the smell of my desperation has become a stench

A response and an apology

On Monday afternoon I posted an account of seeing a baby elephant on the side of the road while on my trip to Southeast Asia in June. In it I explain that when Jamie Wright said she wanted to see an elephant walking down the street that I had no idea that there were places on earth where elephants were actually walking down the street. I think this admission along with my love for animals clued some of you in to the fact that I probably had no idea that elephants in that part of the world are routinely kidnapped, abused and tortured, and you urged me to research this ongoing atrocity. Some of you were a little more respectful than others in your urging, and it was those others who forced me to close comments. I did not want to respond to those comments or to any of the other vitriol on other social channels because I wanted to approach this with the thought and measure it deserves.

I was totally clueless, totally ignorant. I had no knowledge of this practice.

Should I have been? I don’t know. I have never traveled anywhere specifically to ride an elephant or had it on a list of things I wanted to do. I’ve never seen an exposé revealing that this is going on and that tourists are the ones primarily fueling this barbaric behavior. I didn’t even know that the implement in the hand of the man with the infant elephant was used to inflict pain. I did not research the treatment of elephants in Southeast Asia prior to my trip because I was traveling there for an entirely different cause.

If you will give me the benefit of the doubt for one moment, what I wrote about on Monday was in no way intended to promote the torture of elephants. I had only recently been told that we might see an elephant walking down the street, and when we did, when it actually happened, when an infant elephant showed up next to our car, we hopped out to take a photo of it. The experience lasted less than ten minutes. My reaction was visceral and totally uninformed.

I was wrong.

We did not travel to Southeast Asia to ride elephants, and from the research I have been doing coupled with information many of you have sent me, I would urge you to refrain from doing so as well. In fact, I’d urge you not to pose with an elephant like I did. This excellent piece by Matthew Karsten, a self-described “adventure travel addict and photographer” details the very many reasons why not:

This industry thrives because foreign visitors all want to ride elephants, or watch them do tricks, paying good money for the privilege.

But the fact is that wild elephants need to be tamed before they can be ridden. Except the taming process in Southeast Asia is not the same as with a wild horse. It’s much more brutal, and is accomplished when the elephants are very young.

Wild elephants won’t let humans ride on top of them. So in order to tame a wild elephant, it is tortured as a baby to completely break its spirit. The process is called Phajaan, or “the crush”.

It involves ripping baby elephants away from their mothers and confining them in a very small space, like a cage or hole in the ground where they’re unable to move.

The baby elephants are then beaten into submission with clubs, pierced with sharp bull-hooks, and simultaneously starved and deprived of sleep for many days.

Most people who participate in elephant tourism in Thailand are completely unaware of how they are treated. I know many friends who have ridden elephants. It’s easy to understand why people do it. I almost rode them myself.

I am ashamed that I was helping to perpetuate the miserable existence of that animal, that I was involved in any way in its mistreatment, and I apologize. I know better now. What you see in those photos is a purely emotional response to being in the presence of such a magnificent creature, one who has unknowingly moved me and hopefully others to recognize that we should not facilitate this savagery.

Through Matthew Karsten’s article I learned about Save Elephant Foundation located in northern Thailand, an organization that rescues and rehabilitates captive elephants, many who were kidnapped and tortured to perform circus tricks and give rides to tourists. I spent several hours reading about their work and have decided to give the elephant care division of their organization a recurring monthly donation of $35, the same amount of money I donated to help fight human trafficking in the same part of the world.


If you’d like to learn more about the abuse and trafficking of these extraordinary animals, here are some useful links:

Save the Elephants
The Clinton Global Initiative’s Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants
Defender’s of Wildlife Adopt an Elephant
World Wildlife Fund: Taking a Stand Against Wildlife Crime
Freeland Stop Supporting Elephant Abuse
Ian Somerhalder Foundation: Together We Can Stop Circus Animal Abuse
Wildlife Conservation Society

Ignorance is no excuse, but my hope is that those I offended so harshly will find some way to forgive me.

