When I was offered a position as a research assistant for Think Elephants International I was an elephant newbie. I had never seen an elephant in person and certainly had never thought that I would be qualified to study such a high profile, charismatic species. This seeded a number of preconceived notions in my mind about what elephants were like. I can say that after being in the Golden Triangle working with the elephants for over a week, everything I expected about these animals was wrong.
The first of these preconceived misconceptions stems from my background with horses and hoof-induced broken toes. I was very concerned when I first came in contact with the elephants that they would step on my feet and that it was really a poor choice by my colleagues to sport flip flops around. As it turns out elephants are incredibly self-aware and have very thoughtful control over their body parts. I watched over and over as one carefully placed her foot within inches of an exposed set of toes but never delivering what could be a crushing blow.
To put my next preconceived notion bluntly, I expected the elephants to smell horrific. I have experience in horse barns and zoos and often times have been confronted by foul animal odors. Again I was proven wrong! Now I am not suggesting that anyone get up close and personal with elephant dung but I was amazed by the pleasant earthy smell that accompanies these creatures. Because elephants only absorb about 40% of what they eat most of what comes out the other end is the same plant matter that went in. Regardless this was one of the most pleasant surprises I had in my first week here.
When I arrived I had a very firm belief that there was no way that a full-grown elephant would ever be able to sneak up on me. These animals are huge and in my mind that equated to huge sounds warning me of their arrival. As it turns out elephants have a thick padding of fat around their feet that makes them almost silent (when they aren’t busy pulling down trees or trumpeting to one another). On one of my first days watching the elephants bathe in the river, I was busy snapping photos of the joyful aquatic play when I felt a hot breeze across my head. I turn around shocked to find a full-grown female standing inches away from me questioning why I was acting as a barrier between her and her afternoon swim. This was a startling but still fascinating lesson to learn about elephants.
I also assumed that the elephants would have slight differences in temperament but for the most part have similar dispositions. Well to my very pleasant surprise I have already gotten to witness a number of the different personalities that present themselves at TEI. There are the young and rambunctious and the old and leisurely but then there are the gentle youth and the spirited elderly. It is still too early for me to fully understand the breadth of personality hidden within the elephants here but I can say that is one of the things I look forward to most in this next year.
To say that being here is unreal is an understatement. The fact that everyday I will be learning something new about one of the world’s most awe-inspiring animals is a dream come true. I love each moment that one of my pre-conceived notions is shattered and another quirky, fascinating lesson learned.