Friday, July 9, 2010

elephants

Different animals are trained all over the world using very different methods. Horses alone are trained for a huge variety of uses, using a variety of methods. The saying ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’ should be more like ‘there’s more than a thousand ways to train a horse’. I love learning new ways, new trick and new techniques of working with and training animals. I love all animals when the opportunity came up to go elephant riding and see elephants trained and ridden up close and personal. You couldn’t have dragged me away.
There are elephants all over Thailand. Some are used for work, pulling and shifting logs, transporting large loads, farming and in the jungle even used in rivers to pull rafts. They are used for performances, in circuses, for tourist shows and demonstrations. They can be trained to do hand stands, stand on just their hind legs, shoot basketballs, bow, paint, dance and they can be ridden. In fact anything you can think of, it seems in Thailand an elephant can be trained to do it. Why this is relevant to wild horses and me?
Horses are for the most part, are controlled and taught through very physical means, mostly kind ways. But still physical none the less. We put metal bits in their mouths to guide and control them. We use kicking and whipping to get them to move forward. We have saddles to stay on them, and halters and ropes to control them when we are not riding them. You can train horse without these things, but it’s a rarity in the horse world. Elephants are massive. You don’t realise how massive until you are right next to one. They are obviously very intelligent. Like horses they are herd animals, they are herbivores and they can be ridden by humans. Unlike horses elephants are not controlled using physical restraints. There s no bridle and therefore no bit in their mouth to control them. You don’t lead an elephant with a halter and lead (what good would a string attached to an elephant held by a human be?) Yet the average elephant can perform a much larger variety of things than the average horse. Why? How are they trained? What methods are used?
So I went to the elephant village, and got to ride a 35yr old female elephant named (I think) Tom Phun. The elephant village is a sanctuary/working farm for retired, rescued and surplice performance elephants. It homes 25 elephants all female, except for two tusked males. I thought it was a shining example of a way to rescue and re-home and also help the public understand theses awesome creatures. It also has helped the local villagers, all living in what we would call poverty (bamboo, corrugated iron, and scavenged plastic huts). Each elephant has its own mahout from the village, and the elephants are also fed from left over waste from the local farms (harvested banana palms, pineapple plants and all sorts of tropical fruits). All the elephants are swam and bathed each day in the river. They although chained, have enough room to move around easily, access to shade and crucially are together in family groups, so they get that crucial interaction with their own species. The conditions these elephants had were not 5 star, but the animals were happy and healthy, Both mentally and physically. Unlike many horses I have seen around the world in some of the most expensive stables.

Unfortunately my mahout for the elephant ride did not speak English, so I couldn’t chew his ear off for the whole two hour ride, with questions about elephant training. This is what I picked up from observing him along the ride.
· These elephants were mostly controlled by voice ‘hup hup’ seemed to indicate forwards. Slow down, stop, turn and all other tricks seemed to have a voice command to but I couldn’t tell what it was...

· The Mahout used some physical aids, seemingly only to reinforce voice aids, or if the elephant was ignoring him. These were either using his feet on his ear, kind of nudging on the hard top part used to flap the ear. Sometimes kicking to encourage the elephant to hurry up.

· Lastly there was what looked like an ice pick/ metal hook attached to a wooden handle about half the length of a broom handle. This was used for all things including hooking banana bunches into the mouth of the elephant as it walked along. But also for directing elephants and control, through hooking the elephant’s ear or delivering a swift tap when the elephant didn’t obey. This actually not as bad as it sounds they were quiet gentle and would be a much milder punishment than a whip on a horse...
Also like horses I’m sure there are good ways and less than good way of riding and training elephants. But overall I was impressed with the gentleness used when handling these beasts. The elephants seemed to enjoy their work, as we rode around the country side the elephants were frequently allowed to stop and graze on trees and grass at their own pace. My mahout also would pick nuts and berries from trees we passed and fed them to the elephant along the way. I noticed each elephant had it own personality. One had to be carrying something the whole trek, either a bunch of grass it seemed to use as a fan, a big palm leaf to use as a fly swat and at one time it carried a bamboo pole swinging it back and forth as it walked. My Tom Phun constantly tried to role in the river, to my mahout’s laughter and encouragement she had to be urged to keep going.
My experience at the elephant park was amazing. I was in total bliss, my own personal heaven getting to be around these wonderful creatures, in the warmth and sun in Thailand. It also has me thinking. Could we train horses differently? Elephants are easily four times as big as my largest horse; I would definitely say they show slightly more intelligence than a horse. Yet are generally it seems, controlled with far less difficulty than the average horse. Why? Are they just so different from horses that the same methods can’t be used? Can the same methods be used but culturally or otherwise never have been? Does the intelligence of the animal play a part?
Whatever the reason it has given me plenty of food for thought as I lay around the pool in Thailand waiting for the sailors to some in for the day.