We know, we know. It's been just ages since the last time we posted. For the past couple of months, Jessica and I have been spending many of our nights and weekends working furiously on a complete overhaul of the Elephant Nature Foundation website. (Go check it out, we've done some pretty cool stuff over there.)
And as a result, we've been neglecting our beloved HedgehogsWithoutBorders. We do apologize.
This has happened before, of course, and under somewhat similar circumstances. Nearly eighteen months ago, we emerged from sixty or so days of seclusion in the jungles of northern Thailand. Having discovered the treasure that is Elephant Nature Park (and the amazing woman named Lek who founded it), we'd scrapped the itinerary we had planned out for the rest of our trip, and just spent the whole time there. (We even pushed back our flights home to stay just a little longer.)
But eventually, it was time to go. We left the Park three days before we were set to depart Thailand, and checked into a swanky, romantic hotel (with a private garden in our suite!). Ostensibly the plan was to luxuriate in the last few days of our trip, but we basically spent the whole time getting the ENF website up and running on the hotel wi-fi. We didn't get around to posting to Hedgehogs until the last possible second.
Jessica was packing our bags as I furiously typed up what was to be our most teaser-laden entry ever. It was deliberately vague, in part because we didn't want to post about the elephants until we could spend a bit more time doing so, and in part because we were still lying about when we were coming home (so that we could surprise everyone). And in part, just because we knew it would drive everyone crazy.
Amidst the forest of teasers in that entry was this ambiguous little sentence: "We’ll tell you about a young lady named Tong Jan, the luckiest of her kind in the world by far."
And with that, I have at last come to the actual purpose of this post. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the United States, a day when we're supposed to take a moment to express our gratitude for all that is good in this world.
Let me tell you about a young lady named Tong Jan.
In the past, we've told a story or two about the kind of abuse that elephants suffer all too often. And as heart-breaking as these tales are, they really only scratch the surface. And there are times when we're doing work for the Park that these sad stories can become almost too much to bear.
Last month, a baby elephant and her mother were brought into the Park by their mahouts. These elephants were from a trekking camp down the road, but in cases of medical emergency all eyes often turn to Elephant Nature Park, and the baby was in critical condition. I'll spare you all the details (those interested can read the whole sad saga here). It is enough to say that in the end, the baby passed away. Her name was Fah Sai ("Blue and Clear Sky after Rainy Storm").
I can't even write this brief, untidy summary of those events without crying.
So yes, sometimes the work we do for the elephants can be heartbreaking. And sometimes it gets so hard that I can't bear to take any more.
And when that happens, I take a deep breath. And I think about Tong Jan.
When Jessica and I went back to Elephant Nature Park to get Belly, we met a remarkable young lady named Olivia. Like so many remarkable people, Olivia didn't especially seem to know she was remarkable. In fact, if it had been up to Olivia, we might never have learned about the remarkable thing she'd done.
But our dear friends Karl and Michelle knew just how remarkable Olivia was, and they told us her secret.
In April 2005, she had first come to Elephant Nature Park as a volunteer. Like virtually everyone who visits the Park, she was deeply moved by everything Lek was doing, and she wanted to do everything she could to help.
There are no laws in Thailand that would take an abused elephant away from its owner and place it into the loving embrace of Elephant Nature Park. For the most part, rescuing an elephant means buying it. It means giving thousands and thousands of dollars to the same person who was abusing the elephant in the first place. But for the elephant, it means escape. It means sanctuary.
Her parents had promised to buy her a car for her 21st birthday. Olivia asked them if she could give that money to Lek instead, and they agreed. She augmented this with all the money she had in savings, giving it all to Lek in one lump sum. The timing was fortuitous. Lek used the money to rescue an elephant named Mae Bua Tong. Moreover, it was enough money to rescue both Mae Bua Tong and her 4-month-old daughter.
The way elephants are "broken" and made subservient to humans is the same in Thailand as elsewhere around the world. Here is it called pajaan, or "training crush". (More information on this practice can be found in the fifth chapter of Vanishing Giants, an award-winning National Geographic documentary. Viewer discretion advised.)
The pajaan is the most horrible thing in the world, so I won't dwell on it here. What's important is that Lek abhors it, and will never let it be done to Tong Jan. Instead, this bright little ele is being taught soley through positive reinforcement. Instead of learning via pain, it's learning via bananas. Lek pioneered this approach with two other elephants, Hope and Jungle Boy, but Tong Jan is her star pupil.
She will never be tortured. She will never be taken from those she loves.
Elephants are social animals. One of the greatest things about the Park is the way they get to choose their own family groups. Every baby is tended to by several "aunties". For her part, Tong Jan is looked after by Thai and Somboon...
...and of course, by her mother, Mae Bua Tong.
I like to call Tong Jan the luckiest elephant in Thailand, because not only will she never be tortured, not only does she get to live a carefree life at the Park for the next seven or eight decades, but because she will never be separated from her mother. And that's a really big deal. In fact, for an elephant born into a Thai trekking camp, that's unique.
Twenty years from now, Tong Jan might have a calf of her own. And among the aunties helping her raise that calf will be grannie Mae Bua Tong. An honest-to-goodness family, just like you'd see in the wild.
And that's why I like to think about Tong Jan. Whenever it gets too hard, whenever I can't take all the horrible stories anymore, I pull out a picture of her and I smile. I think of the long, happy life she has ahead of her, and I'm thankful.
On the ENF website, there's this Foster an Elephant program. When you sign up, you get a certificate and a bunch of information and photos about the ele you've fostered. You can also do "gift fosterings" in someone else's name, and arrange to have their stuff sent to them on a specific day.
My mother wanted to inaugurate the new website by fostering elephants for me and for Jessica. When she asked which elephant I'd like to have as a foster child, I asked for Tong Jan. At the time, I didn't tell her why.
Now I have.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
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