  • Mandie

    2014/07/16 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks for this, Heather. I got schooled about this too and I admire you for following through on the issue and apologizing. I too had absolutely no idea how elephants are treated there, so thanks for the links to further information. I for one appreciate this very much.

  • jess crawford!

    2014/07/16 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks for being a class act, Heather. I had a weird taste in my mouth about the elephant but I didn’t know about any of this either. Kudos to you for being graceful in the face of internet vitriol.

  • Karen Walrond

    2014/07/16 at 12:53 pm

    I had no idea, either. Thanks for updating.

    (Also, kudos for handling this with such grace).


  • itsjustme

    2014/07/16 at 12:53 pm

    I never ever comment here though I’ve been a loyal reader since, oh who even knows when. A long time. But this is exactly what keeps me coming back to read what you write…a humble apology and thoughtful response and the willingness to be open and to learn from…from everything I guess. Bravo.

  • Shey

    2014/07/16 at 12:53 pm

    Heather, you had a totally normal and understandable response. You had no idea what you were getting into or perpetuating and it is completely OK. Because of your tiny mistake, now thousands more will be educated. While the trafficking of animals is sad, it’s nothing compared to the trafficking of humans. Anyone who really reads your piece should, instantly, forgive you. Thank you for being so open, honest, apologetic, kind, and fair. I hope this reaction doesn’t soil your happy, carefree memory completely.

  • Leona Laurie

    2014/07/16 at 12:53 pm

    It’s so tough to be a person. Especially one in the public eye like you. It would be easy to develop orthorexia of life if we knew every single thing that hid behind every single thing we saw every day. What you’re doing right is striving to be better, to educate yourself and to use this powerful forum to educate others. Good job learning a new thing and sharing it with us, Heather. Sorry you learned a hard way.

  • AwesomeMargie

    2014/07/16 at 12:53 pm

    Thank you for educating me. Had it been me, I would have done the same thing. And I should know better since I refuse to go to the circus because of what I saw as a kid. I saw that stick with the hooks. I knew what they were doing. Ugh. And yet, had I gone to Asia, I would have taken a photo, ridden one, etc. But now I know better. Thank you.

  • kacy

    2014/07/16 at 12:54 pm

    I’m so sorry that this happened. Your joy in the photos from yesterdays post was awesome and it’s too bad that you now feel so bad about it. I would have never thought of that either. You are amazing for posting this and making the donation to the organization.

  • Val

    2014/07/16 at 12:55 pm

    You can’t be expected to know everything, about every topic, ever. People are dicks and forget that you are human. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Heather. The pictures you posted were adorable and priceless and it’s okay to just enjoy a moment as it happens.

  • Elizabeth Beattie

    2014/07/16 at 1:02 pm

    I had no idea! Thank you for sharing this information. Admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility for our missteps is the sign of an honorable soul. I shared the first post on my FB page, so I will share this one as well. Thank you again for sharing this information.

  • Jessica

    2014/07/16 at 1:02 pm

    I had no idea, either. Thank you for the apology and thank you for the education on this cruel practice.

  • MT2SLC

    2014/07/16 at 1:04 pm

    Wait a minute…you are human? One who makes mistakes and takes her punches and has the strength to come back with a sincere and educated apology? What a relief.

  • Kim

    2014/07/16 at 1:04 pm

    It’s too bad people have to be assholes. Love your response and your choice to educate.

  • Christine

    2014/07/16 at 1:05 pm

    Well Done. I didn’t know about this vile practice until recently. I hope by sharing this story on the platform you have, it helps others who were clueless (like myself until not too long ago) learn about this. Thank you for using your platform for such good.

  • emily

    2014/07/16 at 1:05 pm

    I was concerned when I saw your first post, especially when I saw the bull hook. Knowing your love of animals though, it never crossed my mind that you would intentionally exploit an abused animal. I’ve been a long time reader and I’m so glad you wrote this post. This is exactly the way we all should react to finding out that we were wrong about something. Thank you for taking the time to research this problem, and thank you for letting others know where to find out more about how to help.

