by Ryan Beitler
Joined by a group of eager wanderers from around the globe, my girlfriend Thyme and I are headed to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand—where we are presented with the chance to pet, feed, and bathe with one of the world’s largest and most intelligent creatures. We’re picked up in a truck and we all share the awning-covered bed and get to know each other. After driving through the countryside's rolling hills and pastoral rice fields, we arrive at the sanctuary, which is settled in a quaint valley of lush green. There’s a thin river, a puddle of mud, and a gloom that encompasses it all for a serene and pensive scene. While changing into traditional garb provided to keep us from getting dirty, a large elephant runs into the valley, clearly a rebellious teenager acting out. Shortly after the group of caretakers bring out the other elephants, we walk into the valley to begin feeding them. There are two mothers, two babies, and the teenager who ran into the valley. The fathers, we're told, are too dangerous to be around.
Around fifteen of us feed sugar cane and whole bananas to the elephants, only stopping to peel the bananas for the infants. The elephants ravage food from our hands and steal it from us with their trunks, which wrap around their stock-pile. Gorging mouthfuls, they can't get enough, and eat more sugar cane than I imagine possible. After the elephants are well-fed, we change into swimsuits for the infamous mud bath. As we walk through thick liquid and are sucked into the cleansing brown sludge, the group is hesitant, moaning with complaints. Sensing our standoffish behaviour, caretakers throw mud at our backs and smear it on our faces.
With the Band-Aid ripped off, it's time to play in the dirt with these gargantuan mammals. The babies thrash about, falling into the mud and kicking their feet back and forth in glee. The mothers put down their heads, allowing us to spread the cooling semi-solid over their bodies. It begins to sprinkle a fine mist, and I feel truly alive. We are hollering in bohemian joy, lobbing mud at the elephants and each other. As we're fooling around, the large baby runs toward my girlfriend, looking to play. Coming in too close and too fast, Thyme is forced to push this toddler out of the way before it tramples her. She does so with just the right amount of force and no one gets hurt. The moment flashes by and Thyme narrowly avoids injury. I look at her, mouth agape. “That was a close one!” a tall American next to me says, looking at us. We think the close-call is behind us, but the real one is coming.
Since everyone is covered in mud, we transition to the river to wash off. The water is clean. It is naturally revitalizing. We splash the elephants and each other with buckets full of water, making sure everyone gets washed off. Until, suddenly, the teen elephant becomes inexplicably enraged in the middle of everyone, allowing no room for a quick escape. The elephant roars furiously with its trunk. On instinct, the group turns to get out of the river. A woman from our truck is too close for comfort, and runs away, falling on a rock and cutting her knee. Instinctually, Thyme picks her up, and helps her out of danger. The elephant stomps off and roars in a fit. A young caregiver runs after the angered creature, and amazingly jumps on her to guide the elephant away from the group. She shakes off the caretaker, who falls to the floor. For a moment, we brace for tragedy and expect the elephant to trample him. But she safely skips over his body, running off and blaring her trunk.
Everyone experiences the power of elephants in unison. For a moment we realize how truly wild these creatures are. Though it can’t be the safest thing in the world, the sanctuary provides impeccable care to these damaged and fragile rescues. To take part in that, and bond with strangers in the face of primal danger, is an experience worth the risk.
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