International Association of Animal Therapists


A week in the life of an Elephant Osteopath

Elephant Osteopathy Workshop CPD at The Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, Northern Thailand, March 16th-20th 2019

By Samantha Scargill (MIAAT, Dip. Aminal Physio)

On one sweltering Australian summer morning in January, after 6 hours working with the racehorses I received an email from the IAAT (The International Association of Animal Therapists) titled ‘Fantastic CPD Opportunity with Tony Nevin- Elephant Osteopathy in Thailand’. Immediately I opened this, along with the itinerary of the trip. Scanning over the words with excitement, phrases such as ‘Observe movement’ ‘Palpation of elephants’ and of course ‘Relax by the pool with cocktails’ leapt out at me. This document outlined what seemed a unique and very hands on CPD with a touch of exoticness and adventure with a trip to a new country. I simply could not let this opportunity pass me by.

Before I knew it it was time to pack up and head to the airport for my flights to Thailand. Tony had kindly organised transfers to and from Chiang Rai airport so it was a fairly stress free trip. Without a Masters degree in English I cannot put into words the luxurious nature of the Anantara Elephant Camp and Resort but I can say it was by far the nicest accommodation I have ever had the privilege to check in to.

Day one of the workshop (after a wonderful buffet breakfast overlooking the grasslands) began in a conference room where Tony gave an introduction and overview of the workshop along with some essential health and safety briefings. He also gave an insight into how places, such as the resort and other similar camps, were trying to achieve in improving elephant welfare and also the way in which the Thai people interact with them. The country holds a deep set history of monetary profit with these animals which has not always been to the beings best interests. Since the abolishment of legal elephant logging in 1989 the shift of the Thai people’s income, in regards to elephants, has become more tourist based and with the expanse of social media it can be argued that it is more important now than ever to encourage the Thai people to have these elephants well looked after or they may find themselves with an impacted paycheque which in turn will only be detrimental to these incredible animals.

We were soon walking down to one of the elephant camps about 5 minutes from the main hotel lodgings where we were greeting by our first extremely willing patient, Boonsri. Tony explained that she was the most confident elephant we would be working with and even referred to her as a treatment ‘junkie’ and was perfect for our initial experience for getting our hands on the elephants and trying to get our bearings on their frames! She duly obliged, even getting down into lateral and sternal recumbency which allowed us to get a good look at the soles of the feet and was a lot easier to get hands on with the spinal processes!


"Sizing up the patient!"

"That's the spot!"

The first day we saw three elephants. As each Mahout (the name for the person who owns, cares and controls the elephant) brought their elephant over to us, we watched their gait and tried to pick out any abnormalities and any unbalanced areas. Tony also recorded each elephant walking towards, away and also from the side for later video gait analysis. We then took turns in palpating each animal. The elasticity of their skin pleasantly surprised many of us as we had perceived their skin to be rigid. This therefore made palpation a lot easier, allowing us to distinguish areas of tightness and suppleness fairly quickly. This made treatment focus areas all the more straightforward to pinpoint.

"Palpating the elephant, really having to trust your hands!"

Day two we were straight back into it, seeing four elephants during the course of the day. The first elephant we saw was an older elephant that had an atrophied top line and sunken skin on the head. Both most likely due to age. She had not been at the sanctuary very long and was much smaller than the other elephants. She had a narrow walk behind and a cracked foot. We noticed she also had an altered way of chewing, a possible indicator of compromised teeth. The mahout tried to assist us in surveying the inside of her mouth.

We also saw elephants from the previous day including ‘Pompoi’ a female with a ‘fused’ hindlimb with little movement at the hock and stifle joints. On day two she seemed slightly more fluid in her walk and she needed less of release this time round.

"Day 1 vs. Day 2 : The elephant needed much less of a release, second time around"

At the end the day we sat and peacefully watched the strongly bonded Dah and Pompoi bathe themselves in the water and also use each other as scratching posts. It gave us quite an insight into the relationships these animals can have with each other

"Dah (left) with her best friend Pompoi, cooling off after treatment"

The third day we left the camp for a bit of a ‘touristy’ day and took a river boat down along the River Kok to a small settlement. This village, like many villages in this area, almost purely relies on tourism for their income. We took a look at a location where elephants were used for riding and tourists were also able to feed them. Although some elephants were displaying stereotypical movement, such as weaving, they appeared well looked after and were only up at the camp during the day and were taken to the grasslands in the afternoon.  Comparisons to Blackpool donkeys and even pony rides at fairs and racecourses worldwide could undeniably be drawn

"Saddled up ready to go at the tourist camp"

After a quick safety debrief on day four we were back down in the familiar hotel elephant camp. We were quickly reminded of how the elephants were really dictating how our day went. We started with Lana who got fairly fed up of us in a short amount of time. Trying to move us away from her with her tail and trunk. She soon moved away from us to go and graze in the nearby bushes and trees. This was not wasted time though as we could watch her actions grazing moving high to low. She showcased the dextrosity of their trunks, removing leaves and breaking branches into bite sized pieces.

The next elephant we saw also not in the best frame of mind that day. Thumping her trunk while walking as a stroppy child might thump their way through the house when having to do an undesired chore. So in this case we approached with a minimalistic goal, trying to calm her with our touch which she responded to well. I feel like this reminded us to listen to what patients are trying to tell us more as well as reacting to what we feel with our hands.

We also walked around to the main elephant camp an area full of information about their work educating tourists on the goals of this establishment along with the history on elephants and their current standings for example they estimate there are only 2000-4000 left in the wild in Thailand and an interesting breakdown of what it costs to keep an elephant per month (Approximately £967, of which around £300 is spent on food).

By resorts such as this one employing the Mahouts and their elephants they are helping to make sure these elephants are well looked after, preventing more from being captured and keeping them away from illegal and unethical activities. Mahouts’ family are being provided with healthcare and education for their children so they do not need to go out and seek more elephants for income.

Family members are also being employed at nearby restaurants and in the gift shop making souvenirs. Tourists are also being educated on what is and what isn’t good elephant practice allowing them to make the right choices too.

Day five, we had our final trip to the camp. We saw Pompoi once again and she was standing squarer and the beat of her walk had improved once again. Tony also re videoed the elephants again which he later put together for our debrief and final discussion. On viewing the ‘before and after’ footage we could see the elephants seeming to walk much more smoothly and more balanced in the short time we had spent with them, a very satisfying end to the few days.

"The elephant camp in which we observed, palpated and treated"

We then had a celebratory evening put on by the hotel staff. We sipped on Prosecco and listened to live traditional music while we watched each other collect our certificates in the ceremony. We were joined by the wonderful people who had put this trip together and managed to carry it off without a hitch.

The next morning I left the Golden Triangle Resort for my onwards journey head full of new information, techniques and memories of a trip which was quite simply ‘Fantastic’.


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