It's no surprise to me that many of the elephants in Thailand are mistreated, but seeing them up close made it especially bad. Some of the elephants had chains on their legs, and were forced to stand in cramped quarters. If a customer happened to request a ride, the elephant would be led by a guide. The guides carried sharp scythes, which they would prod, and sometimes even hit the animals with.
At night, the elephants are brought to sleep in the jungle, where they are kept chained to trees. When we saw workers lead them to the jungle in chains, it looked exactly like a funeral procession. Keep in mind, the elephants get to walk only a few steps their entire lives, except for when they're forced (at knife-point) to give rides to ignorant tourists.
I would like to publicly denounce Thom's Elephant Camp, which, according to Tripadvisor and many guidebooks, treats its animals well. Although they do not keep their elephants chained up (well, by day at least), they still used the scythes during rides. Additionally, Lisa and I saw an elephant crying (yes, actual tears) as he angrily shuffled around his cramped pen. They told us it was an eye problem, but we could see it was clearly an elephant in distress. As he hugged us sadly with his trunk, I vowed to do something to help.
Short of starting your own charity (a complicated and costly venture), there is little an individual can do to rescue the elephants from their abusive masters. However, a number of successful charities already exist, and I urge you to take a look at them. Thankfully, Chiang Mai has a well known elephant nature park, where rescued animals are brought to a new, safe home. To donate and help the elephants, visit the Save Elephant Foundation. If you are a U.S. citizen, you are also eligible to make a tax-deductible donation to the charity's partner: The Serengeti Foundation.
The Asian elephant is Thailand's national animal. There are not that many of them left in Thailand (2000-4000 in the wild, and roughly the same amount in captivity), and they need to be saved. After seeing them up close, I cannot sit back and ignore the enslavement of these majestic beasts.