Family holidays evoke memories of long journeys, good weather and making new friends. When Jack Lanting and his family went from New Zealand to Thailand for a holiday in 2009, those new friends included Asian elephants. Jack, who was 8 years old at the time, was so moved by the plight of Thailand’s elephants that he did something extraordinary – he bought an elephant to save it from a life of servitude and cruelty.
At the start of their holiday, the Lantings visited the floating markets, out of Bangkok. Jack, says in excerpts from his unpublished book, “The elephants I met were not happy. They looked tired and were told what to do and pulled along with sharp hooks dug into their ears.” Jack describes elephants that were bleeding and whimpering in pain, and when they weren’t working, they were chained up and left in the sun without water or food. It wasn’t what he had expected. “I felt really bad.”
The family then stayed at a non-profit sanctuary for elephants, Elephant Nature Park, in Chiang Mai.. In her own words, Jack’s mother Viv says, “Lily introduced herself to Jack soon after our arrival at the park. I heard him giggling, turned around and was stunned to see that Jack had the trunk of Lily, a 54-year-old elephant, wrapped gently around him. From that moment on, Jack and Lily became inseparable friends, just as a boy and his dog might be.”
Lily had led a sad life. She had been used in the illegal logging industry, where she was fed methamphetamines to keep her working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until she finally had a physical and nervous breakdown. Chained to a tree and left to die, Lily was unable to eat and convulsing when Lek Chailert (founder of Elephant Nature Park) found her. Several years were spent treating Lily’s drug addiction, and she is now a healthy, loving and gentle inhabitant of the sanctuary.
During their stay, they heard many stories of the abuse elephants suffered, but the turning point was hearing about an elephant that had been donated to the park by an American couple who had visited a week earlier. From that moment, Jack wanted to save an elephant too. When they returned to New Zealand, he set up the charity A Life Like Lily.
His goal was to raise USD$15,000 so that he could buy an elephant from a mahout (a person who keeps and drives an elephant) and donate it to the Elephant Nature Park where it would have a better life. He came up with numerous ways to fundraise, including holding a crazy hair day at school, selling his paintings, arranging a motorbike trail ride, auctioning donated photographs, a sponsored walk and even baking and selling chocolate cakes. “Jack’s always been that way; once he makes his mind up to do something, he doesn’t change it,” says Viv.
After reaching his goal, Jack and Viv returned to Thailand in 2010. Jack chose to purchase an overworked, old trekking elephant and named her Kwan Jai (Thai for “beloved”). She would carry visitors on her back for 11 hours a day, every day. Before that, she’d probably been in the logging industry, where she’d broken her leg. Jack paid USD$11,000 to the owner and used the remaining funds towards Kwan Jai’s upkeep and to buy a food shredder. On 4 March 2013, Kwan Jai passed away peacefully. It was a sad loss for Jack, but his heart was set on rescuing elephants, and so he prepared for a second fund-raising campaign. This time, he had even more support.
As a visitor to Elephant Nature Park in 2010, schoolteacher Tracey Hand was also moved by the stories of the elephants’ suffering. Being a New Zealander, she had read about Jack’s fund-raising work and decided she wanted to help. They worked together for over two years to raise the money for another rescue. In January 2015, Viv, Tracey and Jack went to Surin in Thailand, where they met Sook Sai.
Sook Sai had broken her ankle after trekking with tourists on her back. She was no longer of use to her mahout and been chained up for three years. She had a large abscess on her face; there were small abscesses from puncture wounds on her back legs, she had been badly beaten, and her mahout had tried force breeding her 40 separate times over the past six months, with all four legs chained and spears pierced through both of her ears while a bull mounted her.
Lek had heard about Sook Sai, and considered her an urgent case. They decided this was the elephant that should be bought with the money he and Tracey had raised. Their contribution was topped up by donations made to Elephant Nature Park by schools throughout the world. Tracey named her Sook Sai (Thai for “bright”) to signify a brighter future for her.
Even though Sook Sai was more traumatised and unpredictable in her behaviour because of the severe mistreatment she endured, Jack wasn’t afraid to be near her.
“Not at all, I feel OK around elephants. I kept telling her that she was going to a good place and she wouldn’t be hurt again.” When Sook Sai arrived at her new home, Jack showed her to the river and spontaneously placed a red flower in her ear, through the hole that would have been for the mahout’s hook to grab and control her. This was Jack’s gesture that everything in her life was transforming—from darkness and pain to joy.
As a teacher of middle-school students, Tracey says she has been able to incorporate what she learns into her classes, where she has taught children about Lek’s work, as well as the issues faced by elephants in Thailand. “I’m passing on the knowledge and the story, and in the future they will be responsible travellers.”
Jack spent a month at the park, helping out with the other animals that live there and spending as much time as he could with Sook Sai and Lek, his hero. Jack believes it’s important to educate people on ethical choices when they are planning their holidays, and even convinced a national travel agency to inform their customers travelling to Thailand. Numerous interviews in his local newspaper, on national radio, and on TV news networks have helped spread the message, and he is grateful for all the support he receives from generous people around the country, as well as closer to home. “I couldn’t have done all this without my mum.”
Jack and Viv now wish to one day start their own elephant sanctuary in the Thai tourist area of Phuket. With his determination and commitment to saving the lives of these endangered animals, every goal seems possible. As Lek says, “Jack is a boy who will make a difference. He is making a difference now. He will be an example to others.”
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