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I never expected that, at 32, traveling would make my legs look like a little girl recovering from a serious case of the chicken pox, but it has. Some marks are from my ultimate enemy, the mosquito, but most are from serious fleabites. You see, since we started traveling, if that dog’s awaggin’ his tail, or that cat’s meowin’, we just can’t help but stop and play.

Street DogJust a few weeks ago, I found myself alone with a beautiful gray kitten. Dani had just run off to get some meat from a nearby market stall because he wouldn’t stop meowing. So I sat down on the curb of a quiet side street to wait. The sound of a lone, slow, sad sitar rolled out of a large temple shrouded in darkness, visible only when light glinted off the golden roof tiles. The cat curled up and made his own song out of his meowing and purring, meowing and purring.

jess & kittyBut you’re a Buddhist...

Lost in the relaxing sounds of his airy rhythm mixing with the music, I wondered about what kind of animals were inside the temple (we would actually find out the next day when we got hijacked by a monk). Temples are safe havens for many stray animals here in Thailand, or at least that had been our experience until the previous morning when Dani returned very upset from photographing the town’s temples in the soft morning light. Inside one of the temples, she had discovered two large, seemingly healthy adult monkeys trapped in tiny cages. We couldn’t make sense of this, as the practice of Buddhism shuns animal cruelty in every way.

monkeys thailandThere is an equally frustrating belief here in Thailand that setting certain animals free brings luck, as well. When at a Buddhist temple, you can purchase a basket of two birds and set them free. When a temple is near to water, ladies sell plastic bags with toads, fish, turtles, crabs and eels that you are to release into the water, also to bring luck…for you. These poor animals will inevitably be caught again by the ladies themselves who wade shoulder deep in the water to catch them each morning and forced to endure the same fate the next day.

toad in plastic bagAbsolutely nothing frustrates us both more than the treatment of elephants here in Thailand, however. The animal is a religious symbol, revered above all others. However, just ten minutes before we had met our feline friend, we had ordered dinner at the night market and had just been served our meal when a man with a bag of bananas and sugar cane made his way over to our table. He wanted us to buy them…and we knew why.

We immediately braced ourselves for an elephant spotting. This man was a mahout, or elephant trainer, and just a few meters behind him a second mahout pulled a baby elephant on a rope past the tables. Those who purchased the fruits were feeding the baby, as it rocked, back and forth, back and forth on the road. Most tourists don’t know what the rocking means, but we do, and it made us sick.

elephant begging in the streets of sukothaiIn December we had gone to the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai with two friends, and met Lek, the tiny Thai woman who has made it her life’s work to save elephants and give them the freedom to roam free for the rest of their very long lives (elephants live to be 70-100 years old!).

We learned about the nightmare that the trained or circus elephants or the logging elephants go through when the mahouts, or the elephant trainers, literally break the spirit of the animals through unbelievable bouts of abuse, and then also what torture the elephants go through working for humans. The logging breaks their backs and legs and if they fail to carry the loads or attempt to fight back, they are punished by being stabbed in the eye, or worse.

The Elephant Nature Park also does its best to spread the word to stop these mahouts from using elephants as tourist attractions, such as what we were witnessing that day in Sukhothai. Elephants ‘hear’ or feel almost entirely through their feet, which have hundreds of thousands of nerve endings in order to sense approaching herds of animals in nature. When out on the street, the elephants are feeling the vibrations of cars, motorcycles, hundreds of people walking by, creating a torture as terrible as if a human were placed in a room with music blasting, babies crying and lights flashing on and off for hours at a time, seven days a week.

elephant eyeSure enough, the baby elephant is crying, tears streaming down his face as he munches on the bananas. Whether or not he even had an appetite, we can’t know, but we pushed our plates away and left without taking a single bite. It is so hard to witness what you know to be cruelty, masked as something that brings joy to others.

So there I sat, thinking of the elephant, and the cat, and the monkeys in the temple, awash with a mix of anger and pity, rocking to the sound of the instrument making the sound that tears would make if they could sing.

