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The Loving Approach to Temple Elephant Care

By: on Feb. 8, 2009
Hrimati Dasi shares a bond of affection with the very social elephant Lakshmipriya in Mayapur.

While I am caressing her trunk, Laksmipriya makes soft growling sounds. She makes me reflect back to the time which made me want to care for Elephants the way they deserve to be treated.

April 1st, 2006 was a day when I promised myself I wanted to make a difference in the life of an elephant. It was the day when our temple elephant Gulab Kali died and a day I'll never forget.

Many Mayapur residents, including myself, were standing around her dead body crying. Gulab Kali had been with us for 24 years. She joined our temple at the age of 4 and had been serving the Lord by carrying Him on procession during the winter months. Gulab Kali was very gentle. Even small children could get close to her. I never really thought that some day this beautiful elephant would not be with us anymore. She had been a part of our lives. My sons used to visit her often to pet her and give her treats. Gulab Kali was a member of our community and was loved by everyone.

My inspiration comes from the Bhagavad-Gita 5.18 where Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: "The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a Learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater."

According to our beliefs, everyone is the same spiritual soul inside of their outer shell, or material bodies. We do not make any distinction between species or castes. A dog, a cow, and an elephant may be different from the point of view of species, but these differences of body are meaningless from our viewpoint. The different bodies may be of different natures, however the Soul within the different bodies are of Spiritual nature. We also believe that the Supreme Lord resides in each and everyone's body. With this in mind, Gulab Kali was cared for.

So, I was asking myself, if we really loved Gulab Kali so much, then why did she die such an untimely death? I wanted to know, because it was decided right away that we need to bring another elephant to our temple. Otherwise, who will carry the Lord during the winter processions? This is where my research began.

After the death of Gulab Kali, several concerned devotees, including myself formed a team called the Mayapur Animal Protection Team (MAP). MAP operates under the simple principle that animals are not ours to use for entertainment, while educating Mayapur Residence about animal abuse and promoting an understanding of the right of all animals to be treated with respect.

I was not involved in the care of Gulab Kali, but after forming the MAP I was asked to bring and care for the new elephant. Before bringing another elephant to our temple, I wanted to make sure not to do the same mistakes but to learn from them and bring about a change.

Our Temple is located at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Jalangi Rivers, 130 km north of Kolkata, in the holy city of Mayapur, district of Nadia, West Bengal. Mayapur is basically a small town surrounded by rice fields and forests. The subtropical climate and lush vegetation make an ideal environment for elephants; however chances of flooding during the monsoon month are very high each year.

The previous elephant had been kept on the temple grounds in a shed. She would remain unchained inside her shed on the cemented floor during the night and for several hours during the day. A bathing pool was provided outside, where the mahouts (elephant carers) would bathe her. The method of control was with ankus (iron hook) and full contact. Over the years Gulab Kali developed severe foot problems, which worsened during floods, because the elephant often refused to move to higher grounds and as a result had to remain standing in flood waters for several days.

Out of "affection" the devotees used to give Gulab Kali sweets like laddus (Indian traditional sweets), sometimes even buckets full of leftovers from lunch, like rice, and vegetables etc. "But are all of those things the natural foods for an elephant?", I asked myself.

The many pilgrims that come to Mayapur would beg for "blessings" from the elephant and put coins in her trunk. In return, she would put her trunk on the Pilgrims head, however it worried me whether it is healthy for an elephant to touch coins, that went through, who knows how many hands? In their natural environment, will an elephant prefer to sleep on a cemented floor? In the wild, do female elephants stay alone?

If I was to get another elephant for our temple, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to create an environment where she is loved and feels at home and most of all, where she still gets to be an elephant and do the things that elephants like to do in the company of other elephants.

When I first found Laksmipriya I was saddened by the condition in which I found her. It was upset me to see this little elephant in such a pitiful condition. She was very thin and malnourished, and had three of her feet chained.

Even her Mahout was skinny with his rib bones showing. The elephant's owner had no means to feed her. That might have explained why she was not looked after very well. The keeper had not supplied her with much food, so she tried to reach for any grass that was near her. The mahout that was with her handed me some small cut pieces of banana stock sprinkled with some salt, which the elephant accepted gladly from me. But I was not getting a show animal. Remembering that I had promised myself to make a difference in the life of an elephant, I accepted to bring this little female elephant to be engaged in religious services in Mayapur.

After arriving in Mayapur, Laksmipriya adjusted very quickly to her new home. We are keeping Laksmipriya in a natural forest habitat. She gets tethered to a different tree each night, but during the day she is mostly free roaming or takes walks with her mahout riding her. She likes to graze on the nearby grasses in the field. Her favorite foods are banana leaves and banana tree trunks. She can consume several of them per day. We generally supply her with already cut trees; however, the mahouts also trained her to fell her own banana trees. Early in the morning she enjoys the leaves of the bamboo and a variety of other forest vegetation.

Once a day she gets a ration of soaked raw chickpeas and either uncooked rice or whole wheat combined with mineral mixture and natural rock salt. The mahout makes a small sandwich-type packet by wrapping this mixture in cut banana leaves or grass. From time to time she also gets some black salt with this.Black salt keeps away intestinal parasites.

