03 October 2004

Mission to Siam: Animal Tricks

On thing I love to watch in Lampang is the elephants of the teak firms working the huge teak logs that are floated down the river. At times the logs get into a jam and only the elephants are able to break up these jams. They seem to know which is the key log holding the jam in place. They work around the pile and concentrate on this one log, protesting loudly all the time. When they get to the log, they put their tusks under it and their trunks over it until it is shoved loose. Then the mahouts, or riders, bring in one or two more elephants, and the log is pulled and pushed until it is free and floated down the river. The rest of the pile is easy for these wonderful animals to handle. They work hard, and at the end of the job the skin on their foreheads is almost raw.

Charlie Munro, one of our British friends, told us about an elephant belonging to the herd he has for his work. This elephant was a female, old and clever, and was used for carrying the cook's outfit--pots, pans, pails, et cetera. She had no rider; she was a trained animal and would follow the others. One day she apparently tired of her clattering cargo, for she arrived at the camp without a single pot or pan and with a most indifferent look. Another elephant and rider were sent back to see what had happened. All along the trail, at intervals, the man found pots and pails and baskets of provisions. She had taken these off with her trunk and deposited them on the ground. Nothing was destroyed, just junked. I think Mr. Munro said they used this elephant for other duty after that.

Another interesting thing to watch, though not as nice as the elephants, is the buzzards. In this country, buzzards are our health department. They take care of all carrion and things that, if left, would make life unbearable. They are as hideous as their jobs, but to kill them is strictly forbidden.

We also have crows, and they love to annoy the buzzards. When the buzzards have picked some piece of carrion clean and are sitting along a sandbar resting and digesting, with their wings spread out, the crows come in flocks and fly just low enough so that their feet, like landing gear, are dropped down and dragged over the heads of the buzzards. Back and forth they go, making the big garbage disposals hop out of the way. Finally the buzzards are forced to fly away. The crows then gather in a circle, with much cawing and fluttering about. They seem to congratulate each other on the routing of their enemies.

We have a pet gibbon that was given to us by some native friends. Gibbons are very near to being human, and this one, even as a baby, looked so much like a wise old lady that we named her Mae Tao, or Grandmother. I had a little house built for her on top of four ten-foot posts. To keep her close to home, we outfitted her with a harness attached to a chain about fifty feet long. This was enough to stretch to the top of the tallest tree around her house, and the chain links were small enough that they wouldn't catch in the branches. When we installed her in her house, she stayed there for a number of days, pulling on the chain and getting her bearings, as it seemed. Then one day she went out hand over hand, exploring. From then on, there has been no end to her antics. She loves to tease one of the coolies, Ai Noi, a stolid, quiet man who puts up with a great deal from her. She also likes to harass the dog, Sen. He has learned never to come too close, or she will be on his back in a second, holding onto his long hair, and only Ai Noi can rescue him. She loves bananas, which she peels daintily and stuffs into her mouth, storing the fruit in the pouches on the sides of her jaws for future eating. She drinks water by dipping her paw--or her hand, I should rather call it--into the water and then sucking the wet paw.

Our other pets include two parrots, one small one, with a pink breast, and the other a larger bird with green and yellow feathers. Both talk well, in Lao, of course. I have never seen the big one at rest. Either he is trying to reach the small one's roost, or he is climbing around on his own roost, talking, swinging upside down, or imitating some noise he has heard. He gives such a realistic imitation of a dog fight that one day I called to the coolie to drive away the dogs. These birds rule the back porch leading to the kitchen, and they delight in yelling the cook's name in a fairly good imitation of my voice. One day, Lott took both birds down and let them walk around on the floor. The big one immediately went after the small one, saying, "Please just let me touch you" in a wheedling voice. But the other bird had no confidence in him and scurried across the floor to me. He climbed up into my lap and then up to my shoulder, saying all the time, "I'll die, I'll die." But when he peeked safely out from under my chin, he yelled, "Nok kao, nuu ka bo' dai," or "you can't catch me, old bird."
SOURCE: Mission to Siam: The Memoirs of Jessie MacKinnon Hartzell [1884-1968], edited with a biographical essay by Joan Acocella (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 56-58

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