The lady elephant watched me with huge eyes. I stood a few feet away on a raised deck with a hunk of melon in my hand. The tip of the grey lady's trunk scooped the fruit and placed it on her tongue. As she chewed, she unfurled her trunk again, eager to receive another treat.
If I hadn't been told, I might well have overlooked that she kept her left rear foot off the ground as she ate, trying to minimize the pain she'd lived with since she stepped on a land mine in Burma the previous year.
Another elephant I fed had been struck by a car. And then there was the beautiful creature (pictured) who refused to haul logs after her baby was struck and killed by a truck; her handler responded to her work stoppage by stabbing her in both eyes, leaving her blind.
Learning the histories of the elephants that my husband and I encountered at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand, made our day there seem like a visit with needy-and-appreciative friends. Founded in 1995 by a petite woman named Sangduen "Lek" Chailert, the 300-acre sanctuary provides a safe home for wounded elephants.
Veterinarians tend to the elephants' injuries as best they can, and every elephant has his or her own caregiver from sunrise to sunset. The entrance fee covers the sanctuary's costs, so just visiting the Elephant Nature Park is an act of kindness. And feeding one of these giants is unforgettable, as is cooling him or her off with buckets of cool water on a scorching afternoon.
I always smile as I recall the joy I felt dipping buckets into a mountain stream and tossing the cool water onto the grateful elephants. Their purring still soothes me in my dreams.