How I Became an Elephant, the Dark Practices and World of Cruelty Behind Elephants Used for Tourism and Entertainment
30 years ago there were some 200,000 elephants in Asia, now there are between 35,000 – 50,000 due to deforestation, poaching and tourism. No laws exist to protect the “domesticated” elephant in Thailand and Burma.
Juliette West was always passionate about animals, but when this 14-year-old California teenager learned about the plight of elephants in Asia and worldwide, she became inspired to save them. How I Became an Elephant follows Juliette to Thailand to help save one severely abused and dying elephant whose left hip was displaced and spirit was broken from years of forced breeding. Her travels opened her eyes to the deep cruelty that elephants endure in an effort to domesticate them, mainly for the profitable tourism industry. The experience inspired Juliette to launch a worldwide movement to raise awareness about the abuse and exploitation of working elephants, to end the ivory trade, and help save a species that could face extinction.
Once in Thailand, Juliette meets Lek Chailert, Asia’s famous “Elephant Lady,” who has dedicated her life to saving injured, abused, exploited and sick elephants. For the past 30 years, Lek has risked her life every day to protect Thailand’s elephants who have been routinely and systematically abused, injured and even killed during violent and brutal training and forced breeding programs, working in illegal trade and logging, and working tirelessly entertaining and performing for tourists night and day. Together these committed, passionate, determined women from opposite ends of the earth and cultural spectrum, converge to help end the cruelty meted out to elephants used for business and profit. They will stop at nothing to expose the dark, hidden secrets within these industries that are awash in greed and corruption.
How I Became an Elephant is directed by 22-time award-winning filmmakers Tim Gorski and Synthian Sharp and is produced by television actor/producer Jorja Fox and features 14-year-old Juliette West. Award-winning cinematographer Jonathan David Kane is behind the camera and upcoming Hollywood composer Cody Westheimer weaves a haunting and beautiful music score. More than just a film, this story will inspire people to help bring needed change to these majestic creatures who are forced to endure so much suffering and misery, at the hands of men, for tourism, business and entertainment.
Film Release: April 20, 2012
Film Length: 82 minutes
WATCH THE FILM
- Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, 2013
- Winner River Quest, Silent River Film Festival 2012
- Activist Award, Silent River Film Festival 2012
- Best Documentary, Sausalito International Film Festival
- Animal Filmmaker Award, Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, 2012
- Animal Hero Award, Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, 2012
- Best Documentary, Kingston Film Festival
- Best Director, First Glance Film Festival, Hollywood, CA
QUOTES FROM THE FILM
“All of these elephants are taught in such an abusive way.” ~ Juliette
“It’s our own fault that we’re losing so many elephants and that they’re going extinct. Humans need to start taking responsibility for the damage they’ve done.” ~ Juliette
“After the training “Crush,” the baby elephant’s eyes are empty, their spirit is broken, and they never remember their mother any longer. They are abused for 24 hours, day in and day out, so they lose their mind. Many die from lack of oxygen. When the baby elephant fears the man, then man can control them.” ~ Lek
“Why do we need elephant painting? Why do we need elephant football? Why do we need an elephant playing hula-hoop? The tourist industry disturbs elephants more than logging or any other industry. We don’t need to see elephant painting at all.” ~ Lek
“You can go to a zoo and see an elephant, but you have no idea about how it got there and how they got it into that tight space, you’re not exposed to any of the cruelty that animals are exposed to in captivity.” ~ Juliette
“Do you know how they train or break those wild animals?” ~ Juliette
“The Mahouts don’t work with elephants because they love them, but because they owe money for buying them or raising them, they have a debt to pay.”
“When an elephant is under severe stress, they bob their head back and forth in repetitive motion, over and over and over again. You don’t see any of this in the wild. It’s completely unnatural.” ~ Lek
“Elephant traders are people who are buying and selling elephants. They typically get $5000-$25,000 for an elephant. It’s like a used car auction, it’s really disturbing.” ~ Lek
“Elephants have to be caught in the wild to replace those that have been sold. These elephants are needed by people who have businesses like entertaining or trekking for tourists. It has become big business to trade elephants.” ~ Lek
“We can’t even stand next to that elephant he gets so angry. Something is really wrong with that. The elephants are angry with their trainers, the mahouts. They will try to kill them.” ~ Lek
“She has no energy at all. Some elephants work until they fall. It’s so very sad.” ~ Lek
“Sometimes the elephant is not obedient – and you can see how they have punished it with a sharp object and hit them to make them obedient.” ~ Lek
“I had the opportunity to see elephants in trekking, and I see them in pain and suffering, and dying.”
