An unfiltered fire hose of flaming condemnation

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.

  • Frank Purrkins

    My thoughts, exactly. A few more people now know about this atrocity and can 1) share it with others and 2) not perpetuate it. No small feat, that.

  • Frank Purrkins

    “Joys of the mall pet store?” Ugh … really?

  • Jenna

    You are so respectful in your judgment, you almost make me swallow it. But then, I remember even those who are civilized can be cruel and so I spit your words back out at you.
    As you can see, I am not nearly as civilized.
    Perhaps, you should stop abusing that high horse you’re sitting on.

  • Beth Rich

    Very well put, although I was also one of the ignorant. However I am also growing weary of the need to be ever hypervigalent about everything. I don’t want to remain ignorant, but I would like folks to learn to be more kind when standing on their soapbox.

  • kate c.

    Very nice article. I didn’t know this either.

  • LeighTX

    Those who were hateful to you about that photo need to ask themselves if they’ve ever really enjoyed a piece of chocolate that was not labeled fair trade. If so, they probably got that enjoyment at the expense of enslaved workers. Have they ever had a favorite piece of clothing, one that was comfortable and well-worn, and not made in the US? If so, it’s possible that piece of clothing was made by a human being working under terrible, inhuman conditions.

    There are a lot of injustices in this world, and we in the US are ignorant of much of it–which was the entire point of your trip. You are using your platform to expose injustices AS YOU LEARN OF THEM, and that is a good thing. I’m very sorry that your moment of joy turned into such a debacle due to something you knew nothing about, but I’m more sorry that people were dicks about it.

  • issascrazyworld

    You are a good one, Heather. There is a reason I still come back here ten years later. Every day. Each post. I would have been as enthralled with the elephants. Seeing those photos of you looking so freaking happy, was great. Not knowing is not knowing. It’s hard to know all things and sometimes it seems like people expect that of you. Anyway, thank you for the elephant information. Because, I now know as well.

  • Amber

    This is heartbreaking. It is so sad that a moment that filled you with so much joy had to be turned completely around. Forgive yourself; you and probably most others, like myself, wouldn’t look at that situation and know the real story behind it. Thank you for educating us. I can’t even fathom how humans can be so cruel.

  • Michelle

    Heather, you are a class act & don’t let others tell you differently. There are so many atrocious events going on in the world it is hardly possible to know them all. The fact that you continually strive to keep yourself informed speaks volume about your compassion for others. More power to you.

  • Oh give me strength. Of-course you didn’t know. I work with animals (including elephants) for a living, understand and donate to an animal sanctuary in the US and was swept away by your excitement and joy. There is harm done but it wasn’t done by you. It’s the very people that chose to try and make you feel bad and wrong that turn people away from helping. Animal zealots do more harm than you ever could imagine. Wonderful that you’ve grown beyond letting comments tie you up in knots, did some research, and made a heartfelt apology and monetary gesture. Kudos. Now frame the picture and proudly display it in your living in honor of all the good work being done for elephants.

  • Shawn

    Thanks for the links. I went on such a trek in Krabi, Thailand and feel completely remorseful. Compounding my guilt is a framed photo of us on the elephant, hanging in the lounge. It’s a great photo so I’ll keep it there but take the chance to remind house guests about the mistreatment.

  • amy

    Great post. I knew you were going to get some flack from that pic.

  • Cameron Barrett

    I knew about the elephants.

    But I also knew that if there was a person who would read the comments to her post, spend hours educating herself, then use her platform to educate others, link to thoughtful resources, and offer her readers (and detractors) a chance to be part of a solution, it would be you.

    Thank you, Heather.

  • Vampirebee

    Dooce, you always put your heart and your money where your mouth is. Thank you for having a rare kind of integrity.

  • Dana B.

    I had no idea this was something that happened. I think probably 97% of the world has no clue about this. So for people to attack you – JESUS H!! Spread the love people!

    Thanks for all this information. I will never ride an elephant (probably because I will never have a chance to go to Asia), and I will inform others who travel to Asia, and other parts of the world this happens, to do the same.

    Sorry the haters attacked, yet again. I wish people would learn life is about learning, not about shaming people. So sad.

  • I don’t at all understand your comment, Jenna.

    I spoke very truthfully. When someone is in the public eye, they will inevitably field scrutiny, and that has to be okay. Otherwise what is the point of enabling comments?

    Comments engage people and stimulate discussion. If honest and earnest thought-provoking feedback troubles you, I would like to suggest you frequent Martha Stewart’s website, where things typically stay sweetly safe.

  • Michael Mathews

    I liked your comment higher up, but this one troubles me. There is no way any one person can know about every wrong in the world. She took the reaction to heart and tried to make a change. If that isn’t enough, you may be the one with a problem. Maybe she is just on the sidelines, but far too many people have no clue about any of this stuff and do absolutely nothing to try and make a positive difference in the world.

  • Hey, this is how we learn about some of this stuff. You can’t know every abuse that is happening under each circumstance, and, if anything, many more people might know about it now than they would have before.

