Water From Elephants

Humans have kept elephants for thousands of years, longer than we’ve domesticated chickens. Yet the great animals’ capacity to cry for freedom comes as a shock.

Painted Elephant, Charles Fréger. Copyright © Charles Fréger, courtesy Kicken Berlin.

There is an old Tamil proverb: “Even an elephant can slip.” It is not a challenging metaphor to parse out—even the greatest beasts may fall. And when they do, the impact is ground-shaking. After all, their physical magnitude is biblically ordained: “Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox… His bones are as strong as pieces of brass; his limbs are like bars of iron” (Job 40:15-18).

And yet, despite inch-thick skin and bones like brass, Behemoth feels pain—great pain. And has a corresponding capacity for great relief. His nerves function like those of any other warm-blooded creature; bundling and fraying, crackling with neuro-electric energy. And when that signal ascends the spinal column, arriving at the thalamus and dispersing to the various cortexes that register hurt and reprieve, Behemoth may even shed a tear or two.

When Raju the Indian elephant was unshackled from the chains that bound his “bars of iron” for more than five decades, rescuers observed what they described as “gushes of liquid” pouring forth from the animal’s eyes, cascading down his cheeks. A video of his rescue by Indian animal-rights advocates, and the accompanying tears, rode through the public consciousness on a wave of internet virality: “50 Years a Slave,” “This Elephant Was Released After 50 Years in Chains… You Won’t Believe What Happened Next,” et cetera.

This is what jars—the humanlike anguish of such a colossally inhuman beast. A confluence George Orwell encountered firsthand during his colonial deployment in Moulmein, Lower Burma. “Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar,” he recalled in the essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” first published in a 1936 edition of New Writing. “Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got onto a pony and started out. I took my rifle, an old .44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem.”

The elephant was not a wild specimen, but a domesticated bull overcome with “musth,” a periodic state of heightened aggression caused by escalated testosterone levels during rutting season. And as “the Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it,” Orwell shot it.

“But I did not want to shoot the elephant,” he wrote. “I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to.”

Was it this very “preoccupied grandmotherly air” that provoked such a broad reaction to Raju’s plight, and subsequent release? The notion that, contrary to its size and strength and blunt features, the elephant has a capacity for restiveness, even dexterity?

Whether this is attributable to a previously underestimated girth of internet compassion, or simply a modish appeal for ecologically minded content, one thing is undeniable: Anti-captivity arguments are enjoying a moment. Alex Halberstadt’s widely read profile of a zoo veterinarian for the New York Times magazine laid bare the myriad psycho- and physiological detriments these facilities inflict on their animal residents. Huffington Post and BuzzFeed cofounder Ken Lerer helped launch The Dodo in January of this year—a news and opinion site devoted to animal welfare, with the lion’s share of its bandwidth devoted to covering abuses at circuses, zoos, marine-mammal parks, and the like. And recent backlash against the whale-keeping practices at SeaWorld, largely brought on by the 2013 release of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, indicates that the image of a powerful beast constrained to a tank one-10,000th the size of its natural range, or restrained by spiked shackles, strikes a very sensitive, collective nerve.


The difference, of course, between whale-keeping and elephant-keeping is history. Interaction between humans and whales—outside of whaling—is a 20th-century phenomenon, limited almost entirely to the development of a marine-mammal entertainment industrial complex in the 1950s and ’60s. The relationship between humans and elephants is not so simply dismissed as a corollary of contemporary capitalist pursuits.

Historians have estimated the origin of captive elephants on the Indian subcontinent at around 6000 BCE. To put that into context, modern chickens were likely first bred by the Harappan culture, in today’s Pakistan, between 2500 and 2100 BCE. And even then, those first generations were bred primarily for entertainment (cockfighting).

What trip to India would be complete without a selfie snapped atop the broad back of the country’s de facto national animal?

So which came first, the chicken or the egg? Answer: the elephant. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, cave paintings uncovered on the Indian subcontinent suggest the elephant has been utilized as a beast of burden since the advent of its Neolithic domestication—meaning, in all likelihood, its agricultural and communitarian functions predate those of the chicken, arguably the definitive farm animal, by more than 3,000 years. (There are 19 billion chickens strutting the Earth, according to the UN’s last count—three per person—making it the most widely domesticated animal in history.)

