An Asian elephant struts into the pool and dips its head beneath the surface, using the tip of its trunk like a snorkel. Standing on its hind legs as the water relieves the gravitational burden of its body, the animal wades between two men offering bananas at either end of the pool. In a room down below, awestruck children watch through wide glass windows.
Some of the people who have attended this elephant swimming exhibition at Khao Kheow Open Zoo southeast of Bangkok are surprised that it has been criticized as an example of animal cruelty and exploitation. But a recent controversy over an award-winning photo of a swimming elephant at Khao Kheow illustrates the friction that exists between some animal rights activists and people who manage, appreciate and profit from the tourism roles that elephants fill in Thailand.