Elephant therapy in Thailand

2011-05-12 10:35
Water is splashed on Nua Un, a female elephant, to help clean her during an animal therapy programme in Lampang. (Sakchai Lalit, AP)

Water is splashed on Nua Un, a female elephant, to help clean her during an animal therapy programme in Lampang. (Sakchai Lalit, AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Lampang - Kuk-kik, a 14-year-old boy, punctuates his few, slurred words with yelps. Kong screams and bites his fingers when he can't figure out how much to pay for bananas. Other children freeze mid-motion, fix their gazes on minute objects and withdraw.

Enter Nua Un and Prathida - two gentle, lively and clever female elephants - and the mood among the autistic teenagers in Thailand changes as they begin their therapy, the world's first using these charismatic animals.

They scrub and soap their bristly hides, play ball games with the well-trained pachyderms and ride them bareback, smiling.

"Chang, chang [Elephant, elephant]. Children, have you ever seen an elephant?" the group sings, clapping hands to the traditional Thai nursery tune and hugging the elephants' trunks. Disco-like, Nua Un bobs her head and sways.

Everyone cheers in a rousing climax to another day in this program in the forests of northern Thailand, which seeks to help autistic children through interaction with elephants.

Positive results

Animal therapy for people with developmental disabilities - notably using dolphins, dogs and horses - is not new, and has provoked scepticism - especially in connection with expensive swimming-with-dolphins programmes. But some anecdotal evidence and studies have shown positive results.

Wittaya Khem-nguad, the elephant project's founder, said parents "see improvements after the elephant therapy and that gives them this hope".

A small preliminary observation found improvements among four boys after three weeks of elephant therapy, but more research with larger samples is needed, said Rebecca Johnson, who heads the Research Centre for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri.

A presentation on the Thai programme was recently made at the school's Thompson Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

Autism is incurable but therapy and medication can improve speech, learning and social problems, and reduce behaviour like tantrums.

Elephants have lost their traditional roles in Thailand as trucks, teak loggers, and battle tanks. Wittaya, who gave up a career in advertising to work with elephants, started the project as a way to help the endangered animals regain their usefulness.

After reading about horse riding therapy, he approached Chiang Mai University, where Nuntanee Satiansukpong, head of its occupational therapy department, suggested elephants might help those with autism.


Elephants, she said, provide the rich, attention-grabbing "sensory menu" beneficial to the autistic, while the animals' intelligence and other traits allow for a wide range of interactions with humans. Additionally, elephants are woven into the fabric of Thai culture, familiar to children since birth.

Nuntanee worked out six key activities for the therapy sessions with her staff. Then they went to the government-run Thai Elephant Conservation Centre near the northern city of Lampang, where the sessions take place in a forested clearing.

Each activity is designed to improve specific skills. The children learn to follow step-by-step instructions by drawing up shopping lists and buying food for the elephants - bananas, sugar cane, corn, sunflower seeds - at a mock store with real money.

If the elephant rejects the food, they return to the store for an alternative, which teaches flexibility. Feeding the animals and brushing 7-year-old Nua Un when she obligingly lies on her side for a bath can help the kids overcome an aversion to sticky and rough textures.

Playing games, with the elephants kicking and offering balls with their trunks, fosters group activities. Riding, besides sheer fun, requires specific sequences of mounting and commanding while addressing poor balance and posture.

And elephant-themed art activities - painting and making mobiles, paper lanterns and mosaics - spark the imagination.

"The elephant is such a big stimulus it can keep the attention of an individual longer, and since it is such a wonderful animal bonding can occur," said Nuntanee. "If we can drag the children out of their own world they will be better."


But throughout the day, some of the participants regress.

Kuk-kik Kraisiri refuses to take part in a game, abruptly squatting down to bang two stones together and poke the earth with a stick. Kong Jatjeeng erupts in screams after a stray brush stroke. A third teen tears his paper lantern to shreds because he cannot puncture holes for stringing it up, then sobs.

The parents, who accompany their children to the elephant centre, have asked for the free therapy to be continuous, but Nuntanee said that with limited funding, only eight-day sessions are offered.

Kuk-kik's mother Saithong said her son doesn't usually "join activities with other people. He would be by himself. This is the first time he is not."

Kong's mother Keesorn said the therapy helps make her son more patient, gentler and willing to share. But she added: "His mood changes every day. He lives in his own world. We will have to take care of him for the rest of our lives."
Read more on:    animals  |  health

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

linking and moving

2015-04-22 07:36

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


6 incredible adventures right on our doorstep!

In South Africa we are super lucky to have gazillions of awesome options on our doorsteps to consider.



We tried CrossFit for 2 months ...
It's your last day to apply to be a Cape Town lifeguard this summer!
Stay motivated to keep fit this winter with these great tips!
EPIC! Watch downhill mountain biking in the Namib-Naukluft desert

Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts

Your high expectations only limit you from enjoying the moment you are in. Let go of set expectations and enjoy what you have...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.