Kiran, the government veterinary technician, and I finished trimming feet at the Government Breeding Center yesterday.
I was so pleased that things really changed from the first day. I spoke with Kiran about the mahouts hitting the elephants; he was great. Without hesitation, he engaged the mahouts, men he has worked with for many years, and explained why they cannot hit their elephants. From his intonation and body language, I could tell that Kiran took my request very seriously and the phonits (lead mahouts) and mahouts listened intently. . They respect Kiran and followed his direction without hesitation, which was that at no time should they hit the elephants.
When the first nervous elephant laid down, the mahout unconsciously went to strike her instead of allowing her time to lay her arthritic body gently to the ground. The other mahouts and Kiran cried out in unison – “no pit nau” (show respect-don’t hit).
Stopping in mid-swing, you could see that the mahout had not realized he was about to hit his elephant; the action is so ingrained there is no thought associated with it. Like breathing, it is automatic. For the next 90 minutes, the mahouts needed to remind each other only a couple of times, and the reflex to hit was quickly under control.
It was great to see the mahouts monitor each other in an effort to comply with our request. There was even laughter when a mahout would absentmindedly raise his stick and other mahouts would verbally jump all over him. All of the mahouts and phonits got into the act of making sure no elephants were harmed during my time at the center. Joking around with the mahouts and having Kiran present made it possible to create a calm and abuse-free environment. As expected, the elephants relaxed into their pedicures.
The elephants at the breeding center spend the day out in the forest browsing and the nights chained under a shelter. Mothers and calves are allowed to stay together until the calf is around five, and I must say, the center runs quite smoothly.
With a good mix of young and senior phonits and mahouts, we had lots of guys jockeying for a turn to trim feet. The competition between men and boys did not hurt a bit, and then add to the mix that a woman was doing trimming. By the second day I was able to instruct the mahouts to do the heavy cutting with the cycle knife (which I refuse to touch), leaving me to do my favorite part: intricate trimming and shaping with my prissy exacto blade. At first the guys laughed at my knife but the smiles melted from their faces when they tried to trim with it. They quickly learned that my knife was designed for precision work, not brute strength, and that it takes some time to get a feel for it. In the end, the guys were opting for the girly knife and doing some really fine trimming on their elephants’ feet.
Dr. Geare, the head government vet, checked on our progress several times over the past two weeks. He encouraged his staff to learn as much as possible, stating that with proper foot care the center would save money. He said that in the past many elephants developed foot problems requiring drug therapy, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory treatment. He was optimistic that by learning foot trimming skills, the phonits and mahouts could ensure better foot health for their elephants and reduce the need for drug therapy.
Each morning on our way to the breeding center we stopped at a local produce stand to buy a stock of bananas. Kiran was a champ, never complaining about having to taxi me around on his motorcycle. The road to the breeding center is…well…how do I say? — rocky! Potholes are not the concern; it’s all the boulder-size rocks used to make the paved surface. Watch out when you fall…ouch!
We did take a spill, once. Luckily we were driving quite slow, crossing another road, when a baby goat, in hot pursuit of breakfast, darted right under the front tire. Kiran successfully avoided the youngster but spilled the bike as result. I saw it coming and was only concerned that we not hit the goat. The local shopkeepers rushed out to brush the dust from our clothes and make sure we were okay. I craned my neck to see the condition of the goat. She was safe and sound a few feet away, suckling from her mom with her twin sister, unconcerned about the commotion she had created. In Asia animals may be treated differently but they are valuable, more valuable than the motorcycle we rode on. If Kiran had harmed or killed the goat he would have had to reimburse the owners for her value. Needless to say, every precaution is taken to avoid harming someone else’s livestock.