What Thailand’s Elephants Taught Me About Being a Responsible Tourist for Animals

Have you ever traveled abroad and unwittingly supported an activity that was harmful to animals? I bet most of us have. When I volunteered abroad in Thailand at an elephant sanctuary I learned that almost all of the tourist activities involving elephants support an extremely brutal practice that most tourists are unaware of. This practice is called the pajaan.

The pajaan is a centuries old training method used to break an elephant’s spirit. It involves separating a baby elephant from its mother (which alone is extremely traumatic), at around 4 years of age, and placing it in a cage like structure called a training crush. The goal is to literally crush their independence and make them forever submissive to humans. The cage is just big enough for the elephant to fit inside it and it is tied up with ropes so it can’t escape. The elephant is then beaten by multiple men and stabbed repeatedly with sticks that have sharp nails attached to them. This intense beating lasts for 4 – 7 days. Throughout this period of “training” they are deprived of food and water and subjected to sleep deprivation to heighten the trauma. The more the elephant struggles, the more severely it is beaten. They get stabbed repeatedly in the most sensitive parts of their bodies – their inner ears and eyes. Some elephants go blind from this abuse. Throughout the pajaan the infant is petrified, confused, in pain and in the end, broken.

When the pajaan is over the abuse continues as they are put through weeks of more training. As you know, elephants never forget so these giant creatures learn to forever be fearful of humans and to always do what they’re told. All domestic elephants in Thailand are subjected to this ritual.

I don’t write this to imply anything negative about Thai people, they are truly wonderful, warm, and endearing people. This is a tradition that goes back for so many years it’s become part of their culture, they view it as a necessity. Cultural traditions are not easy to change. As I mentioned in my previous post, the founder of the elephant sanctuary I volunteered with is working to change the way people train their elephants. Training can be done with positive enforcement instead of fear. Many elephants put through the pajaan become extremely distrustful of people and aggressive and have later killed people in retaliation. Elephants trained with love and trust would remain the gentle giants they were born to be.

When you travel make sure to do your research before participating in any tourist activity that involves animals. Use your tourist dollars responsibly. If you travel to Thailand, don’t pay to feed elephants on the street. These elephants lead horrible lives where they are forced to walk up and down busy city streets begging for food. They are often malnourished and have no access to clean water. Don’t support elephant riding camps or worst of all, elephant painting or music playing. These elephants are subjected to months of intense brutal training and they are chained up whenever they are not performing. They are only able to paint pictures because they have been trained to follow certain lines with their paint brush and they know what will happen to them if they don’t. They are isolated, alone and in many cases continue to suffer abuse. They are often owned by people who only care about tourist dollars, not about an elephant’s welfare. Elephants in Thailand are the foundation of the tourism industry yet they have virtually no legal protection from abuse.

Circus elephants in the United States are not treated much better. Trainers take a baby from its mother and put it through brutal training regimens forcing it to perform dance steps and stand on its head for fear of the consequences. Elephants were not meant to be doing stupid things like this. Yes the fact that they are capable of learning this is amazing but what does it say about us that we want them to. Performing elephants never get be with their families or roam for hundreds of miles per day as they would in the wild. The constant chaining often causes them to develop abnormal behaviors like rocking back and forth. If they finally lose it and act out with aggression, they are killed and labeled as “crazy”. Unfortunately, it’s not the elephants who are the crazy ones…

As long as tourist dollars support unethical activities, they will remain intact. Instead support and volunteer with animal welfare organizations that celebrate the natural beauty and behaviors of elephants and treat them with respect and kindness. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that they visited Thailand and engaged in tourist activities that they later found out were harmful to the elephants involved. For me, nothing could ruin my vacation faster.

Money is power. Do your research, use your money wisely, be a responsible tourist. The more people support responsible tourism, the faster those industries will grow.

Farm Sanctuary Fundraiser Update: I can’t believe it but I am a mere $90 away from my $1,000 goal!!!! Who can help me get there??!! I’m so close!! So many thanks to all the generous donors so far!!


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16 Responses to What Thailand’s Elephants Taught Me About Being a Responsible Tourist for Animals

  1. Sonjie says:

    Wow, that is very sad and disheartening…it shows that you really have to do your research before you engage in tourist activities…I rode a camel in Morocco…I wonder if it was subjected to the same kind of abuse…thank you for continuing to spread the knowledge 🙂 God Bless!

    • lizzy says:

      Hi Sonjie! I honestly don’t know how camels in Morocco are treated but I’ll look into it. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right information until you’re in the country itself. It’s best to research beforehand and then continue that research when you get to your destination by speaking to different people. Thanks for letting me know!

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  3. […] my blog for awhile you know I have a special place in my heart for elephants, particularly after volunteering with them in Thailand. A powerful documentary on Asian elephants, The Eyes of Thailand, has its […]

  4. […] spirits until they are submissive to their owners’ demands. Liz at the blog Gentle Living gives a good description of this disgusting practice and its purposes. Many of the older elephants at the park have been […]

  5. Tricia Martin says:

    Hello! I came across your blog while doing research on “painting elephants” I saw a video and at first I was amazed at how well Suda the elephant painted but then as I read the comments posted below the video, it caused me to do some research to find out more. As I did I was saddened by what I found out. Thank you for your blog post and doing what you do to bring awareness to animal abuse.

  6. Omar karom says:

    Thank you for all the information it open up my eyes I new that they had to be trained but not that cruel way please keep up the good work.

  7. Juanita Grande says:

    THANK YOU for posting this. The more people in the know, the better for us all. Bless all those abused eli-souls over so many years…

  8. […] domestic elephants are trained by a technique called phajaan or crushing. A young elephant is taken from its mother when it is three, and roped into a small […]

  9. Mariagracia Gonzalez Nader says:

    hello! im so glad finally someone tells the truth! how can i help? what can i do to stop this besides sharing your post?

  10. Wow. I had a whole two minutes of amazement watching a vid of an elephant named Puda painting a self-portrait via a facebook page of an old buddy using it to declare how (accurately) sentient and self-aware they are, and then a quick google search immediately blew that false reverie right out of the water.

    Why are so many humans so fucking nasty towards the most majestic of creatures? No wonder extraterrestrial life has yet to make contact.

  11. Is animal tourism cruel? says:

    […] of Gentle Living Online shares a story of when she volunteered abroad in Thailand at an elephant […]

  12. […] when we travel, but in honor of all the elephants who are living domesticated lives in Thailand. (I found this great article that might be of interest to anyone considering visiting elephant camps….  I realize in hindsight the damage most of the camps have on the elephants and I am just so […]

  13. Humans are an infection says:

    a blight on this planet.


    7 billion humans and it seems 6 billion of them are maggots.

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