“This year we have had so many elephants die on the streets of Bangkok—they are so overworked, and are sick and diseased from pollution, heat and dehydration. It’s very traumatizing for elephants to be in the big city because it’s so overwhelming for them.” ~ Lek
Asked about her hope for the future, Lek said, “For my vision, I look to see elephants run free. It might take about another 20 years for businesses to understand that. The next couple years, I hope for more respect for them. Any animal has the right to be free.”
“If there’s anything I’ve learned from this journey, it is that one person like Lek or Joyce can make a difference, and a bunch of people – can change the world.” ~ Juliette
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- As a tourist—Don’t attend or patronize any elephant show where elephants entertain tourists
- As a tourist—Don’t ride an elephant or go on an elephant trek
- As a tourist—Don’t patronize any business that uses elephants, because deep abuse and cruelty is behind their breeding, training and management
- Share this film that raises awareness about how elephants are severely abused for business and profit throughout Asia
- Volunteer or work to promote education about the plight of elephants today in Asia, Africa and in zoos around the world
- Learn more by visiting ElephantVoices.org
- Learn more by visiting ElephantNaturePark.org
- Learn more about Lek’s Elephant Nature Park here https://www.elephantnaturepark.org and http://theirturn.net/2016/12/13/elephant-nature-park/
ELEPHANT TRAINING IN THE CRUSH BOX
In order to make wild elephants more docile and domesticated so they can be used in profit-making businesses, their spirits are first broken first using a “crush box.” In the “crush box” the elephant endures daily abuse and cruelty, for months and months. When baby elephants are born to their mothers, they are taken away only months old when they are most fragile and vulnerable, to begin their training. Elephants are social herd animals, and females stay close together in groups most of their lives. But in Asia, baby elephants are ripped away from their mothers, never to see them again, leaving mother and baby heartbroken forever. After the separation, the baby elephants is put inside a “crush box,” where each leg is roped and tied, and their legs are forced apart so the elephant is splayed to the ground and immobilized. Trainers will also bind their four legs together, causing the elephant to fall to the ground, where the elephant is then beaten, stabbed, screamed at, and forced to endure endless cruelty to subjugate them and break their spirits. Mahouts or trainers gouge them with sharp bull hooks to cause them pain and suffering, and to teach them submission to humans. After experiencing this torture day in and day out, for months— their spirit is broken, their mother is forgotten, and their fear of men and abuse is very strong. Elephants become angry at the abuse they have been forced to endure and fear that it will happen again—but their anger only means more abuse and beating. Often, baby elephants die inside the “crush box” from suffocation because the baby elephant is not allowed to move, as it is tortured repeatedly. During their training, the chains wrapped around their legs often injure their legs permanently, handicapping them for life. “After the training crush, the baby elephant’s eyes are empty, their spirit is broken, and their mother is forgotten. They are abused for 24 hours, over months, so they lose their mind. Many die from lack of oxygen. When the baby elephant fears the man, then man can control them,” Lek observes. Even injured elephants, with broken or deformed legs from being chained daily, or from violent training, will be forced to work despite evident pain, suffering and immobility.
FORCED BREEDING PROGRAMS
Female elephants are forced into pregnancy by chaining the female, then chaining the bull next to her. The bull elephant is forced to mount and “rape” the female, sometimes as many as 20-30 times repeatedly, in order to get the female pregnant. The sheer weight of the bull on top of her repeatedly, can crush and permanently injure or damage the female’s body, legs and hips, handicapping her forever. The female’s gestation period is approximately 22 months—the longest of any land animal. In Asia, only several months after birth, her baby is taken away from her to domesticate the baby for tourism and entertainment-related businesses, causing both baby and mother deep anguish, pain and heartbreak. Elephants, like humans, are deeply and forever connected to their babies.
STREET ELEPHANTS IN ASIA
One of the ways elephants are used for profit from tourism, is they are forced to work in big cities like Bangkok. They are called “street elephants,” where they are overworked day and night, walking the streets, enduring heavy car traffic, toxic pollution, thick smog, filthy water, and are deprived of proper food—so they can work the bars and markets where toursits frequent and will ride them or pay for a visit. At night, they are brought to bars, where they get paid by tourists, and by day, they walk to markets, where they take tourists for rides. These “city” elephants are completely overwhelmed, scared and fearful of the unnatural, loud, busy, congested environment that overwhelms their senses and physical being. Every year, elephants get physically sick and die on the streets of Bangkok and in other major cities from starvation and dehydration, breathing thick toxic car fumes and pollution, severe heat exhaustion, drinking polluted waste water, food deprivation and chronic stress. Street elephants are intentionally starved by their mahouts so they won’t deficate on the city streets, where the mahouts can be fined for their waste droppings. So instead, the mahouts feed them sugarcane, which lacks the complete nutrition the elephants need to work, causing them to get weak, sick, become emaciated, and even die. Street elephants are also forced to the drink water from sewers. The mahouts do not give them fresh, clean drinking water so keep the elephant from peeing on the streets, where the mahout can be fined. Sometimes the elephants are even drugged to make them more relaxed and tame walking the city streets.