  • Lauren3

    2014/07/16 at 1:05 pm

    I really like this comment.

    Heather, I read all freakin’ day long and I’d never read about this practice, either.

    You can’t be expected to know everything about everything just because you have a website and a public voice.

    I give an A+ to your gracious response here.

  • Rebecca

    2014/07/16 at 1:06 pm

    Ditto to all of the above. Thanks, Dooce.

  • Libra

    2014/07/16 at 1:13 pm

    I made the same mistake when I traveled to SE Asia. After I learned about my mistake I donated to an elephant rescue organization. Be gentle with yourself, you didn’t know and if you did you would have acted differently.

  • Anna Cabrera

    2014/07/16 at 1:14 pm

    I want us all to join the B.O.D. club — that is, Benefit of the Doubt Club — where we all take a breath, imagine the best of the person, even if we have never met her/him, and then calmly have our say. Often we learn from our careless mistakes, especially when someone is willing to first give the B.O.D. and then explain …

  • AuntHo

    2014/07/16 at 1:17 pm

    Beautifully handled.

    Like others, I was touched to see your raw joy in the experience. Anyone who follows you knows you would never knowingly exploit an animal. I would have a tough time resisting SQUEE A BABY ELEPHANT SQUEE and am so glad to have the information.

  • KimFunk

    2014/07/16 at 1:21 pm

    Why are people so cruel online? I would react the same as you, seeing a baby elephant up close and personal. And I’m aware of this cruelty. More aware now than I was this morning, thanks to you. I have a cousin who worked with saving elephants in SE Asia for a year.

    The world is filled with more cruelty and abuses than you or I can fathom. If I worked on being aware of all of them all of the time, I would probably end up curled in the fetal position for most of my life. I’m aware of the sweatshops that make clothing. Yet I still need to wear clothes. I’m aware of the illegal aliens in this country who are being used to gather in the harvest. Yet I still need to eat. Ditto the feed lots that fatten up the cows that my family loves to eat. (I do buy grass fed beef straight from the rancher, but I also eat out where I don’t have the control.)

    One must take the time, as you did, to find out what abuses are occurring and do the best you can to mitigate the ones you can do something about. And then pray for the ones you cannot.

    And then, after all that, take a deep breath and go out and enjoy your life.

  • Manda

    2014/07/16 at 1:25 pm

    There is just no way one person can no the details of every single issue in today’s world. You learn, you move on.

  • kara_v

    2014/07/16 at 1:25 pm

    What a lovely response. Elephants are by far my favorite animal and I hope that anyone who reads your site is compelled to donate to worthy causes that helped protect them. Thanks for sharing your newfound knowledge with us!

  • Carla

    2014/07/16 at 1:28 pm

    Very well done, Heather. We love you, but when millions read your content, it’s good practice to question your actions. You’ve inadvertently brought attention to something so dear to my heart.

  • Pixie Schultz

    2014/07/16 at 1:30 pm

    You are a class act and handled this beautifully. As someone else stated, no one can be expected to know everything. Thank you for showing such respect and grace.

  • Kate

    2014/07/16 at 1:31 pm

    Well played Heather. You handled this beautifully. Thank you.

  • Beth

    2014/07/16 at 1:37 pm

    I really hope you realize how classy you can be. Thank you again for sharing your amazing spirit with us.

  • misszoot

    2014/07/16 at 1:38 pm

    I totally appreciate your acknowledgement of ignorance and apology as well as the job you’ve done in informing the rest of us. I did not know of such practices and I would have been just as euphoric as you were.

