The mighty elephant. I think my appreciation originated with Babar. There was a phase when each day after school I would come home and immediately pop our worn copy of the animated film into the VCR. I had a stuffed animal too but I'm not sure if he's still hiding out at my parents' house or has moved on to greener pastures.
I missed out on the camel rides in Morocco and India, so when I came to Thailand I was fully intent on doing an elephant trek; it seemed so exotic and, of course, everyone does it. But when I started looking up camps to go to, I had a change of heart. On Koh Chang, even the "best" (i.e. allegedly the most humane) camp had mixed reviews. Most TripAdvisor reviewers raved about the experience, except for the unlucky few who got paired with an abusive mahout (handler) and witnessed their elephant getting beaten with a metal rod until it screamed and sometimes bled. So instead I waited until I got to Chiang Mai, where I took a day trip out to Elephant Nature Park - a sanctuary for retired elephants and rescued dogs.
Elephants were commonly used in Thailand for logging until the industry was banned in the early 1980s, after which most were appropriated for touristic purposes, either by performing in shows or giving rides. Younger ones are also taken to the streets of some major Thai cities, because they help net their owners more money in one night than the average Thai makes in a week. But no matter the job, the process of domesticating an elephant is absolutely brutal. A young elephant (typically female, because males are more aggressive by nature) is placed in a cage so small she can't move for several days, during which a group of men break her spirit through physical and psychological abuse - prodding her with sticks that have sharp nails sticking out of the end and not allowing her to sleep. Sometimes they gouge her eyes.
About a decade ago, a woman nicknamed Lek established the park as a haven for elephants, rescuing them from the conditions described above. At Elephant Nature Park, the residents can roam free, bathe in the river that runs through the property and get access to medical care and all the food they can eat. It's truly heaven for elephants who are blind from abuse or have broken backs after their former owners repeatedly forced them to mate. Ironically the sanctuary is located adjacent to a number of trekking camps, but our guide says that they maintain a decent relationship by offering free veterinary services.
The park is a bit expensive to visit (2500 baht for one day), but that's how it manages to stay open. And, in most cases, they have to buy the elephants' freedom in order to save them from cruelty. We didn't do much beyond feeding and bathing the animals and walking around the grounds, but I honestly couldn't have asked for more; I was just in awe the entire time being so close to them. It's also possible to stay overnight, and up to one week, which allows you to do more hands-on activities. (Little known fact: you can also volunteer to help with the dogs, in which case room and board are free).
In an ideal world the abuse would cease, but the demand from tourists keeps the malpractice alive. So until more visitors show an interest in playing with and caring for the elephants over riding them, the cycle will just continue.