    I was just explaining on Facebook why those slow loris videos of seemingly super cute primates actually support the inhumane kidnapping and brutal confinement of these animals, and that a physical behaviour that makes them appear cuddly to us is actually a defense mechanism they use under stress. How things appear isn’t always how they are. But this isn’t about slow lorises.

    Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned. Seriously.

  • Major respect for this post. Everyone fucks up. But to do it unknowingly, publicly, then apologise and raise awareness in the process? Yeah. Congratulations on being human. If you own your truth and the mistakes you make .. nobody has the power to use it against you.

    I cringed at the elephant pics, mainly because of that big-arse hook that guy was carrying. It’s the same thing with the monkeys in Bali, all the tourists want to be photographed with them because they’re so cute, not knowing the awful cruelty behind it.

    And by the way, you have a beautiful smile.

  • eloise

    Thank you, Heather. I wouldn’t crucify you for not knowing. I’d just add that maltreated animals are here, too. Ringling, Sea World, DolphinQuest etc. There are plenty of reputable zoos and sanctuaries who really work for conservation, not entertainment. Excellent job educating your readers with your new knowledge. Makes a huge difference!

  • Kristen

    Well done, and well handled. I just saw that bullhook picture and it immediately made me so upset and angry, and to see that you had already apologized and done something to bring attention to the issue was such a relief. Hopefully something really good came of this, and your readers will think twice before paying for elephant rides, circuses, zoos, or any other place where these animals are tortured and abused. Thanks.

  • vanessa

    I’m a long time reader but first time commenting.I must admit my first thought on seeing your pictures was that it was going to generate a lot of negative comments.I knew this only because I have recently been made aware of the elephant situation by an article I read on Facebook,posted by a more knowledgeable friend. Thank you for writing this follow up post and bringing awareness to the elephant cause but at the same time I do not see why you should feel like you need to be apologising to any of (us) your readers. The elephant encounter was obviously very meaningful for you and now it is tainted with negativity from others.I always say everything happens for a reason.Your elephant pictures and this follow up post will raise more awareness. So essentially only good has come out of your encounter with the elephant.

  • Richard Morey

    I had no idea that elephants were kidnapped / tortured, etc. either. I knew they were hunted illegally for the ivory but that was all I was aware of before reading this post.

  • Fellow Toucans

    Thanks, dooce.

  • Ele

    Thank you Heather, this is great. I was quite shocked by your earlier post, but obviously you had no idea what was really going on and I applaud you for doing something so immediate and so helpful to rectify the mistake (and let’s face it, it was a small mistake. People still go there just to ride the elephants). I think that there will now be some happy elephants out there thanks to your contribution.

  • Tonya

    It’s easy to sit here and scrutinize those pictures of Heather and say, “You SHOULD have known!” Can’t you imagine for a fraction of a second that the possibility of abuse was the furthest thing from her mind. She was overcome with excitement. Your comment is belittling and judgmental. You presume to say that Heather is “forever stuck in a tourist phase”? WTH kind of comment is that? Although I don’t agree with you, why would it matter is she is a perpetual tourist? Do you even realize how pompous and condescending you sound?

  • I apologize if my comment was one of the one’s you consider to be disrespectful, I don’t think it was but in the event that I am wrong, that was not my intention. I understand that we all can be informed about ALL THE THINGS!, and you have done much more in the arena of educating and informing than most bloggers and even most people. I applaud you for taking the time to actually research the matter, and for taking action. In a world of upvotes and likes a lot of information gets out in the world, but too often people feel they have done enough by simply clicking a button. Local activism spends a lot of time and effort focusing on zoos, as they should, but there are far worse atrocities being committed abroad while tourist swoop in and out causing unspeakable damage that they aren’t even aware of. This doesn’t mean that people have to give up their dreams of seeing elephants close up as this very industry has spawned an ever growing community of rescue facilities and retirement camps. But it’s imperative that you do your research because even some of these groups can be dubious. I know you have had incredibly heavy traffic in the past, so I am grateful that you addressed the matter, and lent your voice to the cause. Thank you.

  • Jenna


    You seem to be the one that changes the subject so as to deflect criticism, not Dooce. But please do throw more internet 101 banalities at me instead of considering your own comments when another calls you out on them.

    You judge Dooce, you judge me, in fact, I suspect there is no one you do not judge. But those of us who believe in discussion, growth, tolerance, compassion and patience – we raise one another up, we applaud growth, we find compassion for others its own reward. We understand kindness breeds love, beauty and joy.

    May you find those things in these words, may you find those in your own mouth and may you pass them on to others. Because it is those things that create a better world. And that is what I believe you were trying to create in your own unkind way.

    Jenna Torture,

    P.S. Some people, mostly queers, – you wouldn’t know them- use stage names, change their names, are given new names. Google it.

  • CF

    Really thoughtful, sincere, and informative response-thanks.