    HOWEVER, I really struggle with the idea that people meanly approached you about this. Does anyone really know everything about all atrocities on this planet? And then, does everyone consume and live in perfect harmony to avoid supporting this stuff? I’m thinking about the cheap clothes that might be made in sweat shops that I buy every day. And the dishes and the tupperware in my cabinets made with petroleum that are depleting our global resources. I appreciate people making you aware since you do have a large platform and therefore – I guess – I greater responsibility. However, there is no part of me that would ever condone any mean or insulting technique to making you aware of these things. You are a bigger person than I am.

  • Amy Norris

    2014/07/16 at 1:39 pm

    The delight in your face as you were photographed with the baby elephant…and your willingness to admit when you were wrong (and do what you can to correct that wrong). These are among the reasons I return here to read each and every post. Brava, Heather. And I’m sorry that the dialogue can’t stay civil all the time. You deserve that, but I know that it’s not going to happen. I can still wish though. 🙂

  • Sharon

    2014/07/16 at 1:42 pm

    As someone else said, when you know better, you do better. You can’t be fairly criticized for being unaware of something you would have had no real reason to know about before your trip.

    Good for you for informing yourself now and for donating money to help the elephants.

  • Aysha

    2014/07/16 at 1:46 pm

    I know about many many atrocities in the world.. but in your position I would have done the same! I did not know. Thank you for telling me, and taking the time to tell us! Done with class and grace 🙂

  • Burgin Streetman

    2014/07/16 at 1:52 pm

    Very classy…You know, I did freak out when I saw the other post, mainly because there is so much all over the internet all the time about this subject that it seemed impossible that someone wouldn’t know… But ya know, ten years ago, I traveled to Thailand and rode an elephant and had no idea about the background…. Elephant rides were listed in the uber hippie, eco-friendly Lonely Planet guides, so who knew what was really going on. It wasn’t until years later that I found out about the atrocities. Ten years ago, I had the exact same reaction as you. I WANT TO GET NEAR THAT ELEPHANT! Anyway, bravo on this post…. so many more people will learn and not make the innocent mistake again.

  • sonny1471

    2014/07/16 at 1:52 pm

    The first thing I thought of after your posting of the story and accompanying photos was the elephants in that part of the world suffer for tourist entertainment in the same way the sex trade workers do. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much emphasis placed on them. I knew what you’d posted would ignite a firestorm of criticism, and I’m glad you posted them if only to shine a bit more light on the situation. Thanks for the apology. Not necessary (you didn’t know any better), but I’m glad you wrote it nonetheless.

  • Engred Chai

    2014/07/16 at 1:54 pm

    People need to get a grip. You can’t know everything all the time. You did what the majority of people would do. When the negative aspects of it were pointed out to you, you educated yourself and will change your behavior in the future. Good for you. Give yourself a break, because we do! 🙂

  • Anu

    2014/07/16 at 2:04 pm

    You are an amazingly gracious person. I always have something to learn when I see the way you handle yourself. Bravo!!

  • Anna

    2014/07/16 at 2:07 pm

    Did not know that about the thai elephants!

  • Bichon Bisou

    2014/07/16 at 2:07 pm

    You’ve done some good, Heather, by publishing this piece. YOU DUN GOOD, YOU HEAR!

  • Laura B

    2014/07/16 at 2:11 pm

    thanks for stating exactly what was in my brain. I love you Heather.

  • Stefanie Barrett

    2014/07/16 at 2:12 pm

    We are all ignorant of many horrible things that happen in the world. It is one thing to educate a person about their misconception but there is no need to berate those who are open to expanding their understanding. I doubt those who were less than gracious were born knowing of the plight faced by these magnificent creatures. Shame on them and cheers to you for sharing what you have learned.

  • Kellie

    2014/07/16 at 2:20 pm

    Way to go Heather.

  • Robin

    2014/07/16 at 2:25 pm

    Heather, I’m so sorry that some folks couldn’t point this out to you in a calm and rational manner. Ignorance IS an excuse in this case and you acknowledged it and moved on gracefully. Peace.

  • lyzl

    2014/07/16 at 2:34 pm

    Wow. The kindness and the humility of this post is truly inspiring.

