The Millennium Elephant Foundation
Spurred by the popularity of the Elephant Orphanage, the area around Pinnawela has become something of a strip mall for elephantine adventures. Up and down the narrow road leading from the highway are signs and shops touting “Elephant Rides!” or “Pet an Elephant!” It’s a little dispiriting, but after our positive experience at the orphanage, we decided to push our luck and visit the Millennium Elephant Foundation before heading back home.
We should have saved our money. The Millennium Elephant Foundation’s aim is to provide a home for old, retired elephants. Sounds noble, but no sooner had we stepped out of the taxi, than we were pounced upon. “Would you like the 30-minute Elephant Ride?” No. “Then the 45-minute Ride, yes my friends, only $40, step this way!” No, we don’t want any elephant ride! (Anyway, what kind of rest-home for retired elephants encourages people to ride on top them?) No, we just want to see the elephants and help wash one. “Oh”, the friendly smiles vanished, “Well, then just it’s $6”.
After being hurried through a small “museum”, we were ushered down to the river, where an enormous elephant was laying on his side. A guy working there showed me how to scrub the big guy with a coconut shell. This was kind of fun. The elephant was totally loving it, and I really had to scrub hard! But it was impossible to fully enjoy, because the scrub-master kept grabbing my arm and asking for money. Literally, every twenty seconds. “Yes, my wallet is on shore, just a moment!” Nothing I could say stopped him from touching me, pushing his cupped hands towards me, or making pitiful “I need money” faces. After a few minutes of this, I threw my coconut in the water, stomped up to shore, and got him his damned bribe money. We were done with this place in like fifteen minutes and left disgusted.
Foreign volunteers can pay to work at the Millennium Foundation, and I spoke with a few of them. They seemed to be positive about the experience they were having, so it must be different when you’re actually spending a lot of time with the elephants and not being constantly hassled. I don’t know, though. If you’re just passing through, I would steer clear of this one.