See also: Paradise Found: My Favorite Beaches in Phuket

The first time I went to Bali a few years back, an Aussie traveler we met in Kuta told us about an elephant sanctuary, and as someone with an all-consuming love for animals, I couldn’t wait to visit. When we arrived at the “sanctuary”, I was beyond disappointed by the way the elephants were treated, chained to walls in isolation when they weren’t being forced to give overpriced rides to tourists. These elephants were depressed – you could see it in their eyes. Yes, it was cool being up close and personal with them, but at what cost?

That was the day I realized that animal tourism has a dark side. Many companies, especially in impoverished countries like Thailand and Indonesia, mask themselves under a “conversation” or “sanctuary” facade to attract tourists, when they’re really just exploiting these poor animals to make a quick buck.

Riding an elephant might seem like one of those can’t-miss experiences for any trip to Thailand – it’s the dream, right? Well for the elephant, it’s a nightmare. Many people think that elephants are “so big that riding them isn’t harmful”, but that’s besides the point. Most elephant ride camps operate in ways that cause immense suffering to these majestic mammals. They often keep the highly-social creatures isolated, bound in extreme restraints, starved, abused, and overworked to the point of exhaustion. Recently a 36-year old captive elephant in Thailand collapsed from severe exhaustion, only to be found dead later, his legs still in chains. Some ride camps claim to be more ethical, but exploiting an animal for human entertainment and money is wrong, simple as that.

Save, Don’t Enslave

Now that I got all the depressing stuff out of the way, let’s focus on an organization that’s actually doing things right. The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Northern Thailand is one of the few elephant camps that legitimately exists to protect and care for mistreated elephants rescued from the tourism and logging industries. I got the chance to visit the sanctuary last month while in Chiang Mai, and was incredibly humbled by the work this organization is doing. The sanctuary is committed to providing elephants with the good health, freedom, and happiness they truly deserve, initiating a future where elephants are not ridden, overworked, or abused.

The entire Elephant Jungle Sanctuary experience is about education, not entertainment. The team that runs the sanctuary are remarkably knowledgable and passionate about elephants, which shines through in the way they treat the animals and teach travelers about their conservation efforts. Throughout the morning, we got the chance to interact with, feed, and bathe elephants of all ages and sizes, and what really struck me was how gentle and perceptive these animals are. We were told to kindly speak praises to the elephants as we fed them sugar cane, because they’ll understand your tone and remember your voice. I genuinely think that the elephants here live a great life. They are free to roam as they like and they get pampered by loving people day in and day out. You could even see them blissfully smile as they rolled around in their mud baths – a stark contrast to the expressionless, despondent eyes of the elephants at the Bali “sanctuary” I visited.

At one point I locked eyes with a large elephant, and was overcome with an inexplicable sense of understanding that resonated to my core. I could feel that the elephant was not just looking at me, but seeing me. Some people think it’s okay to mistreat animals because they are not self-aware beings capable of feelings, but this experience alone proved to me otherwise. Animals are absolutely emotional beings capable of love, happiness, and despair, and to think otherwise is just plain ignorant.

Part of being a responsible traveler is doing your research with any experiences involving animals, and actively avoiding any companies that don’t put the welfare of the animals first. The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a shining example of an organization that treats animals with care, love, and respect – the way they should be treated.

Why ride an elephant when you can love one?