Last updated: 08:02 PM ET, Wed November 30 2016

Why Are Tour Operators Canceling Elephant Rides?

Tour Operator David Cogswell November 30, 2016

Why Are Tour Operators Canceling Elephant Rides?

Photo courtesy of PETA

If you ever took an elephant ride, you probably enjoyed the experience of riding atop the world’s largest land mammal. You probably even felt some fond feelings toward the gentle giant whose body was so close to yours and that was generously carrying you on its back. You certainly meant the animal no harm, and if you had felt that your little joyride was harming the elephant, chances are you would have found another form of entertainment.

Recently the tour operator Pacific Delight Tours did just that. The company dropped elephant rides in Thailand and India from its brochures and from its offerings.

Pacific Delight Tours was approached by the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and was convinced that elephant rides are cruelty to animals. After PETA informed PDT of the story behind elephant rides, the appeal of the rides was gone and the tour operator banished them from its itineraries.

According to Stephanie Shaw, the corporate liaison for PETA, Pacific Delight Tours is one of many companies that have changed their policies after being approached by the animal rights organization.

Pacific Delight Tours made decision not to offer elephant rides or other activities that exploit elephants after learning the reality behind elephant rides from Shaw

READ MORE: Riding Elephants in Burma: An Ethical Dilemma

“Every elephant that is forced to give rides in the tourism trade is regularly beaten, bound with ropes or shackles, regularly worked to exhaustion and controlled under constant threat of punishment with weapons such as bull hooks, which are sharp steel-tipped rods that resemble fireplace pokers,” said Shaw.

Elephants do not voluntarily let tourists ride on their backs all day every day of their lives.

“To force elephants to give rides trainers use extreme psychological and physical punishment,” said Shaw. “In Asia baby elephants are trained through a process call phajaan, which literally means ‘divorcing the love.’"

“The entire process is designed to break animals’ minds, bodies and spirits. Trainers take still nursing baby elephants forcibly away from their mothers, immobilize them and then gouge them with nails or other sharp objects. At times they’ll wave flaming sticks in their faces. These ritualized training sessions that last days or sometimes weeks leave elephants severely injured and traumatized."

According to reports, as many as half of the elephants die during phajaan.

"We know that most people don’t choose to ride an elephant because they want to support their abuse," said Shaw. "We hope that getting this information out will help people understand that.

“We know that elephants are highly intelligent, social, curious animals who travel up to 30 miles a day in large herds when they are allowed to be in nature. They have deeply rooted emotional connections with their families. It’s well established that they grieve for each other.

“In addition to being beaten into submission, forced to lug tourists on their back, even when they are in pain or exhausted, they are routinely chained when they’re not working. The spend much of their lives in chains or in forced servitude.”

Once PETA gets the word out, Shaw says, it’s an easy sell.

“It hasn’t been a contentious issue,” said Shaw. “I work with a lot of issues affecting animals in entertainment, and some conversations are easier than others. But nearly every executive I’ve been on the phone with discussing this issue is compassionate and understands that offering elephant rides is condoning animal abuse.”

In making the decision to suspend the offering, said Shaw, Pacific Delight is “joining a long line of companies that are standing against this cruelty.”  Other tour operators that have made the same decision include Alexander + Roberts, Butterfield & Robinson and Costco Travel. Trip Advisor also recently decided to stop offering elephant rides.

“Dozens of companies have made the compassionate decision not to offer elephant rides anymore after finding out about the cruelty that is inevitable whenever wild animals are forced to perform pointless tricks like painting or juggling or to allow tourists on their backs for hours on end,” said Shaw.

Shaw said there has been “an overwhelming sea change” in public opinion about the issue.

“We’re hopeful that Pacific Delight’s responsible decision will inspire more travel companies to suspend their promotion of elephant camps and their offerings of elephant rides.”