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KerryOn: Don't Lose the Elephants

Updated: Apr 18

In 2014, my husband and I travelled to Thailand to present at a conference. During this trip, we spent a few days in the rain forest near Chiang Mai, Thailand. We were particularly excited at the prospect of seeing a live elephant in a natural environment.

When we first talked about seeing elephants, we quickly decided we didn’t want the "circus elephant" experience. We were looking for an authentic experience. We found Elephant Nature Park (ENP), a sanctuary for elephants, most of whom have some sort of physical ailment caused by humans. Some were abused by handlers, some were overworked in logging camps, some stepped on landmines left over from numerous conflicts over the years, and some have broken or disfigured backs from being ridden by tourists. ENP purchases these elephants and provides meals, shelter, and safety, along with their very own mahout – the person who is responsible for the care of the elephant. The mahout has specific “elephant rules” posted at ENP for all visitors to see:

1.     Maintain the happiness of the elephant.

2.     Provide good food for the elephant.

3.     Report to the vet when the elephant doesn’t feel well.

4.     Don’t lose the elephant.*

* Our favorite rule as it seems this does happen occasionally, and although elephants are large mammals, they are very difficult to see in the rainforest.

When we first arrived at ENP, the mahout and elephant movements and motivations seemed completely random. They seemed to be going in all different directions. Sometimes, it appeared the elephant was leading the mahout to a particular destination: the river or another group of elephants. Other times, the mahout was in the lead, carrying delicious watermelons, with the elephants following eagerly behind. And then there were times when mahout and elephant walked side by side, with a mutual destination and a shared view of the trail.

To be fair, there were times when the will of the elephant and the wishes of the mahout seemed to be at odds. During one elephant bathing session in the river, three adolescent elephants decided they wanted to have some fun. They played like teenagers in the cool water, while the three mahouts waved their fruity treasures and shouted and whistled from the shoreline. After a minute, the mahouts sat down on the riverbank to simply await the return of the delinquent elephants. After all, if a four-ton animal wants to stay in the river, going in after it is a bad idea.

The one constant was a sense of relaxed alertness. Things happened, elephants walked around and ate or bathed, and tourists and volunteers came and went. On the whole, nothing was rushed or forced – the elephant and mahout both embraced the relationship without effort or struggle.

That evening as we listened to the elephants trumpeting in their sleeping shelter only a few feet from our cottage at ENP, we began to reflect on our experiences, and how to adopt the first rule of the mahout, “to maintain the happiness of our elephants,” After all, like the mahout, we don’t want to lose our elephants!

Special Note: This KerryOn was adapted from Leadership Legacy: Discover, Create, Live Your Best Life! By Kerry K. Fierke, Ed.D.  Available at your favorite book shop.

KerryOn Questions

Is there one “elephant rule” you can adopt into your life today?

- What are specific ways you can “maintain the happiness of your elephants”?

- And most importantly, how can you create a safe space where you don’t lose your elephants? 

The Kerry behind KerryOn

My name is Kerry K. Fierke, Ed.D. (pron. Fear-Key) I have a unique combination of skills and experience – decades of fast-paced corporate experience in Fortune 100 companies and large health care organizations, combined with the academic rigor of a highly ranked research university. My focus is supporting others to create their own path to leadership development, lifelong learning, and a unique leadership legacy. Take a moment to focus on leadership, then KerryOn!

To see all KerryOn's and other leadership stuff, visit

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