Gossip Girls

Amanda Mander

(USA)

Passionate animal-lovers seeking opportunity to be close to wildlife sometimes forget that just like humans, they need us to respect their space. Through volunteering at a sanctuary for abused elephants in Thailand, I learned that the best connection with wild animals is made when we don’t burden them with our expectations of engagement. Being present in their lives, even for a short time, is the real gift.

The air was sticky as we navigated the bumpy back roads of the village of Ban Tuek in Thailand. I was about to volunteer to care for twelve elephants. After so many years of fascination, I wondered what it would feel like to be close to one. Would I be afraid standing next to the world’s largest mammal?

My bond with elephants began with Corky, my childhood stuffed animal with the pink fuzzy ears. As a toddler, I dragged him by the trunk and later carried him like a baby. Corky was then joined by King Babar, whose stories were full of wise lessons. In secondary school, I collected elephants. Glass, wooden, ceramic and even marble miniatures marched across my windowsill. After a trip to India in my 20s, elephants served a more spiritual purpose in the form of the Hindu God, Ganesh — the remover of obstacles. But even with this history, the reason for my fascination with this creature had eluded me. 

The road narrowed and turned to dirt for the final sprint through banana tree groves, their huge leaves shading our path. Then, at a large lily pond full of pink dabs of flowers we finally were met with a sign that said, “Welcome to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary.” A thin Caucasian woman in her thirties, her long brown hair tucked haphazardly into a cap, greeted our small group of four. 

“I’m Katherine. I’m so glad you’re here.” Her large brown eyes glistened as she hugged each of us. “Right…let me give you an introduction and some rules,” Katherine stood tall as we gathered around her. “First, do not touch or go near the elephants.” 

What? My heart sank. Isn’t this why I came? To get close to the elephants?

Katherine continued, “Next, you are not here to get selfies. You are here to care for the elephants, to witness their lives, and to appreciate their stories.” Katherine’s voice was kind but firm. “You are in the elephants’ world now, that means respecting their feelings. If they want to reach out to you, they will. The volunteers who’ve experienced a connection with the elephants were those who arrived without expectation.” 

This insight humbled me. I realized that humans rarely respect an animal’s space. Even though we may be well-intentioned, we even pet our dogs and cats according to our needs not thinking about whether they want to be pet or not. Katherine was right. She motivated me to change my perspective. It would be the first of several lessons I would learn this week. 

“Here come the Gossip Girls!” Katherine looked toward the hill leading into the forest. 

I turned my head to see three huge elephants making their way to a large open-air shed on the other side of the pond. I stopped breathing, spellbound. 

Their footsteps were silent despite their massive legs. They moved gracefully, like dancers rather than 6000-lb. animals. Their ears flapped gently in the breeze while their trunks moved languidly from side to side to an unheard rhythm. All that could be heard were the leaves rustling and an occasional bird squawk. 

“Why are they called the Gossip Girls?” I asked, not taking my eyes off them. 

“You will see!” Katherine smiled. “They have a deep friendship and are inseparable. They often have long conversations with each other.”

Katherine introduced us. Wassana, “Fortune,” arrived from a trekking camp. She lugged heavy loads of tourists up mountainsides despite the hole in her foot from a land mine. When Katherine found her, she was bleeding from a liberal use of an elephant hook, a sharp “training tool” designed to pierce tough elephant skin to inflict pain. 

As a calf, Pang Dow, “Lucky Star,” worked the hot asphalt streets of Bangkok relying on sympathetic tourists to give money to her owner. She had a disabled foot that required her to walk on her ankle. The third Gossip Girl, Lotus, was forced to breed. Sometimes in this process, the front feet were tied together. Unable to move, the weight of the bull during mating could often damage the female’s legs permanently. My heart sank with the violence of these stories as I watched Katherine guide these magnificent animals to their stalls.

