Smiling Khun Chai (he’s making little happy squeaks here)

Not many know truly what turned Gabby “wild”. I have always been obsessive with all animals since I was a child, but there was one creature who did it to me. It was just one little creature who called to my “wild” side. This “little” creature was only little compared to how big he could have been. His name was Khun Chai, which in Thai translate into “Prince”. He was an Asian elephant, and he was my adopted baby.

Humans can be cruel, but to imagine taking a baby away from its mother is something I don’t want to ever fathom. And this is what happened to Khun Chai and his “biological” mother. A man wanted to take him, raise him/train him to suit his own needs, and didn’t even realize that Khun Chai was way too young to be removed from his mother. So what did this do to poor Khun Chai? It did all too much, including, but not limited to, having Khun Chai feel extremely lonely, disallow Khun Chai to relate and bond with other elephants, weaken his bones resulting in Rickets (a disease of malformed bones due to deficient calcium or activated vitamin D that helps solidify calcium into bone), and be the root cause to why Khun Chai (my baby elephant) died.

As tears stream down my face, I wish to tell you my story with Khun Chai and reflect on the happy memories we shared together.

The first day I arrived in Lampang, Thailand to work at the Elephant Hospital, Prasop, the head mahout, which is a term for “elephant master”, joined me for dinner to discuss the work I would be doing at the hospital. My tasks, which included traveling on the mobile clinic to various private elephant cases around the north of Thailand and to other elephant conservation centres, admitting elephants into the hospital, and taking care of minor surgeries, sounded incredible and proved later to be more than exceptional. Then he said, “We have a baby elephant.” He then saw my eyes grow larger than they normally are, and so he decided to continue, “Maybe you could feed him in the mornings and afternoons if you have time?” Feed a baby elephant! I thought. I would certainly make the time!

I was in love with Khun Chai the moment my eyes fell upon his, which were brown in the dark and grayish in the light. He flopped his big ears and tried to understand me by “petting” me with his trunk. He quite loved my red Coca Cola hat, and then after realized that I wasn’t all that bad, he made little squeaks. I think he was trying to welcome me and tell me he was hungry, so I took the bottle out that I was carrying. I began feeding him by sliding the tube into his mouth (but not too deeply so as not to possibly induce choking) and then allowed him to suck the bottle. As he began to finish the bottle, I would lift it a little higher for him to get out those last few savoury drops. He took a few breaks in between to chew on the little bits of rice and beans that got caught in his teeth. Then when he finished, he squeaked and made it clear that he wanted to follow me to the hospital where I was working. Everyone knew that something special had formed, and every spare moment I had that day, I went to him to play.

Trying to catch Khun Chai’s trunk
Got your trunk! (pure play that he loved)

Each morning thereafter I would wake up early to prepare his rice, beans, milk + calcium supplemented breakfast, and I would do the same thing for his dinner. I would heat the brew on a classic fire stove, and I would then wait for the temperature to cool down (usually with a fan),  testing the temp by a) dropping some milk on my skin and then b) tasting it. I soon realized that this wasn’t scientific, so I standardized the procedure by evaluating the exact amounts of each protein + carbohydrate + mineral content he was receiving for his body weight, and I also picked the best temp in which to give this to him using a thermometer. At the hospital I was given access to his medical files, where it showed how he clearly had rickets and that his calcium to phosphorus ratio showed that he had a great amount of calcium (and thus did not need extra calcium in his diet)! But why did he have problems with his bones if he had more than enough calcium? Then it hit me: he didn’t walk enough to strengthen his bones, and he didn’t get enough sunlight to allow for vitamin D to be activated to then allow the body can use the calcium!

Chef de cuisine, Gabby Wild
Gabby Wild Testing Khun Chai’s Milk

Mamma-Gabby-Wild came out of her shell and got her baby up twice a day to go on 30 minute walks through the jungle and around the elephant conservation centre. In doing so, he got to see other elephants (even if he would look at me like, “Momma, what are those creatures with big ears and trunks?”)

