6 min read

Zoo Forces Elephant To Swim Underwater In Tank For Shows

The trainer sits on her head and pulls her ears 💔

An elephant leaps and bounds across a tank, repeatedly ducking her head beneath the water. Standing on her hind legs, she walks across the floor of the tank with her trunk wiggling in the air and her head underwater.

She then swims to the very bottom of the tank, wading there for a moment — all while a trainer stands on her neck and pulls forcefully on her ears.

elephant tank swimming
An elephant being forced down to the tank's floor by her trainer | Youtube/Khao Kheow Open Zoo

This is a regular day for an elephant at Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand, which is one of the few zoos in the world that host elephant swimming shows. Photos of the spectacle show crowds of parents with children huddled around the giant tank, peering up in wonder. But what these guests don’t know, experts say, is that the elephants are repeatedly abused to allow these shows in the first place.

“The fact that an elephant can swim is an irrelevant point in this situation,” Dr. Heather Rally, supervising veterinarian for captive animal law enforcement at the PETA Foundation, told The Dodo. “They’re being forced to swim on command, which is a direct result of physical and psychological abuse.”

Just like notoriously cruel elephant rides, this swimming performance likely employs the same cruel training methods to control them, Rally said. This includes the use of force, like hitting, kicking or pulling on the elephant, and a sharp metal tool called a bullhook.

elephant bull hook training
Elephants being corralled in the pool by a trainer wielding a bullhook | Youtube/Khao Kheow Open Zoo

Catherine Doyle, director of science, research and advocacy for the Performing Animal Welfare Society, told The Dodo these training sessions often leave the animals terrified of the tool itself and, in turn, of their trainer.

“For the bullhook to be effective, an elephant must be taught to fear the device and learn that compliance with commands avoids a painful consequence such as being hit, stabbed or beaten,” Doyle said. “As long as an elephant associates the bullhook with pain, and remains fearful of it (through repeated reminders by handlers), the mere presence of the device is menacing enough to control an elephant.”

In one video of the elephants being corralled outside the pool, a trainer is clearly shown carrying a bullhook.

thailand elephant zoo
A trainer wielding a bullhook guides an elephant out of the pool | Youtube/Khao Kheow Open Zoo

In general, elephants enjoy swimming and are quite good at it. But the trainers are removing that joy from the experience, making it a painful and stressful one instead, experts said.

That’s the takeaway people across the globe have gotten from videos of the show, which went viral last week. Advocates have not only spoken out against the zoo, but against TripAdvisor as well, which was actively selling tickets to this zoo.

TripAdvisor has since suspended the venue’s ticket sales on its website, noting that the shows violate its animal welfare standards.

“It was great to see TripAdvisor being so proactive about it,” Rally added. “These performing situations and gimmicky tourist traps are not only abusive, but also fueling the demand for the live capture of elephants from the wild.”

The single best thing people can do to reduce this abuse is to never patronize a facility that promotes elephant rides or performances of any kind. Because when elephants are performing this way, Doyle said, there’s often a much more sinister precursor.

elephant swimming tank thailand
An elephant shown underwater with a trainer on her back | Youtube/Khao Kheow Open Zoo

“The swimming display is just one more type of ‘entertainment’ for tourists, and it raises serious welfare concerns,” Doyle explained. “While the act of swimming appears benign, the handling and training of the elephants behind the scenes may be brutal.”

To help save elephants from situations like this, you can make a donation to the Performing Animal Welfare Society and PETA.