So, this elephant walks into a bar…

Wallowing this way for a while, I turned my gaze back down to the main road, wondering where Dani was, and as I scan the scene for her trademark blonde hair I hear a giddy yelp or two from the lively Westerner bar down the road. Though the bar is still blasting music upstairs, a group of foreigners have gathered downstairs and I can’t figure out why. That is, until I see the yellow from the bananas. What had seemed like a big gray obstruction to my not-so-good night vision now clearly takes shape as that same baby elephant, now on an even bigger, busier road and suddenly I feel like I can’t take it any more – the squealing delighted foreigners, the honking traffic, the mahouts with their whips and ropes and pockets full of cash.

The music in the temple had stopped and it was just me staring at the cat, hoping that the next time I look, the elephant has moved on, out of sight. When I gathered the courage to look again, Dani came bounding down the street with some sort of meatballs in her hand for our special little cat. It turned out, he was not even very hungry and preferred to cuddle after all.

dani & catIt’s a dog’s life…

Eventually extracting ourselves from the grip of the cat, we take most of the meatballs with us and as we round the corner to our hotel, the ‘hotel dog’ runs up to greet us. Not exactly a stray, his ribs pop out and he has a few scars and marks on his skin, evidence of a life much harder than his current job of laying out in front of this hotel. We feed him every last meatball before going inside.

We have been witness to so much cruelty, and hatred, against animals in the past two years. In one Guatemalan town, a pair of older Mayans were literally throwing shoes at stray dogs’ faces to get them to go away while everyone else looked on. The treatment of dogs here in Thailand is particularly perplexing. While stray dogs are flea bitten and often severely injured or mutilated, dogs that are actual house pets can be spotted wearing little doggie sweaters, even sets of four little doggie shoes. They ride on the front or back of their owner’s motorbike, or sometimes in a baby carrier on the driver’s front. While a stray dog will be automatically and angrily shoo-ed away, pets are coddled and carried as if they are babies.

guy with dogs on scooterThe treatment of strays breaks our dog-loving hearts and we spent quite a bit of our time caring for them however we can. We buy bags of dog food from pet stores and carry it around despite not owning an animal ourselves and often don’t mind if served ham or bacon by accident with our breakfast, as Dani just wraps it up and saves it for the next dog we come across that day. It is hard to be an animal lover anywhere, but we find it is becoming increasingly difficult for us emotionally the longer we are on the road.

animal love

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37 Comments

  1. I am having a hard time here as well… we just left Romania and the dogs there were mistreated, abandoned and abused. It was INCREDIBLE to see so many homeless animals in a country’s biggest city, Bucharest. On our way to the metro we were chased by a group of abandoned, hungry dogs. In Split, Croatia we were petting a stray cat when an elderly local walked by and hissed and kicked at it til it left us (we were obviously petting it, why be rude?). He glared at us… as if we were the ones encouraging the problem. Now that we are in Bulgaria and staying with a woman who keeps dogs as pets, people look at us as if we are crazy for taking dogs on a walk (when they are clearly meant to be chained to a wall and fed bread and water). Different cultures are always interesting, but it’s hard when they don’t fit with what you feel is right. At all. I was glad to read this post, thanks ladies.
    Dayna recently posted..Dayna’s Travel ABC’s

    1. There were several times when one of us started to cry because of a stray animal. The other day we walked by a dead stray cat which upset me to no end. We wish we could take all of the animals we meet along the way with us.

