As my last days at the elephant camp are approaching, I get more and more rewarded for my hard work. I finally feel like I have a strong bond with Tutdao. Since Joy left the camp (about 2 weeks ago), I have been working as her full-time mahout. Taking care of her is hard work. I get her in the morning by myself, take her on rides during the day (8 hours of walking and riding out in the sun), and bring her back to the mountains in the evening. I am exhausted, sweaty and dirty at night. But these two weeks have changed a lot, as I am now 12h around her. Finally, after having known her for almost 6 months, I can say that I get her. She’ll always be a wild animal, of course, and I won’t know exactly what’s going on in her brain. But I strongly believe I understand her 90% of the time. I love her – and she is finally showing me in many ways that she likes me, too.
It is hot these days and so I let her catch her breath on tours. If she stops, I don’t force her to continue to walk immediately. Unlike Joy, I let her rest for a few seconds and then tell her to go. I make her do a few tricks in the river (and she does enjoy them, e.g. shaking people off; spraying water on to them) and let her lie down afterwards. I ask people to spray water on to her; to let her relax; to meet her; to look into her beautiful brown eyes and see how much she enjoys just lying around and cooling down. In return for letting her relax, she did the most amazing thing today: she stretched out her trunk towards me, touched my body, and grabbed my hand. She held on to it and closed her eyes. We were standing like this for a few minutes, both enjoying the moment and lost in thought.
I can finally see and feel her emotions, which I wasn’t able to do before. Two nights ago, I saw her smile for the very first time. As there is hardly any food in the mountains, we brought up grass for the elephants to eat during the night. I’ve never seen Tutdao so happy. She trumpeted excitedly, kept raising her trunk, and looked incredibly happy. Tonight, she smiled again. She then did another amazing, unforgettable thing. I was on the back of our pick-up truck and as we were driving away, I yelled ‘Good night!’ (as always). For the first time ever, she responded by doing her trained ‘thank you’ gesture (rolling up her trunk and bowing). ‘Thanks for making sure I have enough to eat at night for the first time in weeks’, is what she seemed to say.
I understand that Tutdao is hungry all the time and needs to eat. If I find something along the way, I pick it up and give it to her. Whenever she’s in her pen, I make sure she has sufficient food. I bring her as many treats as I can. Today, I found a coconut for her. As she hadn’t eaten one in a long time, she was really excited for it. She ate it at once. She then touched me with her trunk, rolled it up in her trained ‘thank you’ gesture, and looked at me with warm eyes. She blinked at me several times and just watched me calmly. For once, she wasn’t begging for more. Instead, she was happy with what she had received. It might sound funny but I felt as if she was sending me positive vibes. Perhaps even an ‘I love you’.
I know Tutdao’s behaviour and preferences off by heart. I sometimes sit around the corner where I don’t see her, and will feel like she wants to drink. If I get up to check on her, she’ll immediately walk over to her water pipe, suck on it, and look at me demandingly. I can tell by her growl’s intensity how hungry she is. She might be starving and really wanting those bananas – or she is just growling to make people like her.
Tutdao has become my daughter and (Thai) best friend. I think I have finally found proof that I mean something to her as well.
Taking care of Tutdao has become one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
If she’s happy, I’m happy.