My previous blog about Paul Barton, the man who is playing piano for elephants, has received a big reaction from Paul himself recently, who made two long videos in response. Many viewers were outraged how such an apparently wonderful project like playing piano for elephants could cause such criticism. Some people wondered why Paul made such a huge effort, putting nearly 3 hours of film together in response to a blog text. Others agree that the places where Paul is playing piano are sadly lacking in elephant welfare. So there is a lot to discuss! Hi Paul, hope you are well, this is my response.
What made me write my text? Initially, I was curious after seeing the piano videos, and did some research about Elephants World and Elephant Stay. I found pictures that came to me as a shock. How could anyone call these places a sanctuary? (see pic 1-3)
Elephant riding, mahouts with bullhooks, elephants being chained or performing tricks – all of that signals abuse! Paul, is it possible you did not notice?
You say that bullhooks aren’t used in Elephants World, just in the case of “dangerous bull elephants” mahouts “carry, but never use” the bullhook (cited from video). But here we see a mahout on a baby elephant. The baby must have been taught to fear the hook.
Looking more closely at the piano videos, I also noticed details like mahouts sitting on top of the elephants, visible only for a short moment (like in the trailer of your film), Peter the bull elephant also having a rider on top (mostly hidden from the camera, with just a foot visible dangling down behind the elephants ear), sometimes Peter had a chain around his neck, and a hand was jabbing Peter in the side, to make him shake his head or bang the piano with his trunk, there was the nervous baby stereotyping… etc.
All this may look harmless to those who are not familiar with the traditional way of “training” elephants, which is called “phajaan” or the crush. If you know about it, I am sure you will never again want to ride an elephant or watch elephants performing tricks. Those who profit from “traditional” elephant business are doing their best to keep the grim facts under the carpet, but time and again heartwrenching documentation has surfaced.
The following documentation of the “crush” has not been taken in Elephants World, it is cited here to show how elephant babies are made compliant by the use of bullhooks and other tools.
“Crushing the spirit of the elephant”
The most recent and much-noticed report was provided from an undercover staff member in the vicinity of “Thailand’s most prolific trainers, known as mahouts”. The footage documents the training process of eight elephant babies and was given to the animal rights group World Animal Protection (WAP). (For press coverage and other links see below). The phajaan is designed to “crush the spirit of the elephant” and unfolds in four stages:
1. “Stage one of training has calves aged approximately two-years-old led away from their mothers, forcing them into independence six years earlier than is expected in the wild.”
Elephants mothers are famously loving and protective with their offspring. The females of a family stay together for a lifetime and form deep emotional bonds. The beginning of the video further down shows how elephant mum Gintaala reacts when her baby is led away, tied to another elephant.
2. “In the second stage, known as submission, the animals learn that not complying with commands leads to punishment.” The calves are tightly tethered to the “crush”, a kind of wooden box that restrains them. At this stage, a lot of them are frantically resisting (see pic 4).
“While restrained, sharp hooks, nails and sticks are used to inflict pain during two training sessions a day, after which the wounds are washed to avoid infection” (see pic 5).
According to WAP veterinary advisor Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach this leaves the baby elephants emotionally scarred throughout their lives.
“They try to train the elephants at a very young age when they’re even more sensitive to pain to understand that the hook means pain. And if they really understood this, then later on when the elephant has grown up, it’s already connected that in its brain and thinks oh god the hook is going to be painful so I better obey.”
It takes days or weeks until submission has been established. Later on, the mere presence of the hook or occasional jabs on sensitive spots are enough to trigger the experience of pain, and being powerless that is engraved in the memory of the baby elephant.
3. “Once they are compliant, stage three begins, and the elephants are given rewards for performing to basic commands. […] Finally, the elephants will learn complex tricks […] learning to spin hoops, paint pictures and give rides.”
Please note: The most graphic scenes have been left out of the videos.
“This is the way most elephants are trained”
What we see in the footage cannot be regarded as a regrettable exception. “These trainers [...] train 30 to 40 elephant calves a year, which is the majority of elephant calves being born in Thailand,” Dr Schmidt-Burbach said. “So, we’re fairly confident to say this is the way most elephants are being trained. And from talking to the trainers, other trainers train their elephants in similar ways – there might be slight variations in the tools they use – but it’s all based on separating the calf, establishing dominance and getting the elephant calf to understand that not obeying is pain.”
Tourists will never see the actual crush happening, but they can see the outcome. All elephants that give rides, perform tricks and obey commands have suffered some version of this procedure. The positive reinforcement method can be used to make elephants be comfortable with medical treatment or footcare, but the submission needed to make riding etc. safe for humans cannot be achieved that way.
Elephant babies chained
Paul, in the second response video you show baby Sai-Yok, whom I had mentioned to be stereotyping in one of your videos. You tell us that Sai-Yok's mahout treats the little one and his mum “with utmost kindness and love”. Please watch them in the following video. Sai-Yok, tied to his mother in the river, is harrassed by a crowd of youths. They encroach on him, grab him and throw mud. Look at the bewildered face of Sai-Yok when he tries to push them away, or hit them with his little trunk, handicapped by being tethered to his mum. Eventually his mother turns to the shore and tries to lead him out of the water. The mahout quickly comes around and pushes her back to the crowd, holding her ear to keep her in place.
(Readers may wonder why some links lead to a facebook site called “Bangkok Elephants Sanctuary Elephants Refuge”. This is also a site for Elephants World, advertised under a different name, and with a slightly different image, showing more direct contact to elephants and riding. Recently a lot of these pics have been taken down.)