The veterinarians all knew that Khun Chai was no longer a wild elephant, even if he was born wild. He would never be able to survive out that world that requires lessons only taught by a mother- a biological one, that is. So they made it their objective to have him learn various different elephant tricks, such as responding to commands and painting. This program at the Elephant Conservation Centre is vital for the better understanding and protection of Asian elephants, and it was the one way to have Khun Chai forever taken care of.

Gabby Wild on a walk with Khun Chai

The mahout who was given the blessed responsibility to tend to Khun Chai for the duration of his life was Pi Tan. His eyes showed love and compassion for the poor orphan who I had adopted (or did he adopt me?). Pi Tan felt the struggle of Khun Chai, and he clearly desired to make Khun Chai his best friend. What is most beautiful about this situation is that they would have become best friends…

Gabby Wild with Pi Tan and Khun Chai

But while I was with Khun Chai for that month, I began to help teach him commands such as how to bow. He learned all this through operant conditioning, the positive reward being a fruit such as banana (his favourite). But his cunning later led him to develop the nickname of “Dwaseop” which, translated from Thai, is like calling him a “little monkey” or “trouble-maker”. He knew when I had a banana in my pocket or behind my hand. He knew when he was going to get a bath or when he was going to be put in his pen (so that I could do work at the hospital).

Resting on my baby while giving him a treat

One day, I peeled a banana for him, and he quite liked the taste of this well-peeled delicacy. So when a tourist came by later that day and handed him an unpeeled banana, he looked at her like, “Excuse me. My mother peels my bananas for me. My name isn’t “Prince” for nothing.” Soon he realized that she wasn’t going to peel the banana for him, so he took the banana, and with his tonial tooth (which looks like a little “baby tusk” but is just large tooth), he peeled the banana himself!

Gaby Wild walking Hand-In-Trunk with Khun Chai

Perhaps the most magical bond that I had with Khun Chai was during our bi-daily walks. We would tour the lakes, walk beneath lush trees, and dawdle through greenery filled with exotic flowers. Never did he did follow behind me or run ahead of me. He walked always beside me holding my hand with his trunk.

Unfortunately I had to leave Thailand and return to my studies at Cornell University in the United States. If I could have taken him with me, I would have, but the winters of Ithaca, NY are polar opposite to the deliciously humid and warm winters of Thailand. So I had to find a way to say “goodbye”, but I really didn’t know how to. I decided it would be best if Pi Tan fed him that morning for breakfast without me around. After he ate, I would go say “goodbye”. When I came by to say those words I didn’t want to say, he could tell I was leaving. I don’t know how he knew, but perhaps it was by the way he could read my eyes or by the fact that I wasn’t there in the morning to feed him or perhaps it was because I wasn’t wearing my normal Thai garb. Regardless of how he knew I was leaving him, he expressed his terribly sadness: a tear fell down his left cheek. (Please know that I am not exaggerating this.) He then took his trunk and grabbed my arm softly but firmly. After making him bow for the last time and rewarding him with a banana, I whispered to him, “I love you, my little prince.” My throat became thick with trying to hold back tears. As I left the beautiful baby elephant on the side of the mist-filled mountain side, I thought of how wonderful it would be to see him when he got older and bigger. I knew that he would always remember me and always be my friend- elephants really do have incredible memories. Sadly, it was the last time I would ever see him. And how I still love him and miss him.

Supposedly from depression, he began eating a little less, and two months after I left he broke his leg. His health went downhill from there, and he passed away. Due to my bond with him, I was not told this until recently (and I do thank the mahouts and veterinarians for waiting because I was nervously studying and preparing for veterinary school applications. Had I known of his death during that time, I would perhaps have gone “madder” than I already am naturally.)

Broken Leg- left in a sling to reduce pressure on broken limb and other limbs
Veterinarians and mahouts working to save Khun Chai

Khun Chai’s life was not in vain in the least. He sparked the passion of this wind-blown, thrill-driven, aspiring veterinarian, and she is going to do whatever possible to NOT let this type of tragedy happen again to another baby animal or any another animal, for that matter. I, Gabby Wild, solemnly swear to be a protector of animals. While animals may certainly be loud and thus not necessarily need someone to be their voice, they certainly need a translator because very few humans seem to understand their cries, calls, howls, chirps, squeaks, gurgles, and buzzes.

Who’s ready to get wild with me?

Gabby Wild!!!