More than 8,000 years of coexistence have cultivated a profoundly intimate relationship between elephants and those humans who work most closely with them. They are known as mahouts in India and Southeast Asia—private contractors, of sorts, who rent out the services of their elephantine charges while tending to their daily needs. But despite the historicity of human-elephant relations, the surfacing of stories like Raju’s inspire an immediate and fierce abolitionism to the institutions of mahoutry and elephant captivity alike. Criticism comes mainly from commentators in the West—those with little more than Kiplingesque understandings of this most ancient of transspecies dynamics.


“Wild animals belong in the wild,” wrote Ed Stewart, president and cofounder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, in an essay last year for National Geographic. “You need look no farther than National Geographic’s own articles and films documenting elephants’ large, extended families, intricate web of social relationships, and wide-ranging movement in vast home ranges, to see that life in captivity cannot satisfy their most basic needs.”

The diseases and physical ailments afflicting captive elephants are legion, Stewart explains: “Cramped enclosures and hard surfaces cause a variety of problems, including deadly foot disease and arthritis, infertility, obesity, and abnormal repetitive behaviors such as swaying and head bobbing.” Aside from rampant scarring and general emaciation, one of Raju’s most noticeable characteristics was this “swaying and head bobbing”; a tic not dissimilar to stereotypic movements, i.e. “pacing,” frequently exhibited by zoo-bound bears and big cats.

Working elephants in India can have it even worse than their cousins residing in zoos around the world. As of 2010, there were 700 captive elephants in the southern Indian state of Kerala, “the largest ‘domesticated’ elephant population in India,” according to a BBC report. The BBC spoke with Paul Zacharia, a well-known novelist from the region, who asked: “Where in the world is the elephant worst treated? The honest and straight answer is Kerala.”

The elephants of Kerala, whose condition is shared by many others throughout South and Southeast Asia, are primarily owned by mahouts and individual families; but increasingly, more are bonded to temples and tourist companies looking to profit off the orientalist expectations of Western visitors. But this is partially due to the growing obsolescence of draft animals in one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Particularly in the wealthier and more developed south of India, trucks, cars, and modern food services have supplanted the elephant, once used to haul heavy loads and carry hunters. The only space left for such large and resource-intensive livestock (they can consume up to 300 pounds of food in a given day) is the lucrative tourism industry. What trip to India would be complete without a selfie snapped atop the broad back of the country’s de facto national animal?

Therein lies a major cause of elephant abuse in Asia: considering the animal as, first and foremost, an icon. In Hindu theology, the elephant is associated with Ganesha, an elephant-headed deity revered as the “remover of obstacles.” One would intuit, given the well-known religious deference awarded to cattle in Hindu societies, a similar respect would be afforded to elephants; but even a close resemblance to one of the most widely worshipped gods in the Hindu pantheon isn’t enough to spare them from egregious abuse.

“Raju was in chains 24 hours a day, an act of intolerable cruelty,” said Pooja Binepal, spokesman for Wildlife SOS UK, a conservation-focused nonprofit operating in India, in conversation with Britain’s Daily Mirror. “Very little is known about his early years, but we believe he was poached from his mother as a young calf. The mother cries for her baby for days after he’s been stolen. It’s a sickening trade.”

“It cost a year and the life of a man to break him to burden.”

The calves are then “tied and beaten until they submit to their owners” and “their spirits are broken,” Mr. Binepal told the Mirror. “Raju’s case was particularly tragic. He has been sold on and on. We believe he has had up to 27 owners.”

Dr. Manilal Valliyate, Director of Veterinary Affairs for PETA’s India bureau, confirms as much. “Elephants in India often have their spirits crushed by being stolen and separated from their mothers,” he said. “They are then broken through a method that involves forcing them alone into a strong wooden stall or cage and [tying] them with ropes to keep them from moving in any direction. They are often kept this way for months. Alternatively, they are simply chained or tied between trees so they cannot move. In either case, they are then violently beaten with sticks, or jabbed with ankushes [bullhooks].”

It doesn’t end there. Once the elephant has been subdued, it is placed under the care of a mahout who, Dr. Valliyate explained, can be thoughtlessly gratuitous when employing the ankush. Elephants are “struck for misunderstanding commands, as a signal for a command, or simply out of habit,” he said.