I am certainly not bashing “all mahouts” as Paul accuses me of, but here I don’t see “utmost kindess and love”. In a true sanctuary, visitors should be educated to respect the elephants. Babies shouldn’t be chained. Also elephants should be able to choose if they want to go into the water, not being forced to keep tourists amused.
Similar scenes are mentioned in a report about the volunteering experience at Elephants World: “You can even see elephants attempting to get out and the mahouts forcing them to get back in for the tourists to continue washing. […] Some elephants (even ones that got the most nervous in the water with people) were forced into getting bathed by tourists up to three times a day” 
Riding, bathing, doing tricks
Paul, you say that just mahouts are allowed to ride elephants, “visitors in Elephants World had never been able to ride elephants from its foundation”. Have you been misinformed? (see pic 6, title pic and gallery below)
In a review on TripAdvisor from 2020 we find this: “They say they are dedicated to elephant conservation but they direct us to an area where we can ride them. Not recommended.”
You also say that mahouts changed their ways and stopped riding in 2018, which is a great step forward, and was probably also due to frequent criticism of EW before that (no, I am not the first or only one who is worried about the welfare of elephants here) . But, again, there is contradicting evidence in recent pictures on the net (see pics 7 and 8).
In a review on TripAdvisor from December 2018 we find this: “Bullhooks are used and we saw many elephants stood upon”.
There is also the statement of an eyewitness in 2020, describing the following scene: “I saw there was a male on the back of the baby elephant and just before they passed in front of the pond I saw the mahout raise his arm with a bull hook and strike the baby! [...] I did see my guide and I asked why someone was riding the baby elephant; he said they needed to train the elephant so he won’t be aggressive or mean to customers when he’s older.” This person did voice concern in person, not anonymously, but doesn’t want to appear on the net by name. Those who speak out often get pressure.
Freedom of choice?
Paul, you assure us that the elephants you play piano for are “roaming free… walking in the wilderness or stepping into the river… occasionally stopping to listen to some classical music if they wish”. You say that the elephant LamDuan was led by the ear since she is blind, and that in general the elephants act out of their own free will. Seeing these pics I have serious doubts (see pic 9 and more in the gallery below).
The hand on the ear is a signature pose in “traditional” training, reminding the elephant who is in power. In the following video you can see how a baby is “taught” to strike a pose with the trunk curled up, touching the forehead (from around minute 2:50 on), and how the baby is held by the ear through much of the “training”.
In many videos from EW we see elephants being pulled into the river by the ear (links below). Some visitors also have noticed that elephants are not free to decide whether they want to bathe: “They are forced to get into the water so that […] children can rub their backs with a broom. We could see that they did not want to, but the mahout threaten them with a pike!” (TripAdvisor review)
Elephants are also made to do tricks (see following video). The mahout is jabbing the trunk to make the elephant spray the visitors with water and curl the trunk upwards to do the show pose. We have seen how this trick is trained in the previous video.
Please watch elephants made to do tricks.
Sadly, elephants are also chained in Elephants World (see also pic 11). Paul, you speak so warmly of LamDuan, the “gentle old female” who is blind, but you fail to mention that she spends her time on a chain.
Please watch LamDuan chained.
A far cry from paradise
It appears that Elephants World is far from being the elephant paradise you conjure up in your videos, Paul. You say that by playing piano for elephants you would like to “apologize to elephants for the crimes of humanity”. But is that convincing, when abuse is still happening to the very elephants you play for? Is it fair to use these elephants to convey a happy picture of music, healing and rehabilitation, promoting countless videos on your youtube channel, and also picturing Elephants World as a sanctuary?
To be rehabilitated, elephants need to feel safe from the abuse they have endured, and learn how to be an elephant again, making their own choices. But in EW, they are still managed by the system of dominance described above.
I can hardly believe that you claim to have “never seen any cruelty to an elephant” during the 20 years you have lived in Thailand, Paul. The images I have seen in trekking camps and circus shows during my travels in Thailand will haunt me for a long time. I have also met wonderful mahouts in various ethical sanctuaries, where I did volunteer work. Change is possible, and it is already happening!
Elephants are among the most intelligent, sentient beings on this planet – why do we have to enslave them for our entertainment? Nothing is more beautiful than to watch happy elephants celebrating elephant life - foraging, communicating, mudbathing or exuberantly splashing in the river, with minimum human interference.
Paul, in your position as advisor to Elephants World you can do a lot to give the elephants the life they deserve. Please advise against bullhooks, riding and chains, and against direct contact, like visitors bathing with elephants or cuddling/posing with babies.
There are a lot more issues to discuss, but three hours of video are hard to cover in one blog. I am open to resume the issue.
P.S. For now just a short note about Elephant Stay, where you have also filmed piano videos, and count the managers Ewa and Michelle among your “dearest friends”. Elephant Stay belongs to the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace and Royal Elephant Kraal Village. We get a good impression of their work from this promotional video.
In the following links we see Percy, a seven months old orphan. After his mother died he was brought to Elephant Stay, where at nighttime he escaped from his enclosure to snuggle up with the female elephant “Honey”, who touchingly watched over him. After one day, the two were separated again, because “Honey was getting too protective and it would have been hard to separate them later on”. So they deprived the poor little orphan of the foster Mum he had found himself, just to facilitate his “training”! What happened to Percy after that you can see in the very short videos below. The woman beside the chained Percy in the riding scene is Pauls friend Ewa.
 Volunteers have also critized Elephants World like in this blog: "08/25/2017: A bunch of former EW volunteers have decided to come together and raise awareness. One consequence of it: ElephantsWorld is now trying to control their online reputation. They have changed their name on Facebook, from »wildlife sanctuary« to »animal shelter«. They have disabled the Reviews feature from their Facebook page, too many negative comments were showing up…"
More information here: