by Jerika L.H.
*Trigger Warning: content contains descriptions of violent animal abuse
We’ve all seen the coveted travel pictures – people posing with tigers in India, taking selfies with Madagascan lemurs, and giving the thumbs up while riding elephants in Thailand. Much like in zoos, many people feel that, since they paid for the experience, they are actually helping support the animals. Yet, one Dixon local wants to spread awareness that wild animal tourism is actually the driving force behind heinous cruelty.
Molly Wells is an equine therapist, an animal psychologist, an instructor, and the owner of Equinessence – a Dixon-based therapy and educational resource which she started in 2002. A trained athlete and horse enthusiast, Molly assumed she had met her calling when she began her healing work with horses. That is until she experienced a life changing epiphany during her travels abroad. “I recently had a trip to Thailand where I volunteered at a Wildlife Refuge with their elephant project. This one week of volunteering changed my life. I was aware of the abuse and horrific treatment of elephants throughout the world prior to my trip, but not to the extent of what I learned when I arrived.”
While most of us enjoy the lighthearted humor of animal antics from the comfort of our own computer screen, there is actually very little about animal tourism and exploitation that is comforting and lighthearted. Although many people find the viral videos of elephants painting and bears dancing as funny or cute, animal performance videos are usually the end result of years of abuse and torture. So many individuals share these images or videos with good intentions out of amazement on how humanlike the creatures can be, without ever realizing how deeply detrimental these misconceptions are for the animals involved. Exotic animal rides, performances, and videos in which animals are presenting outside of their natural behavior are all red flags for animal abuse; a prolific problem of humanity perpetrated on silent victims.
Molly’s main goal is to teach the world one word: Phajaan.
It means “breaking their spirit.”
“It’s a torturing process that elephants are put through at a very young age before they go into the tourism and working industry. I have encouraged people to research this on the Internet to see it for themselves instead of me explaining it. It has a very deep impact when you see the images. They are taken away from their mothers before 2 years of age, put into a cage deprived of food and water, beaten and tortured, legs tied/chained and pulled in different directions….until the elephant makes one last “cry” or “scream” for help and that is when their spirit is broken. This is done before they go into circuses, trekking camps, logging industries, etc. so every time you see a bull hook in the mahouts hand, it rips into their ears and creates puncture wounds.”
Phajaan is the training protocol not only in Asia but in most of the world. Most people probably do not realize that they are contributing to this process when they ride elephants or go to any non-sanctuary enclosures to see the animals, however the cruel and violent prepping process is sustained because people will pay to experience the end result: a completely broken animal who exists only to take cues and perform tricks, absolutely denied the right to fulfill their natural urges. Many of the elephants who are rescued from abuse still continue to endure the psychology and physical pain of trauma, just like humans do.
“Most people think that they are healed once they are rescued, but they still endure pain and discomfort that continues after the rescues are attempting to provide them peace. These conditions range from nerve damage, atrophy and muscle damage, severe arthritis, wounds and abscesses, some are blind in one eye from the beatings, and this is not to mention the psychological damage that is deeper than any physical ailment that is noticed. The physical conditions are caused from the beatings, abuse, and overuse the work that they are forced to endure and can be easily seen. The psychological effects are shown through what’s called “stereotyping.” There are also videos of this online. The elephants sway back and forth, act as though they are being given commands when no one is around, and also seem to have anxiety and be under extreme stress and discomfort.”
Elephants are a particularly unique animal, given the extent of their phenomenal intelligence and emotional range. They can recognize themselves in a mirror and even use their trunks to point to each other and give directional cues. They are known for their altruistic behavior, which includes comforting gestures, grieving behavior and mourning rituals. They form lifelong bonds with each other, as well as other animals and humans. They have been observed participating in some fascinatingly complex behavior, such as burying their dead and saving other animals from traps. Yet, as you may already know, elephant populations are dropping drastically due to poaching and illegal trade. For those that aren’t killed for their ivory, a long life of abuse awaits them in the circus or logging industry.
