When I was two years old, I convinced my parents to let me ride a camel at the San Diego zoo. They asked me if I was sure I wouldn’t be scared to ride such a creature all by myself. “I won’t be scared,” I told them “I’ll be brave,” and so every time I looped past, I called to them: “See, look, I’m being brave!”
But I don’t actually remember that. What I remember from that day is that after convincing my parents to let me ride a camel, I saw someone riding an elephant, and I thought: actually, that’s what I really want to do. But it was too late by then.
So 31 years later, I read a flyer for an elephant-riding safari close to Ao Nang, on sale for 500 baht, or about $17. This flier described the relationship between the elephants and the mahouts as mutually respectful, like the elephants were friends and children, trained early and lovingly.
But I can’t help feeling like this is impossible once I get to the camp and see the parade of people being plunked onto the elephants. Giant fat tourists set on iron thrones strapped on in ways that look decidedly uncomfortable. The mahouts sit on the elephant’s heads and kick at their ears to spur them on, touch them with bullhooks. They tell me to step barefoot onto the thick gray skin with its prickly hair, and I feel slightly like a rapist or a colonizer, like I’m violating a highly sentient being whose permission I have not gotten to use in this manner. I’ve grown up riding animals but this feels different. There is something, some superior intelligence in the way these animals lift their trunks to me, even in the way they have to be spurred forward. We go through water and one sucks up a trunkful and holds it a few inches from my face. I smile at it and think, serves me right if you get me wet, and the animal lowers its trunk, chooses a different tourist target, and sprays away.
As I look around me, I want these elephants to start a revolution. I want them to know their strength and communal wit, to break their chains, go running away into the jungle together and leave the bullhooks and the tourists behind. Some are saved and transported to elephant conservatories, but that still drives demand. Revolution would not drive demand.
Once I’m back in my hotel in Ao Nang, I start researching elephant riding. I’m horrified by what I find, remorseful. And more than ever I want the elephants to rise up in protest, break their shackles and escape into some remote corner of Southeast Asia where nobody could find them. But I don’t think this would work out very well for them. Only humans refusing to ride them would do the trick.