The past week has been humbling, filled with joy and gratitude. Upon the vet’s return from a trip to Cambodia, the first thing on his agenda was a crash course in foot trimming. I had been waiting for the opportunity and was honored to be invited to provide a workshop.
Most of the elephants at the park have no need for foot trimming. They walk in the lush grass, wade in the brisk moving river and graze through varied substrate all day. These activities keep their pads and nails naturally trimmed.
But Mae Tee and Kham Geao are aged and arrived at the Park with stiff wrists as a result of injuries from their logging days. Before my arrival, these two ladies had been spending extended periods inside the hospital yard, which resulted in a reduction of physical activity. Upon evaluation, it was determined that along with foot soaks and foot trims, both elephants would benefit from free-choice access to the habitat. Now they will spend as many daylight hours as they wish, out in the pasture grazing and bathing with the other elephants.
After a short conditioning period, both elephants were voluntarily participating in medicated foot soaks and pedicures. The mahouts, painfully shy and unable to speak much English or Thai, struggled to understand the directions at first. But the elephants demonstrated that they could easily understand “the whistle and banana game.” Soon the mahouts began to understand as well; in fact, very well, to the point that very little direction needed to be given.
Most of the communication was through body language and the mahouts soon understood what I needed the elephants to do in order to trim their feet. In no time the elephants and the mahouts were fully engaged in the procedure.
Foot and nail trimming has always been one of my favorite activities. It is so rewarding to have the elephant voluntarily cooperate. Elephants quickly seem to understand that I have no intention of hurting them. Their comfort level is my priority. With mahouts handing pieces of banana to the elephants for standing in place, the elephants settle in and allow me to trim away overgrown pad and nails.
The challenge for me is to find what combination of position, pace and human participation provides the atmosphere that allows the elephant to relax enough to cooperate with the procedure. When it all comes together resulting in the elephant standing still for an extended period of time, I am overjoyed. I can’t help but be seriously proud of the effort made by the elephants. I feed off elephants wanting to be cooperative participants.
I think what I find most rewarding is that the elephants are permitted to engage or not. It is their choice. At first the mahouts thought they needed to ensure that the elephant stayed in place. But soon they understood time-outs are important, not as punishments but as a sign of respect for the elephant’s needs. The mahouts also saw that the elephants returned in moments, to get more bananas of course.
After a few days the mahouts really became engaged. They would be waiting for us when we arrived for foot trims. Beaming with pride for their elephants, the mahouts started asking if I would come back later that day or the next day for more trimming. On the day before my departure I told them that I would not be back tomorrow. I was touched at their response. These mahouts, guarded when I first arrived, were now very willing to allow me to help them care for their elephants.
Mae Tee, Kham Geao and their mahouts have enriched my life with their acceptance of my assistance. The vet seemed to enjoy the workshop as well.