  • Andrea

    2014/07/16 at 2:44 pm

    Heather, you are a class act. Keep it up.

  • Amy

    2014/07/16 at 2:53 pm

    I left a harsh comment on that piece on Monday because I had a strong reaction to the post, and commented before I gave myself time to calm down. I actually came back later to delete my comment, realizing it was too harsh (but comments were closed by that time and mine wasn’t showing). Anyway, I’m sorry for that. And, I am really glad to see this post today.

  • allconsuming

    2014/07/16 at 3:18 pm

    I didn’t know either. How are we meant to know about all of the things all of the time? Is it bad that I still think those photos are gorgeous and the look of joy on your face was so wonderful to see?

  • Carin Sweerman

    2014/07/16 at 3:23 pm

    Very nicely done, Heather. Anyone who “knows” you would have realized you did not intentionally mean to promote animal abuse. Anyone with eyes would have seen the sheer joy of being near such a majestic creature and a baby one, at that! Anyone with a brain should have known that once you knew more about the issue, you’d want to know more. And that you’d share it with us. While I certainly appreciate the negative posters’ emotions and objections, there’s a civil way and an asshole way to point things out. You handled it all so very well. I wondered when I saw comments closed if we’d hear anything else about the subject and here you are. I just knew that you would. Good job. And thank you. You just keep on being you.

  • Jessica

    2014/07/16 at 3:24 pm

    I had a reaction when I saw it. Thought about that poor elephant, but never for a moment did I think you were ignoring information, I assumed you didn’t know. I didn’t feel the need to harp on you or attack you or really even inform you. It isn’t as though you do that on the regular and I couldn’t see ruining a memory for you. Especially with all the bad ones you’ll carry from that trip.
    Even knowing what I know, I still would have wanted to touch a baby elephant. I would just also have wanted to smuggle it away in my purse.

    I’m sorry people felt the need to be hateful and cruel in informing you. That’s unacceptable. I am glad you decided to give to a cause to help them. That’s all we can really do for either situation.
    I hope that you’re able to keep the joy of the memory.

  • sarawr

    2014/07/16 at 3:43 pm

    I haven’t been one of your biggest fans lately, but I really respect and appreciate this post. Thank you for considering the issue, admitting your own fault, and pointing out ways others can both avoid the same mistake and contribute to helping these poor animals. That’s the way to do it.

  • Carla

    2014/07/16 at 3:44 pm

    The good people who dared question Monday’s post on your elephant adventure meant well. They are not trolls, assholes and all the other disrespectful words that are being thrown at them. These are the people who dared to call you out, some more strongly than others, like me via my Twitter account.

    Should you have known better? Yes. Not necessarily a depth of knowledge that would have enabled you to cite statistics on animal trafficking and abuse, but you should have known to question why such a majestic, intelligent and young animal would be forced to parade through a crowded street like that.

    Just like when you encouraged people to post photos on Instagram of dogs trapped in hot cars, versus encouraging them to save those lives and do something about it.

    I feel you tend to sideline yourself, forever stuck in the tourist phase, donating money and taking fancy trips but still there as yet another sightseer. These are strong words, I know. But people need to think and question their actions.

    Some part of you had to have known better, Heather. But I appreciate you tremendously for the courage it took to write this post and for the good it will bring to these animals. Truly.

  • Frank Purrkins

    2014/07/16 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks for posting your thoughtful response. I think no animal should be exploited for our entertainment/pleasure. Well, exploited for any reason. Many people do not understand how circuses, swimming with dophins, petting zoos, horse and greyhound racing; to name just a few, are forms of cruelty … sometimes in very subtle ways, such as in the case of dolphins (look it up and you’ll find the reasons). On the outside it just looks fun! or cute! or exciting!! But usually the animal is performing against its natural will. I think in a hundred years from now people will look back on us and our ancestors and wonder how we could have been so ignorant and cruel.

    “Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein

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Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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