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A Prayer For Elephants: Why The Abuse And Slavery Must Stop NOW

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By Merril Diniz:

Another gentle soul has passed. Maduraivalli was her name. She was captured as a calf and lived for years as a temple elephant in Madurai, and the wounds that bore deep into her feet are testimony to the suffering, she endured in her lifetime. But now, I am one hundred percent sure that Maduraivalli has passed to a better world, one where the greed of humans will no longer play a role in her fate.

maduraivalli elephant abuse
Maduraivalli. Source: Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre

Every time, I read the news of an elephant in captivity, my heart breaks. A few days back, videos of a handicapped elephant being forced to lug heavy logs up a mountain were posted online. There have also been instances where baby elephants were paraded at parties as drunken party-goers take selfies with the terrified little being. Here is a heartbreaking video of an elephant in chains at the Ahmedabad zoo. As you can see, it can barely move.

This use and abuse of elephants has been happening for thousands of years. In fact, as I write this piece, an investigation is underway in Europe where it is said that almost 2000 years ago, Carthaginian general Hannibal marched with 37 African elephants up the Alps, the highest mountains in Europe. If yes, then it’s obvious these pachyderms weathered hunger, misery and frustration to travel from Africa to the Alps, then trudge up to the top and finally descend down the other side. Their remains will confirm the cruelty that must have been meted out to them on that journey, for it is no easy task to get an elephant to do one’s bidding.

You see, unlike man’s best friends – dogs – elephants are not eager to please. Like whales and dolphins, elephants are just eager to be. They live in herds, walk for miles and miles in one day, enjoy dust baths and dips in rivers and lakes, to cool off. Their emotions run deep. They never forget. They have healthy sex lives and guard their young, with the ferocity of any human parent. But when they are forced to live in captivity, with each moment they go a little more insane, just like any human, with a ball and chain. Topsy and Tyke, two young elephants, not only bore the brunt of captivity, they were also severely punished for striking back.

The Tale Of Two Tragedies

Born in Asia in 1875, Topsy was taken to America to perform in a circus. It was fraudulently advertised that she was the first Asian elephant to be born in America. Such stories are, of course, concocted to increase the allure of a performing elephant, a spectacle to be marvelled at. People came from far and wide to see her perform. She suffered much abuse at the hands of her handlers and by the time she was 25-years old, she had gained the reputation of being dangerous, as she has killed one spectator, and it was no longer feasible for her to perform.

Her ethically bankrupt owners came up with an ingenious remedy – have her hanged in public, and charge an entry fee for it. The American Society For The Prevention of Cruelty for Animals intervened to call off this horror show. But Topsy’s fate was sealed and there was an equally horrific end in store for her. On a Sunday in 1903, in view of an audience of hundreds of spectators and photographers, she was poisoned, strangled and electrocuted. A man we know as Thomas Edison, oversaw the electrocution and his film company turned it into a short film. If you have the stomach for it, watch it here. There’s a famous quote by Edison, “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” According to popular culture, he used this event and the electrocution of several other animals to demonstrate the danger of AC currents. Imaginative indeed, but at the cost of treating a magnificent creature as junk.

86 years later, another circus elephant in Hawaii made headlines – Tyke, a 20-year old African elephant, after being subjected to a cycle of abuse, one fine day, charged off into the streets, trampling a bunch of people along the way, until she was gunned down with 86 bullets by a fleet of cops. This slow and brutal public execution was captured on video, and it prompted people around the world to question the treatment of elephants in captivity, and whether they should be in captivity at all. I confess to being ignorant myself, until something snapped within me a few years back, when I visited a spice plantation in Goa, which advertised elephant showers and rides.

Nothing Nice About Spice

This was the first time I ever saw elephants for whom I had great affection, possibly due to their wonderful portrayal in the musical Jungle Book. But the beings I saw at the plantation were nothing like. One stood still in a corner. Such vacant eyes, I remember thinking. Another elephant stood near a water body, with one leg tied to a pole. We heard raucous peals of laughter from a tourist seated astride on the elephant’s back, bobbing up and down, while the elephant used his trunk to pour water on him, every time the handler jabbed it with a stick, to keep the momentum going. This horrific image – the juxtaposition of misery and ecstasy – is etched clearly in my memory. My visit, in an otherwise stunning plantation, was cloaked with gloom.

This experience made me realise that, when people say they love elephants, they do not even know the first thing about loving an elephant. You cannot possibly love an elephant if you choose to ride upon it, watch it performing tricks in a circus or use it for a parade. And those selfies with malnourished elephants, with half an ear falling off, such things are not done out of love, but purely for our indulgence. If you continue to indulge yourself in such ways, then you are not only a conduit to acts that are both cruel and criminal, but are akin to slavery. Yes, slavery.

Sri Lankan mahouts throw chains over an elephant ahead of the Esala Perahera festival in the ancient hill capital of Kandy, some 116 kms from Colombo, on August 1, 2012. The festival features a nightly procession of Kandyan dancers, fire twirlers, traditional musicians, acrobatic fire performers and elephants and draws thousands of tourists and spectators from around the island. AFP PHOTO/ Ishara S.KODIKARA        (Photo credit should read Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/GettyImages)
Source: Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/GettyImages

Have you ever wondered what pushes these creatures to the brink. Why would they maul their handlers? Why will they not perform as told? Well, because like whales and dolphins, they have a mind of their own. They are free spirits, who like to roam the ends of the earth as they please. They cannot be bribed by treats. The only way to make an elephant succumb to your wishes is to ‘crush’ it – physically and in spirit. How exactly is this done? But more importantly, when exactly is this done. When they are tiny babies.

