Confessions of a Vegan Tour Operator

I rode an elephant while I was vegan. I know… I feel pretty bad about it.

Before I was vegan, I rode elephants on a pretty regular basis.  I worked with Intrepid Travel as a tour leader in Thailand between 2001 and 2003. Elephant riding had been an included activity on pretty much all of their tours which meant that I had to accompany my travelers on this activity and we even included visits to elephant shows (which claimed to be mahout training centers).

I was a vegetarian at that time and I had questioned my colleagues during my training trip about whether riding elephants was cruel or not. Their response to this question was given with a lot of confidence and authority which made me believe that it must be true. They said that by riding elephants, we were actually helping them. This was because the total logging ban in 1989 meant that the elephants no longer had a job and we were helping them by riding them and keeping them fed.

​Looking back at this, I am so surprised at how quickly I accepted this and even more surprised at how I just regurgitated the same response to any travelers who asked questions about the elephant riding.

I guess I just didn’t have the knowledge and critical thinking skills to ask questions like:

  • How is it that these animals allow us to ride them?
  • I see baby elephants here? If we are giving old elephants a job, then why are there babies? Are they being bred? That doesn’t line up with the whole ‘giving them a job position’.
  • Who are the ‘owners’ of these elephants? What’s the story here? It doesn’t seem like the mahouts are earning a lot of money and they don’t seem to enjoy their job at all.
  • Where do the animals go when not working?
  • What happens when they are sick or no longer able to work?
  • Why are they chained up when not being ridden?

I don’t think I had a single traveler out of the many dozens that I took riding questioned my ‘authority’ on this issue and not a single person who ‘sat out’ the activity due to concerns about animal cruelty or animal use. Looking back I am kind of horrified to think how I was seen to be an authority on this issue (and how quickly we can have this authority bestowed upon us).

So fast forward to when I became vegan in 2009. My parents came over to visit me and I had been living in Thailand for a short time (I had moved to Thailand to teach).

I’d been vegan for about 8 months and I was desperate for them to enjoy their first-ever trip to Asia and the place that I was calling home. We were in Chiang Mai, I think I was stuck coming up with something to do so I suggested that we all go elephant riding!

We went and it was just the same as before. The mahouts looked bored, the elephant trudged on the same pathways and there was a bullhook. I remember feeling a little bit awkward about it, and even more so when Dad said that he hadn’t felt good about the elephant riding and he wasn’t even vegan!​

It was only when I learned about the prajaan some time after that that I realized that elephant riding was really REALLY cruel. Even at this point guess I was still thinking about animal use from a welfarist stance rather than an anti-speciesist stance (which has been pretty new learning for me).

If I am being entirely honest, I think it took me several years to really understand that any use of animals is wrong and even more recently the idea of Consistent Anti-Oppression which is something I am currently grappling with. I must always be learning and growing and this must shape my future actions.

Just because I am vegan, does not allow me to rest on my laurels and abandon future learning.

If this whole reflection has taught me anything it is the following:

  • Critically look at your actions and those of others.
  • Be willing to have a conversation, be open-minded and open to criticism from others and not be defensive. It is possible that the experiences and unique worldview of others might teach me something.
  • Put my ego aside.
  • It can take me many years to get onboard with complex ideas, especially ones that go against the status quo. If it feels hard and if you feel uncomfortable, then it is a sure sign that huge personal growth is on its way. Keep going.
  • To believe you are an expert on any topic is probably a sure sign that you aren’t and you probably should not be claiming or acting like you are either!

As we delve more and more into the world of vegan travel, I really hope that I can continue to be vulnerable because when you open yourself up to the possibility of criticism and rejection, you’re also opening yourself up to chance and growth.

I hope our travelers will continue to hold us to account as well.

PS: Intrepid no longer includes elephant riding as part of their trips. Indeed, according to them, they were one of the first companies to ban this practice. I am not sure how big a part this decision played in the now more widespread opinion that riding elephants is cruel (they position themselves that they have been a key player in this shift in consciousness).

I really hope in time that Intrepid (and other tour operators) will stop using animals for entertainment and really help support local initiatives that help them find other work. Sadly at the time of writing Intrepid still includes horse, camel, and donkey riding as part of their itineraries. I hope over time, they will realize that the riding of animals is wrong like I finally did.

PS: I was looking through the photos of that trip with my parents in 2009 to see if there were any pictures of me riding on that poor elephant. There were none of me, but I did find these photos which see me participating in activities on that trip I would never participate in now. (shakes head in regret)

We let go of these lanterns for new years eve. I didn’t realize just how problematic these lanterns are for wildlife.
I paid a small amount of money to wear this costume of a minority and oppressed group and have some photos taken.  The small amount of knowledge in this area that I now have meant that this was probably cultural appropriation because their culture is not my photo op. Feel free to educate me in the comments.

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