09/28/2011 08:48 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2011

Elephant Nature Park: Comforting Those Who Can't Forget

Our park employee van was far from alone on the road: Red cabs, tuktuks and animals crowded in on all sides. I watched an elephant march slowly through the traffic under the weight of the wobbly bench strapped awkwardly around its belly.

We weren't quite there yet.

Within the first two hours of arriving at Elephant Nature Park I'd already been given a rather more intimate view of pachyderms. The 20 other volunteers and I were suddenly part of a herd, mingling with the park's over 30 elephants, feeding them and wading into the river to dump buckets of water on their dirt-covered bodies.

Throughout the week, between shoveling huge piles of waste, planting grass, cutting corn, preparing banana balls for the older elephants, shadowing the vet, and bonding with the group of volunteers, I learned more about pachyderms than I could have ever imagined -- including why I shouldn't ride them.

On the first day, we were shown videos about street begging, and witnessed the vacant look in the elephants' eyes as tourists, who didn't know that is the only food they will eat all day, fed them bananas. We saw the sores on their feet from being forced to wander the concrete jungle instead of their habitat. We see documentation of the torture the animals undergo to learn how to accept riders, learn tricks and paint the adorable paintings gobbled up by tourists.

The fact that I had ever considered riding an elephant suddenly made me sick.

Of course, not all of the time at the park is sad. Most of the time it is uplifting, even heart-warming. I often found myself sitting and staring at the elephants in my free time. I listened to them trumpet and chat in high-pitched chirps. I watched them from the window in my room as they poked their trunks into their friend's ears. I smiled as they took sticks, broke them with their powerful trunks and used them to scratch themselves.

I was in awe.

Ironically, being in their natural habitat -- away from the urban world of people -- brings out the most human characteristics in these giant animals. Nearly all of these elephants have suffered, mostly at the hands of the country's elephant tourism industry, but after being purchased by the Elephant Nature Foundation, they are given another chance. They seem genuinely grateful.

I quickly picked favorites.

My first love was Medo, a severely disabled female who worked in the logging and forced breeding industries. She broke her ankle badly in a logging accident and then was attacked by a male, who dislocated her spine and broke her pelvis.

On my last day, I tentatively approached her mahout and asked if I could spend time with her. He kindly obliged and I stood next to the gentle giant. The back part of her body is entirely deformed, but she walked up to me, shifting her weight awkwardly each step.

I softly whispered to her, first stroking her trunk and then scratching her thick, leathery skin. She breathed out deeply, leaning into my hand, seeming to enjoy the contact.

I was also quite taken with Jokia, another elephant from the logging industry. She gave birth while hauling logs. Her newborn rolled down the hill she was being marched up and died. Heartbroken over the death of her baby, she refused to work. Eventually, her owner began to use a sling shot, catapulting rocks at her eyes, blinding her in one. When she became violent and hit her owner, he shot her other eye with a bow and arrow.

Each day, I visited her spot on the feeding platform. She and her best friend always got to the platform early. Jokia stood there, trunk curled to her forehead, mouth wide-open, waiting for food to be dropped in since she couldn't see when someone was feeding her.

Hardships aside, these elephants are the lucky ones: There are still 2,000 captive elephants working in Thailand's tourist industry that aren't as lucky.

But, the 2,000 elephants being forced to work don't have to have bleak futures and baby elephants being born into captivity don't have to face the same fate.

When I returned to Chiang Mai after my week at the park, I began to notice the posters displayed on the sidewalks everywhere advertising elephant camps. My mind shot back to the story of the "elephant crush," the bludgeoning of the animals in attempts to domesticate them.

While the elephant tourism industry won't change overnight, there are ways visitors to Thailand, can send a message to the industry that they find the mistreatment of captive elephants unacceptable. Tourists can also abstain from going to elephant camps and skip any attractions that feature elephants doing tricks.

Those who want to spend time with elephants should visit places where they can experience the unique thrill of interacting with elephants without causing them harm.

This post has been edited from its originally published form.