Free at last, Raju was still in terrible shape. Binepal told the Mirror that Raju was in such poor condition when they found him, so severely malnourished, that the beast had begun eating bits of paper and plastic just to fill his cavernous stomach. “His nails [were] severely overgrown,” Binepal relayed. “He [had] abscesses and wounds because of his spiked shackles, and continually walking on a Tarmac road has led to his footpad overgrowing.”

His many owners, likely quite poor, used him as a prop for begging. He did small tricks on the side of the road and at temples, and often subsisted entirely on morsels donated by friendly tourists (supplementing with the aforementioned recyclables). He was occasionally rented out for traditional Hindu weddings and other religious festivities—a major market opportunity for modern, cash-strapped mahouts.

The elephants kept at Hindu temples are “Gods in chains,” Dr. Valliyate said, “kept there as a representation of Lord Ganesha.” Though temples are entirely inappropriate places for an elephant to live, he explained, as they are often kept alone, inflicting terrible psychic damage on this genetically sociable beast. (Herd size can be up to 70 individuals.) Furthermore, “temple authorities are not wildlife experts or veterinarians,” he said. “They haven’t a clue how to care for an elephant.”


Literary representations of the relationship between elephant and mahout are, predictably, quite romantic. “I hailed the old white-bearded mahout who was lavishing pet words on his sulky red-eyed charge,” Rudyard Kipling wrote in his short story, “My Lord Elephant.” “‘He is not musth,’ the man replied indignantly; ‘only his honour has been touched. Is an elephant an ox or a mule that he should tug at a trace? His strength is in his head—Peace, peace, my Lord! It was not my fault that they yoked thee this morning!—Only a low-caste elephant will pull a gun, and he is a Kumeria of the Doon.’”

Yet, even with this “lavishing of pet words,” the true nature of the mahout-elephant relationship soon clarifies itself: “It cost a year and the life of a man to break him to burden. They of the Artillery put him in the gun-team because one of their base-born brutes had gone lame.”


Elephant rampages are typically referred to as “running amok” in the Indian press. Just this past February, a bull elephant (known as “tuskers”) named Keshavan ran amok at a temple near the Keralan town of Mala, where he was brought to participate in arti—a Hindu ritual of light. He destroyed property and terrorized residents for nearly two hours before his mahouts could subdue him.

But in many instances, property damage is the least of catastrophes an elephant run-amok can leave in its wake. The three-month-long temple-festival season in Kerala is marked by an annual flurry of press documenting deadly elephant rampages. India Today reported that in 2013, by only mid-January more than 100 instances of captive elephants running amok were reported at major festivals, killing four and injuring more than 30. The annual death toll has been steadily rising since 2000, “with 49 casualties in 2012 and more than 350 people killed in the past decade.” Though it’s not advisable for the faint of heart, a cursory search of “elephant rampages” on YouTube dredges up more than 23,000 (often graphic) videos, many of which take place at bustling religious festivals.

Yet, even among these most horrifying of clashes in the eight-millennia-long history of elephant-human coexistence, there are moments of heartbreaking accord. In March of this year, a wild male elephant raged through a village in the state of West Bengal. Dipak Mahato awoke to violent crashing sounds as the bull besieged his home. He recalled hearing a loud “cracking sound” coming from the bedroom of his 10-month-old daughter: “We ran over and were shocked to see the wall in pieces and a tusker standing over our baby,” he said, according to the Times of India. “She was crying and there were huge chunks of the wall lying all around and on the cot. The tusker started moving away but when our child started crying again, it returned and used its trunk to remove the debris.”

Mahato’s wife, Lalita, was shocked by the beast’s seemingly instantaneous shift from furor to almost parental tenderness. “We worship Lord Ganesh in our village. Still, I can’t believe that the tusker saved my daughter after breaking down the door and smashing a wall. We watched amazed as it gently removed the debris that had fallen on her. It’s a miracle.”

Yes, the elephant in India is deified—and like all deities, it is equally beloved as it is feared. “The Asian elephant is worshipped and abused, revered and enslaved,” says Dr. Valliyate. An animal of such awesome strength requires great force to keep it in check; an animal of such profound emotional intelligence requires acute cruelty to conquer its spirit. It is a species that exists at a maddening intersection of contradictions: wild, but tame; enormous, but nimble; capable of great violence, and yet great gentleness. It would be enough to drive anyone to tears.