Videos of elephant massages have been around for several years, and media outlets have touted the experience as a fun vacation activity. One Thailand elephant camp, the Mae Ping Elephant Camp, advertises that its elephants play musical instruments and soccer as well as giving lucky tourists the chance to be massaged.
Unfortunately, the truth behind elephant massages isn't nearly as attractive. Like almost all trained elephants, the animals featured in most of these tourist attractions are stolen from their mothers at a young age and subjected to brutal training procedures designed to crush their spirits.
The practice is known as a "training crush," or "elephant crush," and can involve stabbing or injuring the baby elephants, locking them in small cages and subjecting them to starvation, thirst and sleep deprivation. Sometimes they don't make it.
At the end of the experience, the orphaned elephants are left broken and dispirited - in other words, pliable enough for their trainers to tell them what to do, like making them massage tourists. Many mahouts, or trainers, will also use bullhooks to keep the performing elephants in line - sharp instruments used to jab the elephants if they misbehave.