As is the tradition in most animal use industries- including the milk and meat industry- animals are generally always taken away from their mothers shortly after birth. A heartbreaking scenario for any parent, but a continued reality for animals who were born into a world that regards them as property. It is the most painful violation of the basic evolutionary drive that all living creatures share – the urge to protect their young. Once Molly learned about the horrendous life that work elephants are subject to, she couldn’t just go back to pretending it doesn’t happen, as most of us are guilty of doing. She immediately launched “The Healing Project For Asian Elephants,” an intervention campaign that raises money for elephant rescue and rehabilitation. Molly also employs her expertise as an animal psychologist and therapist to help in rehabilitating the animals who, for the very first time, will experience love, care and human kindness. Her therapeutic services help ensure a better quality of life, a longer lifespan, and more advanced recovery from the lasting effects of trauma and physical violence. Thus, “The Healing Project For Asian Elephants” combats the horrors of Phajaan and allows the elephants to rebuild the spirit that was so painfully taken from them. While her amazing initiative is just getting off the ground, Molly has high hopes for continuing this important work and rescuing as many animals as possible from the nightmare that is the entertainment and animal labor industry.
“My goal is to raise money to help supply the sanctuaries with therapeutic equipment so I can donate my services to train their staff on how to use it, provide veterinary supplies that they are in desperate need of, and to also rescue as many elephants as possible. The cost of the therapeutic equipment and veterinary supplies is about $10,000 USD for each sanctuary in need. The cost to rescue an elephant (along with the transport and needed care) is equivalent to approximately $10,000 USD. My initial goal is to raise enough money to help one sanctuary, however, I would like it to grow and to be able to help as many as I can with the help of other animal welfare supporters. I am planning on starting a nonprofit for this cause but the animals cannot wait until it is complete so that is why I started this campaign on GoFundMe. Once the money is raised then I will personally travel back to Thailand to deliver the supplies. The funds to rescue the next elephant in need will be available to the sanctuary who needs it first and the money will be wired immediately as the next occurrence arises. People can help by donating. Every dollar will directly help the elephants.”
Apart from getting on board with the campaign, people also need to educate themselves on the extent that their behavior fuels animal abuse. This means an end to exotic animal selfies and a goodbye to animal performance share videos. While pet shaming has become another hilarious facebook trend, a better outlet for this energy would be spent on animal cruelty shaming. (Yes, that’s right. I’m advocating a form of shaming). So when you see those “awesome” pictures of your college friend with a tiger in India, or riding elephants in Thailand, remind them that there is nothing cool about the horrendous abuse these animals are subject to for human pleasure. When a picture of a marmoset wearing a basecap is passed around social media, resist the urge to comment “I want one!” and instead share your newly gained knowledge that “while it may seem cute that a monkey is wearing a hat, this photo is a testament to the reality that many wild animals are stolen from their natural homes to fuel the exotic animal trade.”
On a more pleasant note, more cities are starting to ban the use of animals in circuses, and Ringling Bros. has promised no more elephant acts by 2018. However, there are still many places in California where it is legal to train animals for performance purposes. Abuse often goes on behind closed doors when no one is looking. Therefore, making smart choices on what events to support is crucial. Instead of going for elephant rides, going to the circus or participating in tourist attractions, always choose a nearby sanctuary to experience the magnificence of wild creatures. For people in Yolo county, this means a visit to PAWS in Galt or San Andreas. PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) is a safe haven for numerous animals, including elephants, which have been saved from abusive lives in circuses, zoos, and illegal trade. PAWS offers symbolic adoptions and hosts events that allows people the once in a lifetime experience to see the elephants in their habitat. They also help save tigers, bears, primates, and a number of other animals in need.
While prevention is key, it can only go so far. The animal work and entertainment industry is still a flourishing global business. Phajaan remains to be a widely used technique. There are so many elephants being tortured as we speak and in need of help. This urgency is what prompted Molly Wells to develop her “Healing Project for Asian Elephants.” To help support her important efforts, or to get more information about how to visit the local PAWS sanctuary, please follow the links below.