fun. Plain and simple. Maybe that doesn’t sound so good, but its true.
Only then can I find these insights I’ve been searching for so earnestly. K. Tiew says he is part of a new generation of mahouts who are taking the old methods and improving on them. For him, a relationship developed from young age, with a lot of practice, negates the need for a hook. He volunteered this information without me making a song and dance routine about operant conditioning and the benefits of positive reinforcement; he knew it already. I didn’t give him credit for that before. Makes me wonder what else he can teach me. I guess I should shut up for a while and find out.