Through my sojourns during my recent visit to Kerala, Lakshmi -- the most gorgeous 25-year-old female Asian elephant -- left an indelible impression. It was love at first sight the moment I stepped into her sphere of captivity. Lakshmi captured my heart and soul with her intense brown eyes, grace, and pious, but most importantly by opening her heart and showering me with unconditional love.
It seems like an illusion when I reflect back on a hot and humid December morning, as we drove into a beautiful mansion, our team greeted by two dogs -- dark brown German Shepherds -- barking at us. Ignoring them, we walked into the massive yard, and no sooner my colleagues were drawn into a conversation with the owners. I was way too curious, so quietly sneaked to the backside of the yard.
Lo and behold, there she was -- the magnificent Lakshmi, stretching out her trunk and sensing my presence, her body swaying side to side as she paced restlessly. Her trainer was nowhere to be seen, so I maintained a safe distance, silently observing her.
I was close enough to scan her body, a habit I'd developed after having encountered so many abused elephants with serious wounds. I was pleasantly surprised that Lakshmi's dark grey skin appeared spotless and smooth -- no injuries that I could detect. Next I examined the shackles on her feet. Thankfully they weren't as tight as the ones fastened on the ankles of the male elephants I'd seen in the festivities. Overall she seemed well kept and in good health.
As I was admiring Lakshmi, her trainer or mahout as they're called in India, walked into the complex and toward the elephant. I silently and cautiously followed him, making sure Lakshmi wasn't uncomfortable with this stranger. Amazingly, it felt entirely natural standing face to face with this majestic animal just a couple of feet away, gazing into her eyes as Lakshmi looked straight into mine.
We were feeling each other's presence, and as the mahout realized Lakshmi was comfortable in my presence, he stepped back and honoured our space. It was just me, Lakshmi, the space, and pure silence.
I became bold enough to move closer to her and rub my body against hers. The next thing you know she began to rub hers against mine. Lakshmi seemed to feel my love and began to caress my arms with her trunk. I could sense her warm breath, as she sniffed my skin with her tender nostrils. I also wiped off the tears steadily streaming down her cheeks, (as elephants don't have tear glands), and rubbed her chest standing right next to her forelegs. She swiftly brought her trunk between her legs, and caressed my arm, as though reciprocating my love.
Meantime, the scorching heat was becoming too much to bear, I could hardly comprehend how Lakshmi must have felt. Being a biologist, I understand these animals don't have sweat glands, so they can't cool down by perspiring as we do, which explains they're constantly looking for shelter from the sun and lakes to immerse themselves and cool down.
However in captivity the closest thing to cooling them down is hosing them. So I asked for a garden hose, and the minute the cool water descended on Lakshmi's head she released a heavy breath -- a huge sigh of relief was apparent on Lakshmi's face. I then hosed her neck and finally her body, as she closed her eyes, taking in all my TLC.
Now it was feeding time. I'd bought special treats for Lakshmi -- pineapples and bananas. Even as our driver carried in the jute sack filled with fruits, Lakshmi sniffed out the goodies, and stretched out her trunk. As I grabbed a pineapple and walked toward Lakshmi, she gently curled up her trunk and opened her mouth, as though asking me to feed her. I was deeply humbled by her trust in sharing her space with me, and even allowing me to place the fruits right inside her mouth.
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As I was savouring every single moment of this dream, a voice called out, "Sangita, it's time to leave." Two hours had gone by so quickly, now it was time to do the hardest thing -- say goodbye to a trusting friend, my animal soul mate with whom I'd connected so deeply. Choking back tears, I walked away with a heavy heart filled with precious memories that I will cherish until I die.
As I returned to reality, I realized a lot of work has been carved out to alleviate the pain and suffering of Kerala's captive elephants. Even though Lakshmi may have seemed to be a happy captive elephant, it's hard to imagine a wild animal "happily tethered," after having been robbed of its freedom to wander in the wild and its basic instincts suppressed for human gains.
As it turns out, Lakshmi was donated to a local temple by a wealthy man. Aside from the morning and evening rituals Lakshmi remains tethered most of the day. Granted she doesn't have to work as hard as the male elephants used in festivities. But it's hard to comprehend such a life of boredom for an intelligent animal, which would otherwise be wandering in the jungles and socializing with her herd. Such is the saga of a captive elephant...
Lakshmi has inspired me so much that I'm committed to doing my part in bridging the gap between humans and elephants. I can't wait to return to Kerala and reconnect with my animal soul mate!