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Even if the Scientists aren't impressed this would be worth it for the smiles (on elephants and autistic kids)

By John
21 November 2010 02:22:00

Sometimes, if I'm honest (which I'm sometimes not), the sheer variety of the projects we have going on bamboozles me, especially in this multi-media age where comments you make can make more impression on those that read them than those that write them.  Nowadays it is not unusual to find ourselves sitting with old friends recently arrived, sipping beer by the Mekong, or with newly found friends come to ride the eles & see what we do, or, for even sweatier palms, standing, microphone in hand, before the assembled ranks for the fourth estate.

In the middle of my carefully rehearsed off the cuff chatter the question arises, I saw from your Facebook status that you were... ...what did you mean by that?
One such programme I've promoted with pride for a couple of years now without knowing too many of the details is the Thai Elephant-assisted Therapy Project to investigate the effects a structured relationship with an elephant can have on Autistic children, something we have indeed helped fund for all that time & something we've been rightly proud of.

However, the truth be told, I've never really been able to answer questions on this fascinating subject as, as most of you know, I'm not an occupational therapist and am a pretty poor observational scientist to boot.  The brains behind the project has always been Dr Nuntanee Satiansukpong from the Faculty of Occupational Therapy at the University of Chiang Mai...

...& however flattered I have been that various friendly interrogators down the years have assumed we have the skill sets on site to look after, let alone systematically study, groups of autistic children, we don't, we're elephant people & that's our job.  We have been proud to provide funding because we saw this as an opportunity, at the most basic level, to bring five elephants off the streets and at the highest level (as far as we're concerned with our 'Helping Elephants that can't Help Themselves' motto) help to find something for elephants to do that elevates them from beasts of burden, past objects of pity, to partners working with us to help improve the lives of those who have more difficulties than ourselves.

In short, we fund the elephant part only because that's what we're good at and we leave the work with the children to those who know what they're doing.  Call me coward but that's what makes sense to me.

Until a couple of weeks ago that had been my answer, I trust that what Dr Nuntanee is doing is good, scientifically rigorous and has the potential to be hugely beneficial for humans, but we're in it for the elephants.

But a couple of weeks ago we funded the first open day at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang & Amp & I went down to see the human side of this.

Well, knock me down, call me Susan & then upgrade me to an enthusiast.

You all know how science works, I think, endless comparative studies to ensure what we think is going on is going on, long & verbose papers full of technical words aimed at confounding outsiders and then once you've proven what you think you've proven you give the paper to some equally qualified folks-who-weren't-there and they tell you if they think you've proven what you've proven before agreeing to let a high powered journal print your paper for the world to see (or not).

Well, I was there & and I cannot tell you if Dr Nuntanee has proven what she thinks she's proven (that these clinics and interactions, when taken to a certain level, help the autistic kids on a permanent basis), though the mahouts who recognised some of the kids were able to point to differences between those that had been through the programme before and those coming for the first time (but let's face it, autism or not, generally there's a difference between those meeting eles for the first time & those that are old hands).  

I'm not going to pre-empt the science or second guess the experts, what I will tell you is that, even if there is no improvement in the condition, so long as there is no damage, the smiles on the faces of those kids make the whole thing worthwhile &, even for me, trump even the benefits for the elephants.

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Flirting with charming two-ton beauties and playing with jumbo babies, our Elephant Guru's blog introduces our colourful cast of gentle giants.

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