Elephants are majestic, intelligent creatures who can show emotion, creativity, and love. As much as we’d like to say that people care greatly for these animals, it’s an unfortunate fact that elephants are on the endangered species list. While they were once hunted for their ivory tusks by the thousands, there are other people out there who have found another way to exploit these beautiful creatures.
The logging industry was a major issue for the people and elephants of Thailand. Instead of paying for expensive machinery, the logging companies used domesticated elephants to haul their lumber. Sadly, once the forests were completely destroyed, the elephants were left without a job, and because of work-related conditions, many of these animals were left with complete blindness.
Paul Barton is a well-known pianist who was born in Yorkshire, England in 1961. One day, Paul was visiting Elephants World in Thailand, which is a sanctuary for rescued elephants. After spending a bit of time with the elephants, Paul realized that he felt a special connection to them. Finally, Paul moved to Thailand in 1996 to spend more time with his favorite animals.
At first, Paul just liked being around them, but eventually, he tried playing his piano for the attentive elephants. “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.”
Eventually, Paul happily became a regular visitor of the much-needed elephant sanctuary. At any given time, Paul could be seen smiling, playing the piano for his attentive audience, who pretty much followed him wherever he went. Paul eventually began to see a difference in his number one fan, Plara.
After seeing how Plara reacted to the music, Paul got an incredible idea. He asked the staff at Elephants World if he could bring his own piano to play for the elephants. Hoping that it would be relaxing for the rescued animals, the staff members agreed. At the time, Paul had no clue how much he would be able to help these sad, blind animals.
Lugging his piano back and forth was going to be a bit tiring, but Paul knew that the elephants would be grateful, especially Plara. “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,” explained Paul.
I didn’t take long for Paul to realize exactly how much Plara enjoyed being around the music. “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.” Who would have thought that elephants preferred classical music?
Once Paul understood the effect that the music had on Plara, he began to regularly play for all of the other elephants, including the aggressive males! Paul believed that his music created a sense of peace and calm for these elephants who had once been so badly abused. Eventually, Paul began to look more deeply into what the music was doing for the elephants.
Soon enough, Paul was receiving attention from the more stubborn elephants at the sanctuary.”One of the most memorable [reactions] was playing ‘Moonlight Sonata’ to a big bull elephant called Romsai at night. Romsai is an elephant that mahouts keep away from people due to his strength and dangerous temperament. To be so close to him at the piano under the moon and stars and play music to him was quite special. He seemed to be listening and, from his reaction, liked the music. He let me live,” recalled Paul.
Paul always keeps the reality of the situation at the forefront of his mind while he’s playing for the elephants. “With the bull elephants I am always aware they could kill me at any moment, and the mahouts are aware of it too and I can tell they are nervous for me,” he explained. Despite their dangerous nature, could the music transform them into calm beings?
Paul has definitely figured out what they like. “Up to now, it’s been these dangerous and potentially aggressive bull elephants that are always kept well away from people that have reacted the most to expressive, slow classical music. There is something about the music in the moment that makes them feel calm,” he explained.
Even though he understood that he could make the elephants calm, Paul couldn’t help but wonder if the myth about them smelling fear was true or not. “I was wondering about this as Chaichana, the bull elephant in this photo, outstretched his trunk towards me over the piano top and sniffed around my head as I was playing to him,” he explained.
As beautiful as it is, it must be terrifying to have a dangerous animal hovering over you as you play the piano. “When I play music to elephants I always feel calm and happy and I thought in that moment as his trunk was close to my face that at least whatever scent I was giving off and he was picking up wasn’t fear. Perhaps Chaichana could smell and recognize the scent of someone that liked him very much indeed? I hope so.”
After a while, Paul realized that the music could actually be used to rehabilitate abused elephants. “I started to wonder over the years whether soothing music could play a part in rehabilitating elephants that have had stressful lives,” said Paul.
After seeing the sadness and abuse that these creatures suffered from, Paul couldn’t turn his back on them. “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,” explained Paul.
Paul knew that he could play a huge part in making these elephants feel better. “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,” he said.
Now that he has gotten to know the different elephants at the sanctuary, Paul knows what kind of music they respond better to. “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,” he explained.
Eventually, Paul grew tired of lugging his piano around all of the time, but he knew that his place was with the elephants. So, Paul and his wife moved much closer to the sanctuary, making it easier for Paul to transport his piano all of the time. You have to admit, there are very few people who would go to such lengths to help make elephants feel better.
Over the years, Paul has formed a special bond with each one of the elephants. He loves helping them recover from their trauma. Paul says, “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.”