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It turns out that baby elephants romp around and play a lot like human toddlers. In fact, I was instantly reminded of my 2-year-old nephew during a recent visit to Patara Elephant Farm, near Chiang Mai, Thailand, where my introduction to the visitor activity involved playing with an extraordinarily energetic 3-month-old elephant.
Already weighing 250 pounds and about waist-high for most of the adult visitors to the farm, the little female elephant repeatedly zigzagged through its mother’s legs before darting out to meet other members of the staff and the day’s collection of new farm guests. She did a great deal of affectionately rubbing up against people while also adorably greeting them with her trunk.
The remarkable energy the little elephant displayed and the unmistakable glee of her play — which at times included some surprisingly powerful pushing and rubbing with visitors — seemed so much like the zeal and joy my nephew exhibits when he’s happy and really having fun. It also provided guests with some instant reassurance that the farm’s elephants were being well cared for.
First opened about 18 years ago, the 350-acre Patara is home today to 65 elephants, many of which have been rehabilitated after time performing in circuses or working in illegal logging camps along portions of Thailand’s borders. But the establishment also maintains an impressive breeding program and, in recent years, has produced between five and eight newborns annually.
Helping preserve the population of Thai elephants is a major focus for the farm, and it’s one of the reasons Kay Tran, director of sales and marketing for Orange, Calif.-based V’Explore Tours, says the activity is a good fit for U.S. travelers.
“They have a wonderful conservation philosophy: Extinction is forever,” she said. “It really shows their commitment to preserving these amazing animals and their desire to educate us on what is needed to protect this species for the future.”
Patara offers tour products aimed at showing visitors what it’s like to care for an elephant on a daily basis, first focusing on how to approach elephants properly, how to feed them and how to check their health, then later honing in on how to bathe and brush them.
“This is the best way for people to understand the importance of taking care of elephants and keeping them healthy and happy,” Tran said.
On my tour, Elephant Owner for a Day, our group of about seven visitors began with photos and playtime with the 3 month old and its mother, but we soon moved to another location on the farm for much of the morning, where we were introduced to our own elephant for the day. I actually looked after two — a mother and daughter — both of whom were a good deal taller than me.
After being taught how to approach the elephants properly, which consisted of a lot touching and being sure the animals knew where I was, it was time to begin feeding my mother-daughter duo. Bananas and sugarcane stalks seemed to be their favorite, and both were so excited to begin their snack that my glasses were knocked off in a swirl of warm trunks eager to locate the treats in my basket.
After the excitement of feeding time, our group then focused on our individual elephant’s health, looking over its skin and feet. One brave little boy traveling with his family from Texas ended up carrying some of the elephant’s dung over to where we were later gathered together, providing us all with a specimen to study.
“Ooh, it’s warm!” he cried shortly after picking up a round ball of dung, which was a little larger than a softball.
The staff later had him break the ball and smell it.
“It’s like hay,” he said with a smile.
The boy then carried the dung over to each of us in the group, allowing us to take in a deep whiff. And he was right — the elephant excrement really did smell like wet hay. According to our guides, that was a good sign, meaning the animal was healthy.
From there, perhaps appropriately, it was bath time, and we all joined our elephants in a nearby stream and were soon soaked from washing and brushing the animals head to toe. A highlight for me was climbing up on my massive mother elephant’s back — with help from a guide and the mom’s foreleg — to sit up on her neck, where I scrubbed her warm, bristly-haired head and neck with a small brush. Everyone in the group did a good deal of playing with the elephants, who clearly loved the water, before the scrubbing session ended with photo ops in front of the elephants shooting fountains of water from their trunks.
The day’s tour wrapped up with about an hour’s worth of riding our elephants bareback up a meandering forest trail back toward the farm’s main welcome area. A delicious lunch of tasty tropical Thai fruits, baked pastries and fried chicken followed our ride, and then it was time for some final photos and some melancholy farewells to our new friends. The Elephant Owner for a Day product runs about $170 per person and includes lunch and transportation from clients’ hotels to and from the farm. Guests also receive a complimentary DVD full of videos and photos taken throughout the day by the staff.
“Another reason I like this farm is that they welcome everyone, including children and people with disabilities,” Tran said. “And they will revise their activities to accommodate all. It is a particularly great activity for a family.”
You also won’t see any chained elephants at Patara, which was one of the day’s extraordinary charms. It really was just us guests and the animals with their handlers, all spending the day together in a remarkably intimate and friendly proximity.