Besides the natural grazing and browsing she does, we also supply Laksmipriya with freshly cut grass according to the season. Daily at 5pm she makes her rounds to the Temple Campus, where people get to see her and feed her treats like grass, fruits, small pieces of sugarcane and carrots.

We do not allow people to give any coins to the elephant and no more "blessings". Every Sunday we walk with the elephant for 6km to another temple, where she gets to go to the nearby lake to play in the water. On the way, villagers happily feed her with banana leaves, sugar cane and seasonal fruits. As we walk on the unpaved village road, many little children follow behind us.

Each week they eagerly wait in front of their humble homes for Laksmipriya, who is slowly becoming everyone's favorite. In case of flooding during the monsoon months, the elephant will be taken this same route to higher grounds. Getting her familiar with the route during the dry season will help us manage her in case of an emergency.

Elephants need to walk every day to keep healthy. In the winter season, we allow Laksmipriya to walk on the paved main road. This will help her foot pads and nails to wear off. In the summer we try to keep her off the hot tar

roads. During the hot time of the day, she remains in her forest under the shade of tall trees which shelter her from the scorching summer sun.

In the beginning it was difficult for us to care for her feet. The elephant was not that well trained and did not know to follow the command that makes her lie down. As our mahouts only use a bamboo stick and not the ankus for training her, it took a little longer to teach her the command. I prefer to use the humane way of training rather than using the ankus, which can cause severe injuries if used excessively. After finally learning the command, while lying down on her side, the elephant is letting us now do her manicure without problems. We use a knife and a file to trim the nails and footpad.

To prevent fungal infections, we constructed a small foot bathing pool, where we let the elephant soak her feet in a solution of warm water mixed with potassium permanganate. We had some problems with minor cracks in her nails. Applying mustard oil to her nails along with feeding her a well balanced diet and walking a lot seams to help the crack problem.

Elephants need to drink lots of water, in the summer more than in the winter. Laksmipriya has access to a specially constructed water tank; however she has quickly learned the art of drinking from the tap as well as from the hand pump. For her daily bath, the elephant has a small bathing tank. She especially enjoys swimming in natural ponds. Had I known how much this elephant enjoys playing in the water, I would have certainly made the pool a bit bigger.

During the rainy season, the elephant stays at night under a roof which is open on all four sides. The raised, tightly packed, natural dirt floor lets her urine run off, so her sleeping place stays clean. However, we never keep her tethered at the same place for any long period of time. When weather allows, she will always stay under the shade of tall trees. Keeping the elephant on dirt has one setback. We need to keep a close watch on her behavior and eating habits. I have learned that if our elephant starts eating the soil, something is wrong. When there is an imbalance in her mineral intake she tries to replace the minerals by eating soil. This behavior usually means that the elephant probably has some kind of intestinal parasites. Her feces will have a darker color than usual and a stronger odor to it. Regular de-worming is very important. We routinely examine her stool every 3 to 4 months.

As there are many cattle in Mayapur, we inoculate our elephant for most of the common cattle diseases. I keep a medical register to keep records of her health, growth and vaccine schedules. I also note down any unusual behavior or problems.

Lately I have noticed a different behavior in Laksmipriya, which she has never shown before. She is showing unusual affection towards me. Although she has a special liking for me this particular behavior may be something different. I usually visit her twice or three times in a day. Calling out to her as I get near her place, she usually responds by turning towards me. I caress her under her trunk on a special place where I always do. For the last few days, as soon as I call out to her from a distance, she responds with a loud roar and trumpeting, as if she is trying to say, "Where have you been?! I've been waiting for you!" Besides the roaring and trumpeting she also makes whistling sounds to get my attention. When I finally reach her, she growls so loud, that it almost worries me that I have not spent more time with her. If I meet her walking on the road, she will come running towards me. She just wants to be with me. Nothing else seams to satisfy her. The mahouts are joking with me that I should just take her home with me to make her happy.

As for me, it just means that it is time for bringing the second elephant to Mayapur quickly. The relationship between the mahout and the elephant is very important for the emotional wellbeing of the Elephant. Anyone who is involved in caring or managing our elephant remembers this. It is a personal affair. Elephants are very intelligent people inside monstrous bodies, who have feelings. They have their own will too. The love that an elephant feels from her caretaker will never be forgotten for the rest of her life.

However, elephants are not pets. They are not ours to keep for entertainment. For their social health they need the company of their own species. For Laksmipriya to not be lonely, we have already made arrangements for another female elephant, whom we have named Vishnupriya, to come and give company to our young Laksmipriya.

Elephants are not loner animals. They always stay in herds. So in the meantime, while we are waiting for Vishnupriya's paperwork to clear, I'll just have to take her place.

I will always care for my little temple elephants with love and affection. The love that an elephant feels from her caretaker will never be forgotten for the rest of her life. Remember, elephants never forget!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. K. K. Sarma and Mr. Dwipen Kalita for their patience and help in training me to better care for our temple elephants.

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