    1. Didn’t know you came home with two stray dogs!! We fell in love with two dogs in Central America so bad that it was heart breaking for us not being able to take them with us. I think we’ll end up adopting a couple of dogs / cats somewhere in the world when we finally settle down 🙂

  2. I don’t cuddle animals when abroad in developing countries…though I’ll stare at them for a long long time and take tens of pictures…thank you for writing about the plight of the elephants in Thailand. While I’d never endorse such practices, I didn’t know about the ‘hearing’ through their feet part and all the other information you provided. I wish more people knew about this…or maybe they know and they still think seeing and playing with an elephant is too cool :S
    I am curious to know about those tigers in Thailand which I kept by monks (I don’t remember the name, sorry). Do you think that’s also animal cruelty? I’d like to know as when I visit Thailand I find the idea of seeing the tigers appealing, but wouldn’t want to do it if the animals are in some way being harmed or abused
    Denise recently posted..Picture Perfect: Images of Gozo, Maltese Islands

    1. I must admit that we didn’t know all about the practices that are used to ‘break’ an elephant, either, before we got to Thailand! About the tiger temple (Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua) – I have to admit that I am NOT sure how to feel about it. We didn’t go there, and all I know is that it was founded by monks who decided to provide a sanctuary for tigers, but apparently the tigers are primarily used to draw tourists to the temple (it costs around $100 to visit the temple).

  3. I’m always chastised for trying to pet stray animals when we travel (I think more from a fear of rabies or being attacked than fleas or whatever), but it’s just so difficult to hang back. And here in Thailand the stray dogs and cats seem a lot more tame than in some other countries. Maybe I’ll use you two as an example and cuddle some of my favorites. 🙂
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..Budapest in Photos

  4. Thank you for bringing more light to the treatment of animals in Thailand. It surprises me, too, that for a Buddhist country, the animals are treated like this. I remember going to a night market and watching drugged puppies just sitting on a chair and people crowded around taking photos. Horrible. Perhaps visitors still participate in these things because of the Buddhist ideals and thinking this is OK if they do it since the people there do it. It’s up to people like us to let them know it isn’t OK. I can’t believe you saw an elephant street begging. Where was this? I thought they had taken such steps to remove them from the cities. Awful.
    dtravelsround recently posted..Escape of the Week: Goreme, Turkey

    1. We cannot understand how tourists can go and see a monkey show or an elephant show and think that it’s okay! We saw the elephants begging in the street in Sukhothai – surprisingly actually, because there were just not many tourists there at all, compared to other places in Thailand. We hope it’ll get banned throughout the whole country soon.

  5. I agree strongly with the sentiment in this post and I’m currently in the process of drafting my own about the Ho Chi Minh City Zoo which left me sick to my stomach. I don’t know if I could take the elephant in the bar.

    Occasionally I’m jealous of the ignorance of some people… travel must be so much easier and lighthearted if you don’t think about the horrible degradation of women in Bangkok ping pong shows and the drugged prison of animals being dragged around at night in tourist areas. Then I come to my senses.

    1. Well said, Alex. There is this blissful ignorance others must feel, but we’re just not them. For us, these feelings and frustrations affect us no matter what great things we experience on the road. And thanks for the heads up on the HCM Zoo – we’ll avoid that, as I don’t think we can take much more either!

  6. I was just at the Elephant Nature park a few days ago. They also have 80+ dogs now that they have taken in from the floods in Bangkok. I wanted to take a couple of them home with me.

    1. Hey Kathy – thanks for mentioning that, can’t believe we forgot. Yes, there are over 80 dogs now at the park with more on the way…it was so hard not to take a couple with us, too.

  7. Hey Girls,
    It was difficult to read this post.

    What really upsets me is the effort some Thais make to give the impression they have no problems with animal abuse. When I visited Thailand two years ago, our guide said THERE IS NO ELEPHANT ABUSE IN THAILAND. She said people who claim abuse are just people trying to give the country a bad reputation. I actually didn’t believe her statement (even though I respected her for the vast amount of Thai history and culture she offered) because I witnessed some elephant mistreatment in a temple. It is also sad how authorities don’t do anyhting about this.
    Ruth recently posted..That Boring Place Called Cancun

    1. Thanks Ruth. Unbelievable that the guide said there was no elephant abuse. As long as there are tourists who want to ride elephants and see them paint with their trunks and all these things, elephants will be abused 🙁 It’s important to spread the word and educate tourists who come to Thailand about the methods used to ‘break’ elephants.

