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Bali: The One with the Pachyderm Painting

On my first visit to Bali, my first priority—if I did nothing else—was to visit the elephant sanctuary. Where I come from, when someone talks about their pet, it’s usually their dog, their cat, or maybe even the occasional gerbil. But one thing they are not are 12,000 pound behemoths that can crush you to death with one foot. Not the case in Bali. Here, on this small exotic paradise of Indonesia, in specialized sanctuaries, locals ride elephants like horses. I’m sure it wasn’t too far in the distant past when they could just hail one down in the streets like they’re picking up an Uber ride.

At the Taro Elephant Safari Park, there must have been at least 30 elephants spread around the property—animals, not humans. These are Asian elephants which are slightly different from their African cousins in that they are a bit smaller in overall size and they have much smaller ears. Think Brad Pitt instead of Will Smith. And unlike African elephants, Asian elephants have been domesticated for agricultural use for thousands of years.

Of course, the main thing to do at the elephant park, naturally, is to ride an elephant. We climbed on top of a platform that was at least 10 feet off the ground and the elephants came around like pickle jars on a factory conveyor belt. Each one has a barefoot Balinese boy sitting on top of its head with his feet dangling behind the elephant’s ears. I wondered if that was a ticklish spot for the elephant and maybe that’s how the rider got him to go—Chinese tickle torture behind the ears. We climbed into the little two-seater that was mounted on the elephant’s back and with a little flick and a few choice Balinese words, we were on our way.

Fun fact: If necessary, elephants can run up to about 25 mph—much faster than a human. Trudging slowly through the trees, it was hard to believe it could outrun a tortoise much less a person. But I think it’s a confidence thing. When you’re the size of a mobile home, you know you’re pretty much in charge, so you can afford to have that confident swagger that says, “who’re you telling to ‘hurry up’?”

Every once in awhile, the elephant would stop and try to eat some leaves before being scolded for dereliction of duty and grudgingly moving on. I felt kind of bad for him. After all, if I had to eat 10% of my body weight in food every single day, I’d probably be hooked up to 26 IVs filled with maple syrup. (Hmmm… maybe not a bad idea at that).

It was an incredibly calming ride, though. The slow amble of elephant feet, rustling of the trees, a cacophony of cicadas, it was all very serene, giving a sense of camaraderie with nature and I suddenly had the urge to ask if I could ride it all the way back to town. Towards the end of the ride, the elephants walk waist deep (their waist, not ours) into a large pool where they get a refreshing cool down and we get a cheesy photo taken. Symbiosis at its best.

After our ride there was an elephant show which was really a glorified circus. They brought elephants in to do tricks, play basketball, and even create a painting. I found out that after the show, I could go to the store and buy that very same painting. And I did exactly that. Yes, I now have an original “Tembo.” And frankly, it’s better than an original Matisse. I once went to a Matisse museum in France where one painting was literally a single stroke of black paint going diagonal across a blank white page. At least Tembo had the artistic wherewithal to use different colors and paint different shapes! I think he was going for an abstract, avant-garde with an impressionism motif look. Wow… Tembo is more talented than I thought!

As I cradled my new pachyderm painting under my arm and headed for the exit, I looked back at the park, and suddenly, something didn’t sit well with me. Any elephant that wasn’t in the process of entertaining tourists—giving a ride, performing in the show or painting in the art studio—was chained around the ankle to a metal stake that sat in the middle of a concrete circle no more than 20 feet in diameter for each one. That’s like restraining a golden retriever to a doormat.

Riding an elephant, watching him play football and buying his artwork are all experiences that I treasured having because they are so unique. Yet to this day, I am ignorant of the park’s care practices. I don’t know if the elephants were being fed well, if they were getting any exercise, if they had any enrichment or stimulation, or if they were getting proper medical care by a licensed veterinarian. Knowing what I know now about what elephants need to be happy and healthy, I should have taken the time to check it out before going.

The lesson here is to look up wildlife parks FIRST. Do the research, ask the questions, read the reviews, and be absolutely sure that they are taking proper care of the animals. As for this park, I can only comment on what I saw in terms of the non-working elephants being chained. It’s quite possible that after closing time, they all run loose and fly around like Dumbo… or they might not. All I know is if we condone animals being abused merely for human entertainment, then we are the ones who have become animals.

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