The Abduction

Picture this. As a mother and baby elephant are strolling through the forest, a bunch of men descend upon them and capture the child. There is great chaos and the child has no clue, whatsoever, of the nightmare that is in store for it, for the rest of its life. It will be contained in a small space, and be tied and physically abused. The cruelty will continue until it is beaten into submission and is resigned to its fate.

It will be trained to perform tricks in the circus. It will be bedecked and bejewelled for parades in the hot sun on melting tar. It will take people for rides. It will also beg and starve, because the average elephant weighs between 3,000–5,000 Kg, and it takes tons of food (literally) to maintain that. The worst fate is when a baby elephant is born in captivity. Often, abusive handlers abuse the mother even during birth, and snatch the baby away as soon as it is born.

Sometimes both mother and baby are captured together from their natural habitat, as was the case with Goldie and her daughter Sylvie who worked at the Rambo Circus for over 20 years. Goldie is now blind in both eyes and Sylvie is highly suspicious of all humans.

As the years pass, these elephants develop calluses from walking on concrete, and not grass. They develop wounds and sores, from the bull-hooks constantly boring into their skin. They have wounds along ankles and feet from spiked chains and restraints. They have weak limbs and raw elbow joints from being forced to kneel and lie down repeatedly on solid floors. You may notice torn or pierced ears from frequently tugging at this exceptionally sensitive part of the body. Some sadistic handlers even poke and prod the anus, taking abuse to another level. This exposé by Liz Jones depicts this excruciating life, which reduces elephants in captivity’ to shells of their magnificent selves, all for the viewing pleasure of tourists.

The gravest damage, though, is done to the mind. With every passing moment, an elephant in captivity experiences more and more psychological damage, and the proof is visible when it starts bobbing its head from side to side, behaviour that has come to be known as ‘stereotyping‘. It is a sure sign that the spirit of this sentient being is withering away and it is hoping for its end to be near. But sadly, elephants are destined to live long and death does not come so easily. After spending 60 years alone in a cell, Hanako, a zoo elephant in Japan died at age 69. She had not seen another elephant since the age of two.

According to WildlifeSOS, there are approximately 600 temple elephants in Kerala, 80 to 100 temple elephants in Maharashtra and possibly many more across India. Of late, even a church in Kerala was in the news for using elephants as props in the celebration. Though there are laws in place to prevent illegal captivity of elephants and their mistreatment captivity, these are blatantly flouted, and keepers often rely on loopholes and insufficient law enforcement to continue to abuse the animals.

Herd Of Hope

the precious four performing in rambo circus
One of #ThePreciousFour in performance. Source: WildlifeSOS

Having read through this depressing account, you may believe that all hope is lost. However, it’s quite to the contrary. In fact, with each passing day, there is more hope for these beautiful beings. Organisations like WildlifeSOS are dedicated to the freedom of elephants, and the rescued elephants at their sanctuary in Agra, have come to be known, as the herd of hope.

As I write this piece, four performing elephants who have come to be known as #ThePreciousFour have been rescued from the Rambo circus and are en route to their final destination – a sanctuary where they will lead the rest of their lives doing elephant things – walking, hanging out with other elephants, scratching themselves, silly on trees in their hood.

Mother daughter duo Goldie and Sylvie enjoy some snacks, post rescueHere’s a pic of mother-daughter duo Goldie and Sylvie, who were rescued, along with their sister elephants Pearl and Ruby. Theirs was a dramatic rescue with opposition from the circus. However, according to WildlifeSOS, the forest officials offered immense support. News has also come in that 18 more animals in a poor state of health, were rescued from Rambo Circus, including dogs, horses and a pony.

There’s also a lot you can also do to help elephants. You can tell that an elephant is being improperly cared for, if it is chained in one place for long hours, particularly in environments where there’s improper drainage and it has to stand in its own faeces, urine and stale fodder. When you observe signs of abuse, take pictures and videos and post them online, to create awareness. Refuse to patronise activities or places that are cruel to elephants. Instead, frequent sanctuaries that promote meaningful engagement with these beautiful mammoths in an unobtrusive way – feeding them, walking alongside with them as opposed to riding them, and of course, bathing them with the supervision of the sanctuary staff. Only these activities are considered kosher under ethical tourism guidelines. Typically, sanctuaries keep rescued animals, while zoos and other elephant hubs source elephants for the purpose of being displayed for human entertainment. In the odd case, a zoo may transition into a space, where elephants are safe and not living in solitary confinement.

When Harambe, a 17-year old gorilla was shot, people asked if the parents of the child who fell into Harambe’s pit at the zoo, should be blamed for negligence. Some said, the zoo should have had better barriers. I say, let’s not abduct animals and put them in zoos, circuses or places of worship.

The time has come to accept that wild animals do not belong in captivity. They belong in nature.

Goldie, Sylvie, Pearl and Ruby’s first encounter with nature, post their rescue is testimony to this. What enchanted them most, was the feel of the leaves and the trees. Perhaps, these textures and smells transported them back to a time when they could walk freely. Well, soon these four elephants will be united with their fellow elephants, for these are their first steps to freedom.

Featured Image Source: Getty

Also read: This Wildlife Day, A Look At The Grave Danger Elephants Are Facing In India

You must be to comment.
  1. Janet Nydick


  2. Janet Nydick

    Don’t filter my comment! Myself and millions are angry over the torture.

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