“Wassana…..up.” Katherine used a pole with a tennis ball to tap the leg she wanted Wassana to lift onto a log so she could clean the underside of her foot. Each foot was the size of a large pizza.

We sat on a bench by Wassana’s head. Her trunk reached for cut up apples only a few feet from us. I marvelled at her bulk, at her dexterity picking up those small pieces. Her wrinkled trunk extended and contracted. She had 40,000 trunk muscles at her disposal. Humans have only approximately 700. Being this close to her, I didn’t feel scared so much as insignificant. She paid us no notice and seemed confidant and comfortable. 

“Good girl, Wassana.” Katherine crouched low with her head almost under Wassana’s foot using a huge nail file and pick before applying turmeric to her wound. One nail of Wassana’s foot was as big as my palm. Asian elephants have five nails on their front feet and four on the back. In the wild, elephants walk long distances. When they are confined, even to a large property like Katherine’s, foot care is important to mitigate the lack of walking. All the elephants in her care would have their feet manicured.

Katherine was attentive. She kept lifting her eyes to monitor Wassana’s body language. Wassana stood eight feet tall and with one forceful thrash of her trunk, could send Katherine across the shed possibly to her death. No matter how much time Katherine spent with these animals, she was very aware of their strength and unpredictability. A photo I’d seen recently came to mind: an elephant with an entire buffalo gored with his tusks and lifted high, as if it was as light as a bale of hay. 

“Time for our hike,” Katherine announced. The Gossip Girls, newly manicured, were met with a few more elephants. Mr. Moo, a bull, joined us along with another mini herd of three females called the Floozies, for their sometimes-flirtatious behaviour with the bulls at the sanctuary. Each elephant had one kwan-chaang (elephant-carer, also known by the Hindi word, mahout), who guided them down the forest path, not with hooks but with gentle vocalizations. 

Fifty percent of the 3000 elephants in Thailand are domesticated and since the 1200s have been used commercially. Traditionally, a kwan-chaang was paired with an elephant for life. Training, passed down from father to son over generations, ensured the elephant’s healthy and happy life. This respectable trade has now been compromised, and elephants abused as a result. Elephants painting pictures, walking on two feet, and carrying heavy loads/tourists on long treks up mountainsides is abuse. This abuse often begins by putting baby elephants into a cage where they are “broken” by poking them with sharp sticks until they do whatever their owner wants.

Elephant activists like Katherine are changing this horrific situation by encouraging kwan-chaangs to earn their livelihood through responsible tourism. If they bring their elephants to sanctuaries like hers, they receive a decent wage and learn proper elephant care. Katherine had a difficult time convincing the kwan-chaangs to stop using bull hooks and chains to control their elephant. The fact that they eventually listened to a petite English woman speaks to Katherine’s compassion and ability to convincingly teach alternative ways. 

Continuing our hike, we entered a large field along the river. Soon, eight elephants surrounded us as they grazed. Some pulled down small trees, grabbed a branch and ran their trunk along it ripping off its leaves—like eating corn on the cob. Others used their trunks to pull plants from the ground or lifted up on their hind legs to reach the juiciest leaves at the very top of a tall tree. 

Katherine didn’t lecture us or fill the silence with information as we stood watching. She was being careful not to create the experience for us — letting us soak in the atmosphere, observe, and ask questions. A couple from California asked about Boon Lot, the name of the sanctuary.

“To put it simply,” Katherine sat down in the deep grass, “I fell in love with a baby elephant.” 

She went on to tell us that at 22, while backpacking around Thailand on vacation from the U.K., Katherine volunteered at a veterinary hospital where she met Boon Lott, “survivor” in Thai. He was born prematurely and at six months was sold to the entertainment industry. His mother was sold into the illegal logging industry. Elephants need their mothers until age three. Katherine knew Boon Lot wouldn’t survive without his mother. So, she raised money to buy both Boon Lott and his mother Pang Tong. Soon after, Boon Lot’s condition deteriorated, and he could no longer walk. Again, Katherine raised money and worked with university students to create the first elephant wheelchair. Even though he learned to use this to walk, he died shortly thereafter. This intense love and connection to Boon Lott transformed Katherine’s life. Against all odds, with no money or government support, she stayed in Thailand and built a sanctuary to honour her elephant soulmate. 

