I am back in Sauraha, feeling like I have come full circle. For the past week I have trimmed feet at the government center. The majority of elephants who have received pedicures are adult males used for night patrol in the forest to protect wildlife from poachers. Their lives are far removed from their birthright but at least they spend a portion of their time walking on the soft forest floor, taking in the sights and sounds of the natural world. They are a shadow of their true selves; where those selves have gone, I don’t know.
Today I began work at the elephant breeding center, another government project in Chitwan. I was disappointed to leave behind the mahouts I had spent the previous week training, but felt confident that these mahouts would learn as quickly.
Most of the elephants at the breeding center are young, as you would expect: there are fewer adult males and lots of females and young calves. The first thing I noticed is that the mahouts are not as gentle or patient as the mahouts at the government center. It registered as I realized I was hearing the thump thump thump of a stick hitting a young male on the head.
I was reminded of the wise words of Karl, a fellow elephant caregiver at the Elephant Nature Park. I am paraphrasing, but his words went something like: “Even when we think we are helping elephants, many times it is more about us than about them.”
Karl’s words came to me loud and clear as I was trimming the feet of a young elephant. I was so intent on providing a service that I ignored the fact that he was suffering because of me. He was quite frightened to lie down for the pedicure, and the mahouts were insensitive to his fear.
When I finally allowed myself to realize what was happening, I froze in my tracks. What good could my help possibly be if this little elephant was being hurt to enable me to do my work?
I took a step back to reevaluate the situation. Even though I was not participating in the abuse, I allowed it to happen, and in that way I was a party to it. Karl’s words helped me to see my error; I want to make sure that no elephant is harmed in my presence or as part of my giving assistance.
I owe Karl a great deal for his wisdom and plan to be more conscious from this moment forward. Just because the mahouts have no concept of na pit neu (don’t hit) is no reason for me to assume they cannot learn.
My next pedicure session is in a couple of hours. I plan to bring a bag of treats for the young male, learn his name and have his mahout lie him down without hitting him. I will then instruct the mahout to give the elephant the treats as I apologize to him for my insensitivity. I will not trim his feet; only give him the opportunity, perhaps for the first time in his captive life, to experience what it feels like to be respected.