A good way to be kinder to elephants is to stop riding them

When animal tourism resumes in Bali after COVID-19, there is an opportunity to do better by the lives of animals.

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SOURCEIndependent Media Institute
Image Credit: Lady Freethinker

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Elephants are chained to small dirt circles covered in feces and are only allowed a brief moment of reprieve from their tethers to unwillingly carry around tourists on their backs. While this may sound like some sort of elephant prison, it is actually what a normal day at the Mason Elephant Park and Lodge at Bali looked like just before the park shut down because of the pandemic. This park is “Asia’s first welfare certified elephant park” and has been awarded a “gold certification from the Asian Captive Elephant Standards.”

At the Mason Elephant Park and Lodge, these majestic, gentle creatures were prodded into submission with sharp, steel bullhooks and forced to interact with park visitors, even when the elephants were clearly uncomfortable and overwhelmed, an investigation by my organization, Lady Freethinker (LFT), conducted in December 2019 and February 2020 revealed.

One elephant had its head pushed underwater during an abusive washing session. And another, this time a baby, endured the stream of a pressurized water gun as she desperately attempted to return to her mother.

These defenseless animals wear their abuse on their body. Cuts and scarring were seen on their ears and scalps, where handlers stabbed them with bullhooks, and on their legs and necks, where ropes and chains tightly restrained them from moving around freely. Their chains were so short that they sometimes struggled just to reach their own water.

Open, painful wounds are more than just marks of suffering for these mistreated gentle giants—they’re dangerous to human health. Elephants’ potential to spread zoonotic disease is well-documented—the animals can carry salmonella, tuberculosis, rabies and even anthrax. Across eight countries, postmortem pathologic findings showed nearly 1 percent of Asian elephants died from salmonellosis, 1.4 percent from rabies, and another 1.4 percent from tuberculosis, according to a study published in the Veterinary Medicine International journal. Current estimates suggest that approximately 6 percent of captive elephants in the United States, where standards of veterinary care are higher, have tuberculosis, according to the American Society for Microbiology.

Human-elephant contact only increases the chances of spreading these diseases to park visitors. Salmonella can spread through direct contact with animals, tuberculosis can spread through the air, rabies can spread through open wounds or sores, and anthrax can spread through contact with animals or contaminated animal products.

Stress can decrease captive animals’ immune systems, increasing the likelihood of spreading disease, according to a study published in Conservation Physiology—and the elephants in Mason Elephant Park showed frequent cases of zoochosis, or functionless behavior like pacing, swaying, or rocking back and forth. This indicates psychological distress, and likely means these social and emotive creatures have not been getting the exercise and elephant-to-elephant interaction they need to be happy.

Mason Elephant Park unabashedly defends their cruel practices, calling the small, dirt circles “resting pads,” and claiming, “When done ethically, rides are actually very beneficial for an elephant’s overall health and wellbeing.” Chained to these “resting pads,” however, the elephants are unable to move freely. And is it ever truly “ethical” to sit on top of an elephant holding a bullhook to their head?

Without knowing what to look for, it’s easy to assume the elephants are well cared for and healthy; and interacting with one of the world’s largest land animals is tempting. So tempting, in fact, that Mason Elephant Park has lured several celebrities, from Kim Kardashian and Kanye West to animal rights activist Steve-O who unknowingly participated in cruelty.

And make no mistake—it is cruel and unsafe. During a comprehensive animal welfare assessment, which included Mason Elephant Park and Lodge, World Animal Protection found that 100 percent of the venues with captive elephants failed to meet even basic care requirements for their animals. Mason scored in the “severely inadequate conditions” category for captive elephants’ freedom of movement, social interaction, hygiene, nutrition, environment, tourist interaction, and animal management. Sadly, all other Bali elephant parks also scored in the same category.

As the most famous elephant park in Bali, Mason has the power to help change the landscape of animal tourism across the region. While the venue slowly reopens from the pandemic closure, it has an opportunity to transition from an elephant prison to a safe space where visitors can see the majestic creatures moving freely and performing their natural behaviors.It’s time to put down the selfie stick. Sign this petition urging Mason Elephant Park and Lodge Director Nigel Mason to do the right thing and end all human-elephant contact at this facility.

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