We had the opportunity to see a group of elephants outside of Chiang Mai. Elephant "rehabilitation" centers, training centers, retreats - whatever you want to call them (maybe "tourist-traps?) - they seem to have become something of a cottage industry in northern Thailand.
I do have mixed feelings about participating in this obvious sideshow. My observations have been mostly positive. The Elephant "programs" must have a sizable impact on the local economy around Chiang Mai. Also, the Thai elephants seem to be largely without abusive "training" scars. They seem happy and well fed.
I fear the elephants here in northern India may be less well cared for. Many of the elephants I have seen in India are thinner, and often have obvious scars on their rumps and heads. Perhaps diet, climate and culture all play a role in these apparent differences?
In Chiang Mai, Audrey and Evan both got to feed baby and adult elephants. And of course there was the "show:" a small program where we watched elephants paint pictures, play musical instruments and even play soccer. I think the elephants enjoy these goofy activities much more then their mahouts...At the end we all walked to the river to watch them bathe and drink and then went in small groups for a short ride through the jungle. Without a doubt, these elephants would much prefer the wild to this carnival of sorts. But, coupled with large tracts of National Parks where wild elephants still reside, these tourist-based organizations are raising awareness and are helping to integrate the elephant population into the increasingly modern Thai economy.