This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.
In her mid-50’s now, Tong Dee is the matriarch of the man-made elephant herd here in Huay Pakoot. This is despite the fact that, with the recent arrival of Kam Suk, Tong Dee is not even the oldest elephant any more. I have been enamored with Tong Dee since I met her at a banana feeding during my first week in Thailand. I knew right then and there I needed to meet with her and try to conduct my first-ever elephant interview.
I didn’t think the interview was going to happen. When I first approached Tong Dee and asked her who her publicist was, she said, “What’s a publicist?” When I tried to negotiate the terms of the interview, including wardrobe suggestions, she balked. I felt like an elephant of her size would probably look best in a slimming black turtleneck. It worked really well for Sharon Stone. I thought some dangling silver hoop earrings might set off her eyes and jingle pleasantly when she flapped her ears. And I felt the best venue for our interview, and for an elephant of her stature, would be The Chedi Hotel Chiang Mai.
But I knew that being the matriarch, Tong Dee would be calling the shots.
I arrived early for our interview at a mud hole down from a dirt road in the village of Huay Pakoot. Tong Dee showed up only minutes later, naked and without any piercings in her flapping ears. Her size can only really be appreciated up close: she is about 7 feet tall at the shoulders and about 19 feet long, counting her tail. Her weight is a little over 6000 pounds. She carries it well. She has distinctive bowl-shaped cysts on her right flank and right foreleg—but they are benign.
It was late afternoon, the sun at its blazing worst, and Tong Dee sighed as she trundled into the shallow mud hole at the edge of a meadow in the jungle.
Her bearing was dignified but a little tentative, and her trunk wandered all over me, sniffing me a bit warily. Her past as a beast of burden in the logging camps has taken its toll, and her skin hung loosely and was wrinkled and leathery. A wooden bell was clasped around her neck. I guess she was going for an austere look. A look that seemed to say, “Sure, I’m a down-to-earth gal, approachable… but don’t mess with me”—and—“Get that makeup guy away from me before I step on his little head.”
We exchanged some pleasantries. I blew down her trunk and she snorted back at me. Then without so much as a word she settled into her mud bath, her feet clopping in the dank earth and her trunk spraying thick, cool mud all over her body. As she fielded my questions she constantly slung pies of the stuff onto her flanks and up over her lumpy spine.
ANIMAL GUY: I am honored to have you here, Tong Dee. From the first time I saw you… well, I just knew I had to meet you.
THONG DEE: It’s “Thong Dee”. There’s an “h” in there, though it is silent. You’ve been spelling it wrong for a long while. All these things you’ve been writing about me. Since I am here with you now I will correct you.
I flush red. My first interview with my elephant heroine, and it’s already going off the rails. I am pleased, however, that she’s reading my blog. This despite the fact that elephants, as a general rule, can’t read—though I understand that they do handle the internet well—which is the opposite of my grandmother.
THONG DEE: I can see you’re nervous. It’s okay. Humans make lots of mistakes. So many I could never count and never remember. And I have a very good memory. Well.
ANIMAL GUY: Yes. Yes, okay… thank you… I think. So how long have you been here in this herd at Huay Pakoot?
TD: I don’t know. I don’t count mistakes and I don’t count time. That’s another human thing. I stand with you here. Now. That is “time” for me. When the sun rises, I know it’s time to look for food. When it sets, I know I can rest for a while. That is time. For me, there is no time like you think. There is being. Anyway, I suspect you had the answer even before you asked me.
AG: Three years, I think. You’ve been here three years.
TD: You know the answer then. And yet you still ask it. Curious. I find you creatures endlessly fascinating. Always you are two opposites at once. Well.
AG: Okay, let’s talk about that—your relationship with humans. Maybe talk about you and Patty Sai-ee, your mahout. Mahouts are the trainers and often the owners of elephants, so your perspective would be valuable.
TD: That… that is complicated. Well.
Thong Dee’s eyes stare at me for a moment, then look away. The late afternoon sun is relaxing it’s grip a bit, and some of the mud is drying, turning her skin the color of a gravestone. With the gray-white mud encasing her, she looks like the ghost of an elephant. A brilliant blue butterfly, the color of lapus lazuli, alights briefly on her flank, before fluttering away.
TD: Patty Sai-ee, ah… We are like… how you say… twins. Separate but the same. Our paths—we go together, otherwise we lose our way. There is some love, but it is not even the point. And… ah… there are things between us that are not balanced, it is like… we are on a scale and I am big, I could crush him. But he is human. And because he is human he tips the scale his way always. In nature if there is no balance… ah… I say it like this: he will never be my brother. Well.
Thong Dee sluffs around in the mud, scooping up another trunkful of the stuff. She stops in mid-air, the clump of mud squeezed in her proboscis.
TD: He sees me sometimes in the worst way—the way humans see many things in the world. He needs things: food, shelter… money. I believe he thinks he will not survive unless I am bent to his will. I think it would be easier for him if I was a thing, an object. I would have no feelings and no will and then I would do exactly as he wished. But of course I am not a thing. It’s okay. I am old and he is old and we have grown old together. There is a bond I share with him that cannot break. Well. A storm, you see—it destroys everything. Trees fall, shelters collapse, crops drown. Animals run in terror. But the biggest storm does nothing to our bond. Nothing.
AG: I think I understand…
TD: I would laugh if I knew how. Humans and the intellect. You believe the world is in the brain. Better to take in then to understand. Yes? Understand is all this work, this wheel spinning nowhere. Take in is better. It becomes part of you. Well.