    1. Scott- we feel the same way about circuses! Tigers, elephants, horses…. every time I’ve seen a circus, I was shocked to see how tiny the cages for the animals were!

    1. This is so cruel! We have seen that in Thailand as well – in the markets! It’s always so hard not to buy all of them and give them a home and lots of love!!

  8. Shocking to think that some of the temples in Thailand believe the so-called setting free practic is a good thing, when these poor animals are being kept on stand-by in small cages or bags. These photos really show the ugly truth, which some people try to ignore.

    More travellers should be made aware of the conditions and suffering these animals are going through.
    Keep spreading the word people! X

    1. Hi Claire -yes, definitely. It’s so hard to reconcile the peaceful intentions of Buddhism with this sort of animal cruelty. We are glad we finally talked about it here, it’s been good to read that so many others feel the same. We should all talk about it more, you’re right!

    1. Hi laura, funny! So if we ever end up in the same place, I’ll let you and Dani leave an hour before me, and you two can pet all the cats together along the way and I’ll meet you there 🙂

  9. My wife and I are visiting Lisbon next month and I stumbled across your blog, which is wonderful.

    We are huge animal lovers and this mistreatment of animals makes me sick. I found the outdoor petstores at Las Ramblas in Barcelona to be appalling, and friends who have visited Morocco tell me absolutely awful things about the treatment of animals in that country. Tourists pay to take photos with cute monkeys, but they don’t realize these poor creatures are stolen from their families, abused, chained and kept in tiny cramped cages for the duration of their miserable lives. We need to put an end to cruelty wherever we see it.

    1. Thanks Brian! I remember the pet stores at Las Ramblas – felt so sorry for all these animals. In Mexico we saw a lot of guys just walking around with a cardboard box filled with little puppies – who knows what they did to the dogs when nobody bought them. I just don’t know how people can be so cruel 🙁

  10. That’s really sad. On the bright side, my wife and I were thrilled to see how well street cats are treated in Istanbul. There are probably thousands of them which at first is disheartening, but unlike what I hear of Morocco, in Istanbul the cats are very well cared for and fed by the locals. Restaurants routinely leave food for them, and the cats being accustomed to being treated well by people, they come right up to you without any fear. I am sure there are instances of animal cruelty there as well, but in general the cats do not look like strays – they look healthy and happy.

    1. I am so glad that there are places like Istanbul who treat the street cats well! We’ve experienced the same thing in Italy and in Paris. In Central America we usually carried some dog food with us for these poor creatures – people there treat them so bad, it’s beyond me how they can act like that but treat their roosters (which they have for cock fights) as if they were the most precious thing in the world.

    1. Mary – we feel the same way, and every time we see elephants carrying tourists on their backs it breaks our hearts. I can’t blame them though, because most people just don’t know what is done to the elephants to domesticate them 🙁

  11. We live in Chiang Mai currently and have also been astonished at the hypocrisy of the Asian elephant in Thailand. On one hand Thais talk about how special elephants are in Thai culture, yet there are government-sanctioned elephant shows and elephant riding, both of which are not possible without extensive and on-going abuse. The catching and releasing of birds is another aspect that I just don’t understand in a Buddhist culture. This makes us consider the hypocrisies that exist in our cultures. As vegans and animal lovers, living in Chiang Mai can be particularly challenging at times.
    Mindy and Ligeia 🙂
    Mindy and Ligeia recently posted..Surin Elephant Roundup: Behind the Scenes

    1. It is so sad that there are still so many people who have riding an elephant on their bucket list when they go to Thailand without even thinking about the treatment of the animals 🙁 We were a bit scared to return to Latin America as we had seen so many people abuse the stray dogs, but even though there are loads of street dogs in Chile, people actually feed them and even provide dog houses – so great to see that people here care for the stray animals!

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