What is your reaction when you see hurtful things happening to animals? Do you do something immediately to spread the word? Do you look away? Recently I watched the award-winning documentary Love & Bananas. It was only minute 3:17 and I was already in tears. Not because the scene was tragic (not at that point anyways), but because I knew this story was going to bring to the surface many emotions that I’ve been carrying since I became involved in elephant welfare some years ago.
Those feelings are usually the same: anger, sadness, powerlessness, fear; but also compassion and love. If I tell you that they haven’t changed for the past five years you might think “Why is she still doing it if it doesn’t bring her joy?” You see, what I find is that by turning sadness into purpose I find the strength to pursue my passion to help them. Taking some kind of action, however small, makes me feel like the whole situation is not hopeless.
There are always other options: We can look away and pretend it doesn’t exist or think it is not going to change and give up; but the fact is, that the elephants are still in chains, they are still being broken in areas where no cameras or tourists are allowed. They’re still being beaten and forced to live a life of misery, performing and riding people on their backs, every single day. The trade off comes with a high cost for them.
By doing something to alleviate their suffering, the sadness is overcome, even if not entirely. Hearing that more people wish they had not ridden an elephant in the past and that more people are willing to support this cause is encouraging.
Imagine for a minute what would happen if everyone who is making a difference shuts down to protect themselves from the pain of seeing these gentle giants hurting; their love and compassion would also stop. And, as we have seen in Love & Bananas, these two universal principles are essential to promoting change.
Getting involved in this cause is no joyride. You definitely face a lot despair and anxiety. Your heart breaks often. However, knowing that there are courageous people out there defying the tourist industry by exposing their abhorrent treatment of working elephants gives you hope and strength.
The change in Thailand’s popular elephant tourism started with one woman, Lek Chailert, whom I had the privilege to meet during the volunteer program I did in Chiangmai, Thailand some time ago. Lek was not afraid to denounce the cruel practices that her own family was carrying out to “train” their elephants. This caused a rupture among them, but she carried on. To date, Lek has rescued dozens of elephants in Thailand and established legitimate sanctuaries to rehabilitate and care for abused and neglected elephants in Cambodia and Myanmar as well.
Realistically, we cannot all travel to India or Nepal or anywhere in Asia and free the elephants from their desperate situation. And even though many of us would do anything to help them, time and funds are always limited for most of us. So what are some ways in which we can use those uncomfortable feelings to be of service to elephants in need? We can extrapolate them and apply them to the animal cause in general.
Here are 5 -tried- effective ways to turn our sadness into purpose.
Face the uncomfortable feelings - In his TEDx talk, Joseph Kolts, PhD, states that by having the courage to face the things that make us uncomfortable we can experience a desire to alleviate the suffering in ourselves and others. Once we acknowledge those feelings, we can think more clearly about which solutions are needed to help elephants and identify simple actions that we can take to help them each day. And even though some of the feelings will not go away, you will be more empowered to move on once you’ve faced them.
Get involved however you can - The friends I met during my time at the Elephant Nature Park started helping right away when they went back home. My friend Tami for example, dedicated her yoga classes to the suffering of the elephants. She also participated in protests against the use of elephants in circuses. My friend Ann-Marie addressed her work colleagues to inform them of what she saw during her first trip to Thailand. Many others started online petitions and others organized events in their hometowns with the aim to do something to prevent more people from going on elephant rides and hence stop the cruelty. Nothing is too small in this cause!
Tell their story whenever you can . If you can’t be more active because of time restraints or because you feel overwhelmed, tell their story whenever you have a chance. Let people know what you know. Point them in the right direction. Sometimes that means just sharing a post on Facebook and it will have an impact. For example, in an article published by Entrepreneur.com, marketer Mike Taylor explained how 84% of people in a study conducted by Buffer showed they were more likely to share a post on social media because it was a way to support the issues and causes they card about. One single share can go along way in this day and age! Other ways to tell their story is through signing and sharing campaigns and reporting anything you see. Take photos!
Create something meaningful - You can use art, photography or any of your skills to make something beautiful that could benefit them. Supporters of Wildlife SOS have created a stylish clothing line to raise funds for that hands-on organization. In my case, I created Elephant Soul Crafts so that I could donate part of my proceeds to Elephant Aid International. Mahouts Elephant Foundation is a British charity that, aside from their comprehensive awareness and education projects, also has a beautiful shop with over 100 responsibly sourced products. By creating something with your hands or talents you’ll find a fun way to use art as a healing tool that also gives you a sense of purpose with a big goal in mind: to help captive elephants You might end up finding your soul’s purpose along the way like T. Rutter from Arte for Elephants would say. Here’s a link to her Etsy shop.
Join a community of elephant lovers - Whether it is a facebook group, a local animal organization, becoming a patron of an elephant foundation, by joining a community of elephant lovers you will find support and affinity in a cause that is important to you. These are usually safe places to raise your concerns and be understood. Spend time researching which organizations are a good match for you. Sign-up to receive updates and newsletters to keep yourself informed. You can also attend lectures or apply for grants to screen documentaries. Love & Bananas partnered with VegFund to fulfill this. You could host a screening (outside the US too!). Check out this form.
It was thanks to a lecture I attended of the world-renowned elephant welfare expert Carol Buckley that I found my purpose. My calling in life is to help animals, especially elephants. By facing the facts and the challenges as good as I possibly can, I will be able to continue to be an elephant advocate. Sometimes that also means taking a break and distancing myself from the difficulties until I feel better and strong to start again. Remember, self-care is essential if you’re in it for the long-term or the short-term.
Thank you for being here.