Many of Bangkok’s elephants have lost their vision, due daily exposure to bright car lights and glare at night. And they have become deaf from hearing the constant street noise and blare of car horns.
For centuries elephants have been used for logging in Asia. But today, though some logging is permitted and legal, much logging is still illegal and supported by government officials. Some 5000 elephants are still used today for both illegal and legal logging in Burma and Thailand. These elephants work so tirelessly pulling logs from the forest floor, that they become physically exhausted and depleted, and become physically unable to do the labor they are forced to do.
ELEPHANT PAINTING & PERFORMING FOR TOURISTS
The sudden boom in elephant painting started five years ago. To train the elephant to paint takes months of grueling, punishing training that is often violent. The elephant is taught to paint in several languages, requiring them to learn English, French, German and sometimes more. In addition to painting for tourists, elephants are taught to play soccer, twirl a hula-hoop, and play football—more ways to entertain this hugely profit-driving industry. “People think the elephant’s life is better painting than logging, but it isn’t,” Lek affirms. “The mahout trains the elephant to paint for tourists, or to dance or play a musical instrument, for many months. The more tourists come and want to be entertained by elephants, the more the mahout needs to train the elephant, which means inhumane, cruel, painful methods are employed daily. Baby elephants are taken away from the mother before they are one year old, the training begins young and lasts for hours every day. They train elephants to draw in English, French and German, and it never ends,” Lek argues. Then she asks, “Why do we need elephant painting? Why do we need elephant football? Why do we need an elephant playing hula-hoop? The tourists industry disturbs elephants more than logging, or any other industry. We don’t need to see elephant painting at all.”
This is another profit-driven business based on tourist demand where elephants incur regular and systematic abuse in order to keep them in line and following their mahout’s orders, so tourist’s can trek through the forest atop an elephant. There are over 1000 trekking camps in Thailand alone, with over 80 elephants in each, and the tourist trekking industry is growing every year. From years of trekking, an elephant will develop severe back problems from carrying a heavy wooden saddle with a steel seat atop that accommodates up to four+ tourists. The combined weight of the tourists and the steel saddle digging into their backs for days, months and years—causes permanent injury to the elephant’s back and spine. Training of these elephants for trekking is done using the “Crush Box” and continues using the bull-hook to wound and injure them to cause pain, so they will obey their mahout. The mahout uses a bull-hook with a sharp spike on it, and hits the elephant in the head, ears, neck, trunk or any sensitive area repeatedly, until the elephant obeys his command. If the elephant doesn’t comply or gets angry and vocalizes, the mahout will continue to beat them until they stop. Lek notes, “The mahout would stick the bull hook into a fresh wound in the head or ear to injure it and cause it pain, to obey. You can see the bull hook will have blood on it from the wound.”
THE SURIN ELEPHANT ROUNDUP IN THAILAND
The Surin Elephant Roundup is also held for tourists during the month of November, and takes place every year. The elephants come to Surin only for the Roundup, then return to Bangkok to be street elephants again. During this one day that is supposed to be festive, elephants are forced to perform in many different forms of entertainment for tourists. They perform by playing soccer, football, hula-hoop, giving elephant rides—but tourists don’t see the dark world and deep suffering behind the Roundup that is all about driving profits from tourism. Lek asserted, “You can see the elephants are so depressed, and they are hungry too.”
Elephant sanctuaries are a place where the elephants go when they are severely depressed, handicapped, injured or are finally allowed to retire from decades of working. Here they are given their final freedom as well as much needed round-the-clock care, nurturing and a tranquil natural environment. Often, they are in very bad physical and mental shape after experiencing so many years of chronic abuse, so these santuaries try to give them the best life possible, for whatever time they have left. Sadly, there is room and funding for only a few of the worst cases, leaving the rest to work until they die. Ratree The Elephant spent her last days of life here.
CAST & CREDITS
Film Director – Tim Gorski and Synthian Sharp
Film Producers – Jorja Fox, Juliette West, Tim Gorski and David Reuben
Production Company – Rattle The Cage Productions
- Juliette West
- Joyce Poole (Founder of Savannah Elephant Vocalization Project & Elephant Voices)
- Lee West
- Kimberly West
- Sangduan (Lek) Chailert
- Ratree The Elephant