Don’t be fooled by the semi-comic title of this post; in fact, this one’s going to be quite serious. This is my hundredth post, so I wanted to do something special; I had no idea what, but I knew it couldn’t be the usual Tarot card, or stale joke, or even a grammar rant. Then, when browsing my morning newsfeed the day before yesterday, I came across a story that touched me so deeply that I knew I had to write about it. The story of Raju the elephant went viral some days ago, but it’s the kind of story worth repeating – and sharing.
It’s well documented that elephants are highly intelligent. Their social structure is complex, and individuals have been known to show grief over the remains of their families and herd members, empathy for sick or wounded elephants – even ones not of their own social group – and, astonishingly, they have recently been found to be able to distinguish different human languages from each other (while I still have difficulty distinguishing spoken Italian from Spanish). For thousands of years, humans have used them as beasts of burden or transport, or even trained them as entertainers. Some of these animals were – and still are – treated kindly, the elephant and keeper sharing a relationship of mutual respect and understanding, however, more often than not, greed rears its ugly head, and we humans too soon forget that our fellow creatures are as alive as us, just as able to feel joy, love, contentment – or pain.
The saddest thing about Raju’s story is that it is not unique, and unfortunately has been repeated thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of times, to elephants like him all across the Indian subcontinent: poached away from his mother as a calf, he was sold no less than two dozen times, from owner to owner, over a period of fifty years, constantly bound with manacles on his legs, which were fitted with sharp spikes pointing inwards to restrict his movement. He spent his days as a “begging elephant”: he would be ridden along the roads of India’s Uttar Pradesh region, collecting coins from tourists for long hours under the hot sun, only to return at night to an uncovered enclosure with no protection from the elements, forced to sleep while still in chains. Provided with an inadequate diet, he subsisted on scraps fed to him by tourists, even forced to eat pieces of plastic and paper. His hide, already in poor shape from the abscesses and wounds created by his bonds as well as overexposure to the sun (elephants in the wild will roll themselves in mud as a natural sunblock), was decorated haphazardly in colored chalk with a series of symbols to make him look more “authentic” for the tourists – a perversion of an ancient Hindu tradition of adorning companion and temple animals as a mark of respect for their spirits.
When the brave team of rescuers put together by Wildlife SOS fought off his owner in a tense standoff, Raju, understanding that rescue was at hand, wept copiously. Some people think this display of tears surprising; I do not. I do not doubt for an instant that such an intelligent and emotionally active creature would be able to observe the situation, hear the emotion in the humans’ voices, and see the conflict around him and be able to know that these new people were here to help. This beast, in constant pain and bombarded by the shouting of his owner trying to confuse and frighten him, nonetheless calmly boarded the truck that would take him to freedom, knowing, without being told, that his captivity was over. This is not amazing. It only shows what we should already implicitly know; the creatures around us are more like us – and we like them – than we are currently willing to admit. They can intuit, they can emote, they can empathize.
This is not a case of anthropomorphism, for I am not claiming that these are human emotions: of course not. They are elephantine emotions: a set of responses, feelings, and thoughts completely unique to elephants, and thus, just as different from our emotions as their anatomy differs from our own. And yet, just as we share a startling percentage of genetic material with much of the animal kingdom, there are bound to be commonalities in that emotional palette: think of the joy of a dog greeting his human, or the distinctive cold shoulder a cat can give when she feels slighted.
So, in fact, no, Raju’s tears did not surprise me: it was an emotional moment for him; anyone – human or animal – would cry in his situation. Crying is natural, emotions are natural; why do we persist in thinking these traits are uniquely human? Why, in the face of all this overwhelming evidence, do we still think of ourselves as separate and above the rest of the creatures on this planet? Stories like Raju’s should remind us that we are not apart from nature, but that we are a part of it, no different from any other species on this planet and irrevocably linked to all life-kind. Animals might lack actual language, yet they do communicate; perhaps it’s time for us to listen to what they are saying.
Thankfully, there are people who are doing the right thing, who are listening to the needs of elephants like Raju. I refer, of course, to the brave people of Wildlife SOS (whose site, btw, you can find here), a charitable organization dedicated to making lasting change to protect and conserve India’s natural heritage, forests and wildlife wealth. Together with a team of police, they planned and executed a safe rescue – no easy feat in itself when one remembers that Raju is a full-grown bull Indian elephant, strong enough to break a human in half in an instant, which was at all times a distinct possibility: at the time of his rescue, he was in excruciating pain from the extra chains being hastily flung on him by his owner, confused by loud noises and shouts, and his vision obscured in darkness punctuated by flashlights – no one would have faulted him for panicking. I like to think of myself as pretty brave, but I’m not sure I could have done what these people did, and I am sure that no one could have done it better.
The sheer courage and the determination to do the right thing exhibited by these people strengthened my faith in humanity. What set me to weeping, though, was the following video, where Dr. Yaduraj Khadpekar, a veterinarian in the team of rescuers, finally cuts Raju free from his bonds. It’s not the cruelty of the spikes the man shows the camera that made me start bawling like an infant; it is the look in the man’s eyes when he finally cuts Raju free. Look closely at the good doctor’s eyes when he cuts through those spikes: that is nothing less than the spark of pure Compassion shining there, and it set me to shiver, reminding me not only in my faith in humanity, but also my faith in the Divinity that lives within each of us, every man, every woman – and every elephant.
So here is the link to the excellent Huffington Post article; scroll down just slightly to see the video.
And so, I’d like to send my deepest blessings to the great people of Wildlife SOS, and salute them in their wonderful compassionate mission. If the story of Raju has moved you, please: share, forward, tell a friend – and donate, if you can, here.
There’s also another thing before I sign off on the 100th post of my blog, which I started almost 4 years ago today. It’s a piece of art that appeared in my second blog post, which I think is very appropriate for this article: my picture of Ganesha, Hindu god of gateways and beginnings. As Raju steps into his new life with his new herd and his new friends, may all Divinity bless the lives of the good people who helped him to his new home: they truly deserve a standing ovation in the theater of life.
 Honeyborne, J. (2013). Elephants really do grieve like us. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2270977/Elephants-really-grieve-like-They-shed-tears-try-bury-dead–leading-wildlife-film-maker-reveals-animals-like-us.html
 Morell, V. (2014). It’s Time to Accept That Elephants, Like Us, Are Empathetic Beings. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140221-elephants-poaching-empathy-grief-extinction-science/
 Cantor, M. (2014). Elephants Can Recognize Different Human Languages. Retrieved from http://www.newser.com/story/183566/elephants-can-recognize-different-human-languages.html
 Sieczkowski, C. (2014). Raju The Elephant Cries After Being Rescued Following 50 Years Of Abuse, Chains. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/07/raju-elephant-cries-rescue_n_5564543.html