Her story touched me deeply. This one elephant out of so many in need, captured Katherine’s heart. It was a love relationship for both of them. Katherine later showed us photos of Boon Lott curling his trunk around her as they slept together in the hay. I thought back to my question, why did I have such a bond with elephants? Perhaps it’s as simple as falling in love. There’s no reason but just an unexplained connection to another being that fills you with devotion and the desire to keep them safe. Richard Louv in Our Wild Calling, describes it this way:

In human relations, love alters reality. We go mad with love. Limerence is the word for that. The chemical reaction that accompanies human love is measurable but defies full explanation. So, it is with our deepest bond with other animals.

*****

“Squeeeeek.” A loud sound like a birthday party blow horn filled the silence. Katherine got up from the grass and looked around. 

“Ah there she is….Wassana.”

“That sound was an elephant?” I followed Katherine’s gaze. 

“Yup. That’s Wassana’s squeak!” 

Wassana was in a tight formation with Lotus and Pang Dow. Their low rumbling was occasionally highlighted by the squeak. The Gossip Girls were deep into conversation.

“I bet they are talking about the approach of Lom, she’s a teenager and often doesn’t respect the Gossip Girl boundaries.” Katherine shielded the sun with her hand.

“What do the different sounds mean?” I asked.

“It’s interesting,” Katherine turned to look at me, “scientists thought elephant sounds were non-sensical just because we humans couldn’t understand them. But if you see a group of elephants meet, it’s obvious that they are talking to each other. Just like those Gossip Girls are doing now. We don’t know exactly what they’re saying but they are saying something!”

I later read that Katy Payne, who founded the Elephant Listening Project discovered that elephants communicate across great distances with a low rumbling that humans can’t hear. She recorded elephants on two different sides of a concrete wall in a zoo communicate this way. Matriarchs, female leaders of an elephant herd, guide their herd through this same type of communication which can reach four kilometres away.

In the wild, the matriarch of an elephant herd is the oldest female, often living 70 years. She has the accumulated knowledge of where to find food and water, shelter, and safety. Herds are made up of all female relatives accept male babies. At 12-15 years old, the male adolescent is pushed out of the family to find a mate. 

Boon Lott’s elephants didn’t have the family structure of a genetic matriarch but regardless they formed their own herds. The Gossip Girls and Floozies were an example. Katherine observed how Pang Dow took a shy Lotus under her wing and helped her emerge as a confidant member of their herd using rumbling and lots of trunk touches and providing her lots of company.  

Cynthia Moss, a well-known elephant researcher in Africa’s Amboseli National Park explains how attributing emotions has evolved. Initially, scientists believed wild animals were not capable of emotions. However, now there are many documented instances of elephants expressing emotions. For example, in mourning an elephant death or in the joy experienced when herd members greet each other after an absence — running, trumpeting, rumbling and lots of trunk touching.

I wondered if the emotional lives of elephants paralleling our own was another reason I was so drawn to them. Was it the power of the matriarch to care for her herd, lead them to the best grazing areas and protect them from harm that I recognized as the power of the female leader, a power I wanted to assimilate into my own being? Cynthia Moss describes matriarchs as embodying the values of consistent caring, loyalty, bonding, affiliation, and cooperation that we humans long to consistently experience in our own families. 

These hikes were a walking meditation for me. We often travelled in silence, listening to birds, and breathing in the moist heat. Pines, raintrees, and large bamboo groves towered above us as we crept up narrow paths, following the elephants. We would often stop and wait for the elephants to finish foraging that location before moving on. We spent hours and hours just watching, listening, feeling — sometimes in the comfort of a hammock with a view to the rolling hills beyond. I was getting better at releasing my expectations and living in the moment. 

