Elephants are amazing creatures that are actually quite a lot like humans: they have long memories, they socialize, have complex ways of communicating, and even can be seen painting.
But an elephant’s life isn’t always easy, especially when they are currently being threatened by poaching and habitat loss through deforestation.
Such is the case in Thailand, where logging operations used domesticated elephants in transporting lumber; however, once the forests were gone, many of these elephants were left ‘unemployed’ and suffering work-related conditions like blindness.
Helping to rehabilitate these forgotten creatures is British-born pianist Paul Barton, who plays the piano for blind and injured elephants living in Elephants World, a Thai sanctuary for rescued pachyderms.
It’s a remarkable thing to watch this classically trained pianist play soothing tunes for these gentle, sightless giants:
Barton, who has lived in Thailand since 1996, got started on this fascinating path when the sanctuary allowed him to bring a piano in to play music for the handicapped animals.
The first time I played piano at Elephants World, a blind elephant called Plara was closest to the piano by coincidence. He was having his breakfast of bana grass but when he heard the music for the first time, he suddenly stopped eating with the grass protruding from his mouth and stayed motionless all through the music.
I returned to Elephants World with the piano and stayed for long periods. There wasn’t many visitors back then so I could spend a lot of time each day alone with Plara and the other elephants. Plara really liked slow classical music and each time I played piano or flute he curled his trunk and held the tip trembling in his mouth until the music was over.
In observing the effect of the music on Plara, Barton began to play piano on a regular basis for the rescued elephants, even for the more aggressive male (bull) elephants.
He explains that his aim is to bring some clam and peace to these once-abused animals:
I started to wonder over the years whether soothing music could play a part in rehabilitating elephants that have had stressful lives. For me, elephants are wild animals, plain and simple, and I wished they all lived in the wild where they belong. But I accept there are many elephants in Thailand that are domesticated or captive-held, and I understand the history to this situation.
All I can think of is that we work to make the lives of these rescued domesticated elephants better in the ways we can. Elephants are emotional animals and I am only following my instincts playing classical piano music for some of the elephants, mainly blind elephants. Up to now I found slow piano music to be calming the most to the dangerous bull elephants, and perhaps gentle music brought a little interest and comfort to the blind elephants I have played for.
Of course, it’s not easy to lug a piano around an elephant sanctuary, and as Barton tells us, it was a difficult task to transport the piano from his former home in the city to and over the uneven terrain of the sanctuary. However, he and his wife have now moved much closer, and Barton continues to play music for the elephants, sometimes during moonlit nights when all is quiet.
It’s remarkable how music seems to be a universal language for communicating with all living things, especially those that have suffered so much, says Barton:
Every elephant is special. And when you know a blind elephant is restless in his/her day-to-day life — but stops still, is calm when listening to music — it feels quite special.