You can get an elephant to give you a massage, but here's why you shouldn't
If I were to say the phrase "elephant massage", you'd probably be a little confused. "Elephant" and "massage" are two words you don't tend to put in the same sentence, and doing so brings forward visions of something wholly unnatural and cartoon-esque. But, despite what you may initially think, the act of the world's largest land animal giving a human a good rub down is something that is very real, and something that happens on a daily basis over in Thailand.
Touted as a fun activity for travellers, the process of getting one is similar in every place that offers the service. Often taking place in elephant experience camps, workers first need to find a tourist willing to seemingly risk their life for a thrilling profile picture. Upon volunteering, the tourist will lie on the floor on their front, just as they would do for any other spa treatment, and will attempt to relax as they wait for an elephant's trunk to "massage" them, or rather slap at their back. Then comes the real test of bravery: the large mammal will then begin to use its feet to lightly knead the traveller's achy limbs.
When you think about it, there are many, many reasons why you wouldn't want an elephant to give you a massage. Perhaps the obvious one is that the average Asian elephant weighs 5,400 kg and is two metres tall, and to have one basically standing on your back doesn't seem like the wisest idea in the world. However, surprisingly, that's not actually the problem.
Despite what you may initially think, the concern is for the elephants, rather than their clients. The elephants involved in these massages are, more often than not, said to be disgustingly mistreated and anyone who opts for an elephant massage is thought to be merely funding the animal's misery.
When international non-profit animal welfare organization World Animal Protection surveyed 2,923 elephants used in at 220 venues across Asia between late 2014 and mid-2016, they found that more than three quarters are kept in severely cruel conditions. These are the very animals that are often used for elephant massages.
No doubt the cruellest part of the whole process is "Phajaan" or "the crush". This is the tragic process which sees trainers "divorce the baby elephant from its spirit", or "split its will" in order to make them submissive to humans. The ''ceremony'' of Phajaan allegedly originated from the belief that the tribe's shaman can separate the spirit of an elephant from its body, in effect driving the wilful and wild spirit out of an elephant and leaving it under the control of its handlers.
However, critics have pointed out that, in reality, Phajaan has nothing to do with the separation of spirit, and everything to do with the torture of an innocent creature. This process can involve stealing baby elephants from their mothers at a young age, locking them in small cages, tying them up and subjecting them to starvation, thirst and sleep deprivation.
In spite of animal protection organisations' warnings, elephant tourism in many Asian countries is on the rise; particularly in Thailand, where there are twice as many elephants in tourism than all the other Asian countries combined and where owners generate profits of tens of thousands of dollars per month from exploiting Asian elephants, an endangered species.
However, when VT spoke to one young traveller, she insisted that the company she received an elephant massage from was completely humane. Ashleigh Guthrie, who travelled around Thailand in 2012, insisted that she would have never gone for an elephant massage if she wasn't sure that the animals were being treated kindly.
She stated: "Beforehand, they showed us some of the techniques they used to get them to move forward and go back, and it was all done humanely. If I felt like they weren't being treated properly, then I would have just walked out. We all saw where they lived and they didn't have chains or anything at any point at which I could see. It was all out in the open. I didn't see any mistreatment at all."
In addition, Ashleigh stated that the elephants she saw were free to roam about in "beautiful scenery", only confined by logs on the floor, and that the baby elephants were kept with their mothers at all times. However, she freely admits that not all companies will treat their elephants in this manner, saying: "I think there probably will be places in Thailand that mistreat them - and I think it's probably a culture thing that they maybe don't treat them as well as we perhaps would in certain other sites that offer it."
However, critics have pointed out that tourists often don't recognise the telltale signs of animal abuse, with some claiming that, although they may seem well treated, you have to wonder if this continues behind the scenes. After all, elephants were made to roam around outside, not massage tourists. How were they initially trained to massage people? And should they really be spending their lives doing so?
Nick Stewart, wildlife campaigns manager at World Animal Protection, spoke to VT about elephant massages, claiming that they were merely another unnatural activity forced upon the elephants, more often than not with the worst of intentions. He said: "Elephants used for massages and other forms of entertainment are often stolen from their mothers shortly after birth and then brutally ‘trained’ to become submissive enough to control. They are often hit with hooks or other tools during this time until their spirits are broken. They’re kept on concrete floors and bound by chains when not performing, are fed poor and unnatural diets, and receive limited veterinary care."
He continued: "‘Elephant massages’ are not an actual treatment and just a gimmick included in elephant shows to entertain the crowd. In a typical show, one to three people are invited to lie on the ground and then the elephants will approach, guided by their mahouts, and place one foot repeatedly on the belly or chest of the volunteer. After the usual laughs and cheers, the volunteers will go back to their seats and the show will continue with the next activity. These seemingly funny and harmless massage activities are the result of intense training to ensure the elephants are under full control by their mahout and trained to perform these unnatural behaviours."
Visitors to Thailand doubled from 15.9 million to 32.6 million between 2010 and 2016 - contributing to a 30 per cent rise (1,688 to 2,198) in elephants held in captivity for tourist activities. With this in mind, it seems unlikely that elephant massages are going to come to an end anytime soon. The only advice that can be given is to either avoid companies which use animals for tourist purposes completely. We should aim to be the solution to animal cruelty, not the cause.