At lunchtime, several of Katherine’s helpers would meet us and bring lovely vegan meals partitioned into numerous tin containers: papaya salad, dumplings, curries, sweets, completing the rich sensory jungle experience with delightful tastes. At one lunch, Katherine looked at the people around her, the people she loved and said, “This is my idea of Heaven.” There were her five children, her kwan-chaangs, their wives and children, her guests, her dogs and of course her elephants. She also cared for several pigs, an allegator, and a horse. Suddenly I recognized her as the matriarch of Boon Lot. 

I was struck by admiration for this young woman — especially in a world that continues to force division of culture, economics, and politics. Her family had none of these boundaries. If more of us took on this role, I wondered, could we embody what Cynthia Moss described? Could we try to be the matriarch for others? Could we extend our families to include those around us as Katherine and the Boon Lot elephants did?

Our next hiking destination was the treehouses. Katherine had built three, four stories high, in a stand of giant trees. She planned to connect them all with bridges. It was a thrilling viewpoint from which to watch the elephants below. The Gossip Girls were together as usual in one corner and Mr. Moo was grazing by a grove of bamboo. The air smelled fresh with the recent rain and the sun was dimmed by the thatch roofs that sheltered us. I was watching Lotus, her ears delicately flapping as she walked silently below. The California couple was nearby her. Then I noticed Lotus approaching the couple and Lotus’ kwan-chaang encouraging them to touch her. 

I felt envious. I climbed down the treehouse and approached the group hoping for a connection with Lotus. I stood near her as she walked toward me. My heart was pumping. This was my chance! But my excitement turned to fear as Lotus continued to move forward without stopping for me. Her real goal: not me, but the tree behind me where she could lean in for a good back scratch. I had to inwardly laugh. How obviously arrogant I am. It was going to take a bit more work on my part to quell those expectations. 

But my time did come on the last day. After confronting the silliness of my Lotus jealousy, I had finally accepted that I wouldn’t be able to touch an elephant or really interact with one. I completely focused my energy on appreciating the experience I had had, especially learning from Katherine, my matriarch for the week.

Then, just like that, Pang Dow casually walked toward me on our last morning. Her kwan-chaang gave me a bucket of apple slices. I stood inches from her and looked in her gorgeous brown marble-like eye. Under her three-inch-long lashes, she returned my gaze. I wasn’t afraid, although her size was intimidating. Breathing in her musty scent, looking at her powerful bulk but gentle trunk manoeuvres, I fell into a trance, moved by her courage, her kindness toward Lotus, and her amazing ability to store ten litres of water in her trunk. She stood silently next to me, occasionally shuffling feet, releasing the pressure on her deformed ankle. 

I touched her skin. It was leathery as I expected but very wrinkled and surprisingly hairy. Sharp spindly hairs were spaced every few centimetres. Although I later learned that elephant skin is deeply grooved to retain moisture since they don’t sweat, I experienced her skin as that of an elder, each wrinkle carved out of a story of life and survival.

Pang Dow impatiently reached her trunk into my bucket, reminding me of what I was supposed to be doing. I took another slice of apple and held it out to her. She used her two “fingers” on either side of her trunk hole to take the slice and put it into her mouth. She then offered her trunk again for me to fill. I was suddenly aware of my love for her and that my bond with elephants flowed from the simple appreciation that they exist in the same world as me.

Amanda Mander

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Amanda Mander lives in the Pacific Northwest of the United States surrounded by wild animal neighbours. She’s a passionate wild animal steward and the author of Wild Rescues: Amazing Stories from a Wildlife Shelter. Among Amanda’s other writing is Looking Twice: Beautiful and Ugly, a book of poems and photographs and an award-winning love story, “The Remover of Obstacles.” She is working on a book about her experiences volunteering in wild animal sanctuaries around the world.

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