As the oldest and most experienced mahout, Patti Saiee is as much the great patriarchal figure of the mahouts, as his elephant Thong Dee is the great matriarchal figure of the herd. I’ve been told that when project first began Patti Saiee was so quiet and shy he barely looked at the volunteer group. While I certainly wouldn’t call him loud or boisterous now, Patti Saiee is almost always interactive with the volunteers. Always friendly, Patti Saiee can be relied upon to answer any questions (as far as the language barrier allows) and help lead us on a great hike. He maintains an air of maturity above the other mahouts who love to play little practical jokes and tease volunteers, but he definitely has his moments of fun. You’ll find your bag filled with twigs and leaves, or a sudden splash of buffalo poo sling-shot in your direction and Patti Saiee will be looking around innocently, apart from the little cheeky grin giving him away.
Patti Saiee and Thong Dee have worked together for over 50 years now and the relationship between them is beautiful to watch. For me, it exemplifies the relationship all captive elephants deserve to have with their human friends. While Patti Saiee definitely has control of Thong Dee when need be, the interaction between them seems to be based on more of a partnership then owner/animal. It’s not unusual to catch Patti Saiee whispering in her ear, or giving her eye an affectionate little ‘squeeze and smack’. Although I can’t guarantee what Thong Dee is thinking, there are definitely times when Patti Saiee wants her to do something or walk somewhere, and she’ll stop and look at him just long enough to let you know she’s doing it on her own terms.
Some of my favourite times on project are just sitting with Patti Saiee and Thong Dee after a health check. There’s something very peaceful about being in their presence. Thong Dee will stand and eat her elephant grass in a rhythmic pattern, swinging it from side to side with her trunk to break off the most appetising parts before placing it in her giant mouth and chewing noisily. Meanwhile Patti Saiee sits next to her, dwarfed by his giant friend – or sometimes sheltering underneath her if it rains. It’s a beautiful thing that through our project, Thong Dee will live the rest of her life in happy retyrement in the forest, and Patti Saiee can be at home in Huay Pakoot, with all his family – human and elephant.