One animal caretaker knew her elephant better than anyone. So, when she wanted her charge to do something, the animal could usually be persuaded to comply. However, when she began slapping the animal with a cloth, its reaction was surprising – and perhaps one that few people could have foreseen.
The caretaker and elephant in question were in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at the Elephant Nature Park there. For the last 20 years, the organization has provided sanctuary for rescued elephants, and by allowing guests to visit its center, it hopes to teach people of the wonders of these majestic animals.
The park was co-founded by Lek Chailert, and since its opening in 1996, Chailert and her staff have rescued around 200 elephants. Unfortunately, though, many of the animals had arrived at the center physiologically damaged by their ordeals.
Still, at Elephant Nature Park, they finally found a safe haven. “We have to heal them with love,” Chailert told CBS News in 2016. “We have to let nature rehab them… make them feel that this is a safe place for them. Trust is the first thing that we have to go and do.”
One of Chailert’s biggest aims with the sanctuary was to raise a generation of elephants that will never experience cruelty, captivity or danger. So when the park welcomed its first free-born elephant, Faa Mai, in 2009, it was a proud moment for everyone.
“She is our first-born free, [she] never suffered in a training crush. She is the most happy elephant,” said a statement on the sanctuary’s website in 2014. “We are so happy to see our beautiful little girl growing up amongst love and freedom.”
And as she grew, Faa Mai formed a unique bond with Chailert. Indeed, as Faa Mai had been around humans since birth, Chailert could get close to her in a way she wasn’t able to with others in her care, some of whom might have had bad experiences with people in the past.
And incredible footage from the park has showed just how special their relationship is. In it, Faa Mai pulls Chailert in close with her trunk, then gently places her head in her mouth. It’s as though the gentle giant is giving her a big elephant kiss.
However, it’s at nap times that Faa Mai and Chailert’s unique bond becomes particularly clear. Chailert has helped to get the elephant off to sleep since she was young – and the way she does it is simply beautiful.
A video posted on YouTube in 2014 showed Faa Mai’s bedtime routine. In it, Chailert and the elephant are standing in the animal’s enclosure. Then Chailert pulls out a scarf and begins to sing a lullaby.
As the caretaker chants her magical tune, she begins beating the elephant gently with her scarf. It certainly looks odd at first – possibly even cruel. However, it soon becomes clear that the singing and slapping are having a profound effect on Faa Mai – and a positive one at that.
After a few moments, the video shows the elephant bending down onto her hind legs and nestling herself on the ground. Now lying on her side, Chailert gets closer to Faa Mai. The elephant expert then sits down by the animal’s head as she continues her melody.
Still fanning the elephant with her rag, Chailert soon gets Faa Mai to close her eyes. And she’s still singing when the creature begins to snore. In a matter of moments, using just her voice and the scarf, Chailert has lured the elephant to sleep.
Understandably, the magical footage of Chailert’s lullaby has proved popular online. Since being posted on YouTube, in fact, over six million people have watched it. And many people couldn’t believe just how well Chailert’s trick worked.
“This is so touching,” wrote one. “The voice is so soothing, and the brushing of the cloth must feel so good to the dear beast. I wonder if it reminds the elephant of mom’s ears, perhaps? Elephants are great souls.”
And it appears there could be some method in Chailert’s madness. In 2008, for instance, a study found that classical music could have a soothing effect on captive animals. Researchers used elephants that were showing “abnormal behavior” that they wouldn’t necessary display in the wild.
However, they discovered that the animals exhibited “significantly less” abnormal behavior when music was played. One person who wasn’t surprised by the findings, though, was David Field, zoological director of London Zoo. “Elephants are incredibly sensitive beasts,” he told the The Guardian in 2008.
“Their appreciation of noise communication is far beyond our hearing range,” he added. “They communicate in deep infrasonic vibrations. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if [classical music] has this calming effect.”
But although science might go some way towards explaining Faa Mai’s behavior, it may also be down to Chailert’s expert touch. Indeed, some have even described her as an “elephant whisperer.” However, she believes that her knack with the animals is all in the way she treats them.
“I never think, ‘Elephant is an animal.’ I think they are a person. So that is why, when I talk to them, I treat them like my family,” Chailert told CBS News. “We understand even if we speak a different language. But we understand each other.”