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.
Just 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.
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.
There 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.
Absolutely 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.
In 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.
Sure 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.
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.
The 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.