I know, I know, its been entirely too long since I’ve made a post! I have been all over India with sporadic internet access. I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around all I’ve seen and thinking, “How can I possibly share this in a way that means anything?”
My first journey was to Mysore. I visited the elephants at Mysore Zoo, where a young male spent his day chained on a concrete platform while the other eight roamed around the enclosure and cooled off in the pool. I don’t know why he was being held there, with no access to water, stretching and straining and pulling on the chains.
Then I went to Mysore Palace, where riding elephants spend all day on hot pavement, walking endless circles with tourists on their back. They are given no water or rest and bear the marks of their mahouts’ bullhooks on their foreheads and the wounds from the chains that constantly encircle their ankles.
After a short break back in Chennai, where I saw something that gives the promise of hope (which I will reveal later!), I headed to Kerala, to the site of the (in)famous Thrissur Pooram festival. I was supposed to accompany an inspection team appointed by the Animal Welfare Board of India to see the elephants commissioned to appear in the festival. However, the forest department officers and elephant owners disallowed their entrance and they were not able to do their job. This sign of how tense the situation is made the front page of the newspaper the next day. I watched the elephants along with all the tourists as they arrived, stepping off of trucks, walking through burgeoning crowds, chains jingling. Their mahouts parked them beneath the trees where many of them swayed or bobbed in stereotypic agony. They too wore the wounds of captivity, displayed for all to see, yet few notice.
I also visited Guruvayoor temple, where more than 40 elephants spend 23 hours a day tied to the same spot. Here again was the endless stereotypic swaying and bobbing. To me, the pain there was palpable, but the smiles on other visitors’ faces showed again how little most people understand. Pressure has increased so much that the temple no longer allows photos, but I was able to sneak a few.
From there, I headed to Delhi and on to Agra. I stood in awe in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, fed monkeys at the Taj Fort, and finished my souvenir shopping.
The next day, I was rejuvenated by a visit to Wildlife SOS Elephant Care Center, home to nineteen rescued elephants. I saw elephants taking long walks, eating pound after pound of fruit, and resting in the shade with friends. There are so many people fighting for a better life for the elephants of India- there is hope.
I also visited Wildlife SOS’s sloth bear facility and learned about the awful tradition of dancing bears. Thankfully, the hard work of this organization put an end to this practice and provided other means for the families to make a living. Now the bears reside here in peace but they’ll never be rid of the scars on their snouts through which a rope was threaded and many of them also show stereotypic behavior indicative of the pain they bore in the past.
Then by train, by plane, by car, I scurried back to Chennai to embark on a three-day road trip to Kanchipuram and Kombakonum. With my Indian mentors Suparna and Supraja and Swiss filmmaker Bridgette, we visited six temple elephants. Some of them will see better days very soon (again, I’ll reveal all later!), others, in less desperate need, must wait. They live on concrete, chained and commanded at all times. Here again, the swaying and bobbing, inadequate methods for dealing with intense emotional and physical stress.
When I see others laughing at the elephants “dancing”, when I know the real pain behind it, I almost wish I also was ignorant. But for the most part, even though it involves looking upon such misery, I am so glad and honored to be working for these amazing animals. I am so lucky to have been taken under the wing of Dr. Gay Bradshaw at the Kerulos Center, and through her so many others. I’m so proud of the work that is being done by elephant advocates all over the world and honored just to be in their presence. I am more determined than ever to devote my life to this, to become one of those advocates, working tirelessly for each and every elephant.
I want to close by saying: This isn’t only India. This isn’t only Thailand. Everywhere that there are elephants held captive, there is suffering. There is the severing of families. There is training by fear and pain. There are chains and bars and concrete. Do not visit elephants in zoos and circuses, do not support this terribly inhumane breaking of a glorious spirit. Elephants deserve better.