A Guide to Visiting Thai Elephant Sanctuaries
By: Dominica Reid
Visiting a the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary was one of the biggest highlights of my honeymoon. Being surrounded by these giant yet gentle creatures was eye opening, and I learned so much about their personalities and the difficult lives they have lived. My husband and I are big into animal rights, so we wanted to make sure to pick a sanctuary that cared for the animals it houses. This might seem strange since we often think that animal shelters or sanctuaries are cruelty free. However this is often not the case. Simple things such as bathing with them can cause them serious distress, and this practice is often offered at sanctuaries. I thought I should offer a simple guide on how to pick the right sanctuary for your trip.
1.) A Little Background
When you first step foot into a sanctuary you will learn that many of the elephants have worked long hours in the logging and entertainment business, which has caused havoc on their bodies and defeated their spirit. Elephants aren’t naturally prone to being domesticated so in order to do so they are placed in chains with spikes to keep them obedient, until their spirit is broken. Once they are emotionally beat down, they are then used for logging, and even entertainment. Entertainment includes riding them, which leads me to my next point.
2.) Do NOT Ride the Elephants
If you see a “sanctuary” that allows the riding of elephants stir clear. This is the first indicator that they are not truly a sanctuary. Elephants, although strong, do not have strong enough backs for riding. Riding them causes a lot of pain and leads to a lifelong of back problems and ailments. An elephant that allows you to ride them, is an animal that was emotionally beat down to let you do so. So please run far away if you see a sanctuary that allows this.
3.) To Bathe or Not to Bathe
Many sanctuaries allow bathing. Bathing for elephants is supposed to be a natural instinct, it calms them and helps them with their bowel movements (true story I saw it…), but often when they’re captured and forced to work, they unlearn how to bathe themselves. This may lead them to be afraid of water. At the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, the elephants are not made to bathe with visitors. The owners and caretakers believe that forcing them to do so may bring back past trauma of being forced to work, especially since some of them are hesitant to get in the water. Their philosophy is that the elephants are able to do whatever they please. No one should force them to do anything for the entertainment of others.
I am torn to say that allowing bathing means that the sanctuary doesn’t care about the elephants, because I have friends that have been to sanctuaries that allowed this and the elephants were fine. I would do some research on it if you feel this might be something you want to do.
4.) What I Liked About the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
After hours of researching we finally found the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, and we couldn’t have been any happier with our choice. Not only did we get to spend time with these beautiful creatures, but we also got to learn a lot about them. The sanctuary truly wants to educate the visitors. Before we even got to meet the elephants, they began the day with an educational video and a talk about elephant abuse, how the visitors should approach them when we get into their vicinity, and how each elephant was rescued and how they’re thriving now. I liked this educational part, from what I’ve heard many sanctuaries don’t do this, but it truly helped me understand the need for sanctuaries.
They also house various other animals from stray dogs to even pigs.
They serve vegetarian meals, showing their care for all animals’ wellbeing.
Each elephant has their own caretakers, so they can get used to being around one person.
Since the visitors are trained how to approach them they’re much more relaxed around people.
The owners of the sanctuary were awarded an international humanitarian award.
If you’re lucky you get to pet them :).
If you’re ever in Phuket and you’re looking for a great sanctuary to visit, I can only recommend Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. You’ll learn so much, and you’ll leave knowing that your money is going towards making elephants’ life better after trauma.