AG: Okay… I am trying. So tell me a little about your past. You came from a logging camp? That must have been hard. Can you tell me a little about it?
TD: That is difficult. I will try. I was different. I was young. Men “trained” me—hah!–for a long time… for many years, to use your meaning. Always with the whip, the club, hovering over me. I was a baby and I was frightened. We were all frightened. They taught us to obey. To drag trees to the river or to the trucks.
As Thong Dee says this, she shifts on her feet. The chain around her right front leg jingles. We both look down at it, startled. It’s a reminder that even now she will be chained down for various reasons. I flush red, feeling shame, like I was the one who put it on her.
TD: As a female, I was forced to push the small trees… ah… logs… I pushed them with my head because I had no tusks. The males could not do this because of the tusks. They were forced to pick up logs, scoop them up. Their tusks sometimes would crack, break under the weight. And all the time my brothers and sisters would fall. Carrying a tree, a fall could be the end. Legs breaking and getting kicked to get up, to carry more. And the screaming. You make me think of it, the sounds of my family screaming. The humans don’t hear it with their ears, but the ground carries it far, the screams. All of us hear and know what is happening.
I sit for the first time, planting myself in the mud. Thong Dee towers over me. Her ears stick straight out from her massive head like flags in a gust of wind. Her tail is up and quivering. I know these are signs of an elephant in distress.
TD: All was black around my heart but I would see the sunrise and feel like all creatures feel upon seeing the sunrise—it would be a new beginning—it would be good this time, this day. But it was never good. The sun never got in through the blackness. I always expected it to, and it never did.
Her sunken eyes glitter at me. She becomes completely still, and I marvel at this. Three tons of nothing happening. A giant holding its breath. I can’t hold her look, shifting my gaze to the chain around her foot. Gray mud drips off a link in the chain. I look back up at her as she lowers her tail. Her ears resume their flapping.
AG: Let’s focus on perhaps a better story. What it’s like for you now in Huay Pakoot. How do you like it here?
TD: It is good. Better. I have peace here. I feel my time in this old body coming to the end. This is good, to be here at the end. The birds sing to me, the insects whisper to me as I fall asleep. The food is plentiful and good, and a lot of the time I can be slow. That is most important, do you know? To be slow. Do you take that in?
AG: I think so. To be more relaxed.
TD: Yes, I suppose. But it’s more than the absence of work or activity. Everything is in the stillness. Everything. All the senses. All that is inside you, and all that is outside you—all that makes your skin look like a big dead leaf, like mine. Well.
AG: The humans treat you okay here?
TD: Yes. They are impertinent sometimes. They get in the way. The young mahouts especially… I have no patience with them.
AG: Yes, I have heard that. I was told that you have swatted one or two of them with your trunk.
Thong Dee snorts. Her head moves up and down, a slow nod.
TD: They think they can tell me what to do. Babies. Let them live a little. Then perhaps I will listen. If I choose to!
AG: And what about the other elephants? Do you like them?
TD: It is not… I don’t know. It is not the right question. I am old. I prefer to be alone. Solitude is a treasure and I guard it always. I have taken many steps, had a few litters. My skin is heavy and dry from so many days in the sun, being beaten and driven. It is now my time. I have no anger with others. Kam Suk—maybe a little. She is my age and she has her ways and sometimes they cross with mine. It is okay. For the others I have neither like nor dislike. There is duty with the young ones. Sometimes I will seek them out in the jungle. Follow them. I want them to be safe, to have peace. It is what we want for each other.
AG: Lulu is one of the new babies. She has spent her whole life in a tourist camp, but now she is here. What do you think of her?
TD: She learns. There is sunlight, how you say… ah… hope for her. I followed the babies not long ago. I see her then. She does not hide behind the others like before. I see the play in her. She is a baby and she is… ah… allowed to be a baby for the first time. It makes me glad.
AG: It makes me glad, too.
Thong Dee slowly turns away from me. Sunlight bleeds through the forest in the approaching dusk. The mud is drying up… and with it, perhaps Thong Dee’s patience. I try to get in a last question or two:
AG: So is there anything else you would like to say? Perhaps anything about what it’s like to be an elephant?
TD: Sometime you must teach me laughter. I would use it a lot with you. Well. I do not concern myself with “what it is like.” I have had many sorrows. Some joy and peace—and a hair on my tail’s worth of those things is enough in this world—this world that is dominated by humans. I have survived, and if all goes well I will die in my dreams. Not in a yoke or under a whip. Or from the hot wind of a bullet hitting me. The blackness that was around my heart—as a baby—it is less. Sunlight can come in sometimes. That is enough. That is. Well.
AG: One more thing. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but most of the volunteers who come here think very fondly of you. Me included. You are their favorite elephant. Many of them get tattoos of you…
TD: Tattoos. Yes. I know them, those paintings on the skin. Well. That is a good thing, I suppose. Perhaps one day I will get a tattoo of one of my favorite humans. Perhaps even you.
My eyes widen. One of the most amazing creatures in the world has just paid me the grandest of compliments. Bamboo trees shift and rustle as Thong Dee begins to shuffle back into the jungle, indicating the end of the interview. I call after her:
AG: Wait! Did you really mean that?
She stops. Her mammoth head swings toward me. She raises her trunk so it is level with my head. She sniffs, snorts, and lowers her trunk again. Her eyes blink slowly once. Twice.
TD: Don’t be ridiculous. Seriously, you must teach me how to laugh.