Baby Elephant Who Lost His Mom Makes His First Real Friend
When he was just 2 years old, Gen Thong lost his mother in the most agonizing way possible.
There wasn't enough space at the tourist camp in northern Thailand where they lived - so she was chained to a tree, while little Gen Thong suckled from her.
Then, in a freak accident, a wasp's nest fell on his mother's head, stinging her countless times.
Their owners, members of the Karen hill tribe, rushed to help the bellowing elephant. But they were too late to save her from the poison.
"Gen Thong was still suckling from his mother at this time," Kerri McCrea, founder of Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, tells The Dodo. "Unable to accept her death, he continued to try to suckle from her corpse before she was taken away to be buried."
The orphaned elephant's owners, or mahouts, tried their best to replace his mother's vital and nutritious milk. But they could do little to sop up the grief.
And the complicated realities of elephants in tourist camps forced him to grow up all too quickly.
"Elephant owners in general are not wealthy people," McCrea explains. "They rely on their elephants - who have been passed down in the family through generations - to bring in an income so they can provide for their families."
For Gen Thong that meant giving ride after ride to the steady tide of tourists who showed up at the camp. In fact, since he was too young to bear a standard saddle at only 3 years old, he was forced to give bareback rides.
He was even forced into the service of a Chinese film set.
"This often meant that Gen Thong would lash out every so often, much like any 4-year-old having a tantrum when they do not wish to do something," McCrea explains.
Although, she adds, Gen Thong had a mahout who loved him, the owners were driven by the need to make an income from the elephant's tender back.
He did, however, have his grandmother Too Meh, best friend Boon Rott and his dear auntie Mae Doom to lean on.
McCrea, who had been working in the area, along with her partner Sombat, began spending time with Gen Thong.
"This is when we both saw how much limitation the elephants had in this particular camp," she recalls. "We knew that there was no alternative for these elephants available due to the lack of jobs, but we had to do something to give these elephants a better life."
And so, McCrea and Sombat began planning a forest sanctuary - one that would not only help the elephants but also the hill tribe community that depended on them so dearly.
They came up with the idea of giving the villagers alternative incomes through homestay programs, driving, caring for elephants and building projects.
Once McCrea and Sombat had raised enough money to build the sanctuary, Kindred Spirits opened its doors.
And Gen Thong was among the first elephants to walk through it.
He was joined, of course, by his grandmother and best friend. And, of course his auntie Mae Doom, whose side he never leaves.
Once in his forested forever home, and free from the backbreaking tourist grind, Gen Thong shrugged off the shadows of his dark past.
"Now that Gen Thong is able to choose what he wants to do ... he no longer lashes out and has become so playful with both his family and mahouts," McCrea explains. "His owner is so amazed with his progress and is very happy to keep him in the forest."
Kindred Spirits relies on donations to give these elephants the lives they deserve. If you would like to support its mission, consider making a contribution here. Another great way to help? Visit the sanctuary or offer to volunteer there. You can get the details through the group's website or through its Facebook page.