If you’re a tourist at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand, you may get to see what seems like an adorable underwater performance — elephants performing dance-like routines in a pool. Visitors can observe the show from above in a viewing stand adjacent to the pool, or through a window with a below-the-water-surface view.
But these seemingly cute theatrics are actually forced acts of labor, which are the unpleasant fruits of a barbaric training process. That process is called *phajaan* in Thai, which translates into “the crush,” and is the result of beating the elephant into submission. It is a practice that is enforced by elephant trainers, known as mahouts.
According to the reporting of kimpluscraig (a website devoted to responsible tourism), “Half of the elephants put through phajaan will die. Of those that survive, ‘About half will go mad,’ says [Thailand’s] Elephant Nature Park founder Lek Chailert. ‘This brutality can make them aggressive and dangerous.’ “
World Animal News first tweeted the story about Khao Kheow Open Zoo in late August, showing a video of an elephant performing for an audience at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo. In the tweet, they asked Trip Advisor “to stop promoting cruelty.”
[Note: As reported by The Dodo, “TripAdvisor has since suspended the venue’s ticket sales on its website, noting that the shows violate its animal welfare standards.”]
It’s not simply that the elephants are forced to dance underwater — something they would never do in the wild — that is so offensive. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that each elephant has a rider on its back, holding its ears and whispering commands to it — reminders that failure to comply could result in beatings.
Since then, the video has started to pile up outrage. Recently, a petition was launched, looking to shut down the zoo. The petition notes that, “In a video of one of their elephant water performances, one unlucky elephant is made to prance around a tank while bobbing her head above and below the surface. Then she plunges to the bottom and does a few awkward tricks before coming back up for air. This all while mounted by her trainer. On the other side of the glass are hundreds of men, women, and children oohing and awing and enjoying their visit to the zoo — not realizing that this elephant isn't having any fun at all.”
The petition’s stated goal is to accrue 140,000 signatures. As of this publication, it has already amassed more than 135,000.
The petition further states that “The Khao Kheow Open Zoo has no business doing elephant shows. In fact, they have no business having elephants period. Facilities that allow the animals in their care to suffer for profit should no longer be given a pass. We must stand up and say enough is enough. Please sign this petition and demand that Chon Buri officials shut down this zoo and hand over their elephants to a sanctuary.”