Elephant hugs?
July 24, 2008 7:30 AM   Subscribe

Where can I go to have a bonding experience with elephants?

I love elephants. Terribly. I'd like a chance to ride on one, swim with one, pet one, or care for one. And I'm willing to travel, pay, or volunteer to do it.

But I understand that elephants aren't animals meant for captivity, and the thought of going to some tourist trap in Asia or Africa where my money might only contribute to some elephant's mistreatment is disturbing. Does anyone know of places where such a thing is possible? Wildlife encounter tours? Elephant orphanage volunteer programs? Zookeeper assistance? Bonus points for things that actually help the animals.
posted by inactivist to Pets & Animals (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You can do this at the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage just outside of Nairobi (Trust originally started by her husband, David). A little more on the experience here, but if you google there is lots of other info. A friend has done it and was blown away. I went to the nearby Giraffe Centre and loved it.

And yes, you can foster one of the "little" guys.
posted by meerkatty at 7:49 AM on July 24, 2008

When we got married in Sri Lanka, they had quite a few volunteer programs there to work with elephants. We didn't have the time or we probably would have spent a few days doing so (although we did get to ride one at the end of our ceremony). Googling sri lanka elephants volunteer will net you plenty of info to wade through though.
posted by JaredSeth at 8:19 AM on July 24, 2008

I'm not so insanely in love with them, but I have to admit getting up close (w/in 10 feet or so) with them in South Africa was a pretty intense experience. You pretty much can't go to Kruger Park and *not* cross paths with them at some point. I'd highly recommend a safari there if you love elephants. You can see how close they came up to the lodge we were staying at, here. The guides were all park rangers and really cared about the preservation of all the myriad forms of life there, and it showed. Mefi mail me if you want more details.

Honestly, if you're actually having a touchy-feely encounter with an elephant, I don't think its not going to be a truly wild one. That's just plain not safe and the only way you're going to get up close and personal is with ones in a controlled environment. Unless your nuts.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:24 AM on July 24, 2008

I worked at a zoo for many years. Elephants, as lovable and cute as they are, are extremely dangerous as full-grown animals. That is why zookeeping is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. No accredited zoo will allow a volunteer to work directly with animals on exhibit. They don't want to be responsible for you being gored, stepped on or crushed.

Daphne Sheldrick's is one of the best elephant conservation groups in Africa and I know her work is highly respected. You can visit, but unless you already have a wildlife conservation background, I doubt you will be able to work directly with them. She also prefers to hire local Kenyans to give them a job as caretakers, which I think is wonderful.

See them in the wild - you'll appreciate them most in their natural state.
posted by HeyAllie at 9:16 AM on July 24, 2008

Southwick's Zoo out here in Mendon, Massachusetts still offers elephant rides. The lines are awful long, though.
posted by yhbc at 9:22 AM on July 24, 2008

I think in contrast to African elephants, Asian elephants have been successfully domesticated for hundreds of years. I would recommend going to the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in South India where you can interact with elephants in the Elephant Feeding Camp. I fell in love with a tiny baby elephant there as a young girl. I believe there was also a movie made about that elephant though I can't recall the name of it at the moment.
posted by peacheater at 9:30 AM on July 24, 2008

We were lucky enough to know the head keeper for elephants/rhinos at our zoo, and got to go into the elephant area and meet one. I'll never forget it. We stood right next to her, and even got to touch her skin - I was most surprised by how hairy they look close-up!

So...yes, they may be concerned about you being trampled/gored, but also might be willing to let you meet one of the elephants they consider to be more docile.

Note : Didn't get to go in the rhino area, though we were allowed to pat his head through the bars of his feeding enclosure - with the warning "Don't let your hand get between his head and the bar. TOP of the head only!"
posted by Liosliath at 9:35 AM on July 24, 2008

elephant nature park. lek's organisation rescues abused elephants and lets them live the rest of their lives as they're meant to - free, surrounded by family, and safe.

she's been featured by national geographic, time, animal planet, and the humane society. having been in person i can say it's one of the most moving experiences of my life. you can go for a day (which i did) or much longer stretches of weeks or months. we met a couple who'd spent months living there, helping care for the ellies, raising awareness, etc.

such a worthwhile organisation, and doesn't contribute in any way to the further exploitation of elephants by the tourist industry (giving rides, forcing elephants to perform tricks, etc.), or use any form of physical violence to control them.
posted by wayward vagabond at 10:27 AM on July 24, 2008

i meant to add - we got to get into the river with them, washed them, fed them, and generally watched them play amongst themselves. it was incredible.
posted by wayward vagabond at 10:28 AM on July 24, 2008

My two-year-old has been talking for months (before and since) about petting the rhino at our zoo. We'll probably do the elephant, too.

Ten or fifteen years ago, my wife was volunteering at this same zoo and took a preschool zoo-camper on the Last Elephant Ride Ever. As she was climbing down steps from the platform, the elephant shoved her to the ground; he then picked the next volunteer (but not the next child) in his trunk and waved her around in the air. These days they do camel rides.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:35 AM on July 24, 2008

Wildlife Safari in southern Oregon has some day-trip type programs, and some of them involve elephant-care (feeding, bathing, etc.).
posted by Vibrissa at 1:39 PM on July 24, 2008

One of my clients & her partner did a Mahout training holiday a year or two ago.
I think it was the 3 day course detailed here. She showed me photos, which were AWESOME. They also went here where you can go cuddle with a tiger.

She highly recommended the experience. They assign you an elephant to match your personality and you spend the 3 days gettting to know and caring for your elephant. You also learn some elephant tricks and participate in the display they put on for the day tourists.

Let me know if you'd like more info and I'll ask her.
posted by goshling at 1:49 PM on July 24, 2008

Don't think of all African wildlife parks as cruel to animals. Some of them have excellent conservation records -- your money is well spent.

If you are prepared to travel to Africa, there's an excellent elephant park just outside Johannesburg (or so I'm told). Here's a photo of a colleague getting squashed by a baby elephant -- to show you how close you get! (I don't have the URL handy but if you want to know, post back and I shall dig it out. )

Also near Joburg is the Rhino & Lion Park to which I've been a couple of times. I can't speak highly enough of it. They breed big cats: lion (white & brown), tiger (bengal & siberian), cheetah and they even had jaguars there last time. Best of all, they have a creche where you can play with lion and tiger cubs (no more than 6 months old) and an adult cheetah. (I prefer this park to the Lion Park, also near Joburg.)
posted by NailsTheCat at 2:03 PM on July 24, 2008

not on topic but elephant related: you might want to check out the thai elephant orchestra. the cover insert of the actual cd for the last link i provided has some fascinating info about the Thai Elephant Conservation Center where the elephants create the music. (they also paint.) the center has a mahout training class you can sign up for.
posted by msconduct at 5:39 PM on July 24, 2008

There is a sanctuary near Nashville TN, but a guaranteed visit only comes if you have a lot of money and time to wait...
posted by NikitaNikita at 8:24 PM on July 24, 2008

PS: I totally agree about wanting a hug from an elephant. If only I wasn't so tiny (relative to an elephant, that is)
posted by NikitaNikita at 8:27 PM on July 24, 2008

I think if you went to Africa on safari and saw them in the wild, and witnessed the love they have for their children and their strong sense of community, that you would not feel the need to actually come into contact with them. So if you do have the chance to go to Africa (which I have been very fortunate to do several times) go to the most remote place you can find (with a guide of course...I recommend Katavi or the Selous in Tanzania) and just watch the elephants. I agree with you, they are truly majestic, beautiful creatures.
posted by junipero at 5:21 PM on October 16, 2008

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