  • kdw

    This is a beautiful, sincere apology. Thank you for making people aware of this problem in addition to the atrocity of the sex trade. Just a suggestion… Is there a way to link this post to your original post? An Editor’s note, maybe?

  • I don’t understand what you mean when you say I am changing the subject. I’m sorry, but I don’t follow.

    I also don’t understand the comment you added below your name.

    But I do appreciate the time you took to respond to my comments. I think I need to respectfully bow out now.

    Thank you.

  • Lauren

    Oh bullshit; ignorance is the only acceptable excuse. And Internet shrieking? There is no excuse. I’m sorry nasty people stole your joy; just as sorry as I am these sweet creatures are treated badly.

  • Carrie

    No one should be expected to know every side of every atrocity that happens on this planet. What matters is that when confronted with this information, you took the time to learn about it and reflect on it.

  • Teal

    Don’t let other people steal your joy. That moment with the baby elephant made you happy. No one should be able to take that memory away.

  • talonsage

    This. This is a really great sanctuary; a dear friend made a donation in my daughter’s name as a gift and sent her the t-shirt that went with it. The Elephant Sanctuary is pretty awesome.

  • Bartlet4Gallifrey

    Thank you for this, Heather. I didn’t see the original post until now–I’m a little behind in my feeds okay?–but I would have left one of those comments telling you what that baby elephant had probably been through. I’m glad that you listened, didn’t get defensive, and are using your platform to try to help.

    I hope you update the original post with a link to this one.

  • Amy K.

    The part that makes me saddest about this is that those photos of you with that elephant included the most genuine, joyful smile we have seen on your face in sooooo long. I hate that that smile is coupled with so much awfulness.

  • Vanessa

    Thank you for your thoughtful response, Heather. <3

  • Like you, I had NO idea, and the elephant seemed to share your expression of joy and playfulness. Thank you for informing us, I may never have known otherwise. I may consider donating as well because of it. Amazing to read your apology (that I wasn’t expecting) – it was heartfelt and moving. Brush it off, you’re only human.

  • I also had NO idea and have been wanting to ride an elephant in India or Thailand for ages. A Lifelist item that has now been removed. Thank you for this Heather.

  • dc

    of course you are forgiven.

  • Cherie

    But you SHOULD understand!

  • PolicyChick

    Ugh, yes – the abuse, even torture of these lovely creatures is heartbreaking; I used to work with some biologists who are very familiar with the issues. I’m sorry you had to learn about it the hardest way possible. You were sharing an exhilarating and wonderful experience (I would’ve been THRILLED to see a baby elephant when I was over there!) only to have a lot of crappy people judge you. UGH.
    I’m not saying it’s not a huge, awful problem (see above.) But Heather, you can’t know every. single. environmental/wildlife/habitat/deforestation/you name it/issue on the planet. Don’t beat yourself up.

  • erin

    You saw the baby elephant. You wrote that post. And now? A lot more people are aware of the mistreatment of elephants AND a wonderful organization is getting a new monthly donation. I’m sorry you got flogged for it, but thank you for doing this work that is making the world a better place.

  • Joyce

    I had no idea!! I thought your pictures with the elephant were cute, but didn’t think much more on the post. I’m so thankful you did the research and shared it with all of us, so you’re entire (large) community of readers can be better informed. Thanks, Heather! I work at a company that offers a sabbatical (month long vacation) once every 5 years, and many people go to Thailand. I will go forth and encourage my co-workers to be better informed, and not to ride the elephants!

  • evonna

    I was one who managed to post on the questionable post. I wrote I was confused and could not enjoy your happiness. However because of your position, I also suggested that in a way you raised awareness about the poor baby elephants.

    The post and pictures are controversial as two different worlds and their cultures clash. As we did not entirely know the circumstances, it was so hard not to have concerns. On another hand, not a single person would question picture of dooce being licked by a baby cow here in US, even many
    farmers still abuse their livestock. should we stop eating beef?

    I was furious you closed comments at the time but truly appreciate you did your homework and had guts to apologize. I wish you would put a link in this post to the post in question.

    Keep writing, nobody is perfect. we are learning our entire life. otherwise all would be very boring.

  • Julie

    You are so brave. Brave for sharing your thoughts and words with the world. Brave for facing the harsh opinions and judgements. Brave for traveling across the world to help others. And brave for apologizing.

  • Kecia Posey Adams

    Uh, dude. You are not the ambassador to all of the causes on earth. The standard to which you are held here is crazy. Thanks for being open minded and taking the time to tell us about what you have learned.

  • joanne

    I think this post is extremely well written, and has served a great purpose – that of educating the rest of us. Like you, I had no idea. Like you, I would’ve jumped out of the car in a flash and requested pictures. I am now better informed, and thank you for sharing this.

  • JRSF

    No wonder Leta has to fix you a hot dog, what with all the apologizing you have to do to the Internet for breathing. Did you know that in our native Tennessee (Hohenwald, in middle TN), there is a huge elephant sanctuary (you can’t visit, but they have internet cams) for elephants from circuses and private collections, etc?

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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