An elephant wept copious tears when feed from captivity last week. Raju the elephant was kept in cruel chains and beaten as he was used as a tool for his owner’s begging in the Uttar Pradesh region of India. Shackles around his feet had spikes that dug into his flesh, leaving permanent wounds, to prevent him from running away. The group Wildlife-SOS was alerted to the elephant’s plight by a forestry official from Uttar Pradesh and obtained a court order to free the elephant. However, when the owner resisted the group effected a nighttime raid to liberate Raju. He was then driven to the Elephant Conservation and Care center in Mathura where the chains were cut from his legs. For the first time in nearly 50 years Raju was able to walk freely. That is when the tears started to flow.
The elephant’s remarkable tears touched his rescuers and have created headlines around the world. Raju’s outpouring of emotion seemed to express gratitude and joy at being rescued from his miserable life. It is a heartwarming story and a small triumph for animal rights, but why do people find the elephant’s tears so captivating? Some say it is because they are proof of an awareness of his situation and an ability to recognize a change in his circumstances.
The debate over how much ability animals have to think about the world around them has raged for centuries. It has always benefitted humans to believe that they are different from other creatures; set above them to rule the world. It is clear that humans have a unique ability to create. Art, poetry, music, science and mathematics are proof that humans interact with the world on a higher level. Many humans believe their ability to think and reason makes them more important than their fellow animals. Other people see animals more as equals with the same rights to life, happiness and protection. Often the main question is whether animals know what is happening around them or are they simply reacting to current stimuli.
Some experts say that Raju’s tears may be proof that animals know. When an elephant weeps when freed from captivity, they claim, it verifies that the elephant understands its captivity and understands its new freedom. There are many other examples of elephants exhibiting awareness of changes. In 2012 two herds of wild elephants showed up at their protector’s compound shortly after his death. Anthony Lawrence, known as the elephant whisperer, had rescued the troublesome and erstwhile violent elephants from destruction but then let them roam free on his expansive sanctuary. The elephants walked for twelve hours to arrive at his house and held a vigil for two days before heading back into the bush. It is well known that elephants mourn passing herd members in the wild, but to react this way to a human shows an awareness beyond instinct.
Animals also recognize one another or their human rescuers after extended periods. The elephants Shirley and Jenny were ecstatic to be reunited at the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary after 25 years. In the 1970s two men rescued a cub and later introduced him into the wilds of Africa. A year later they visited the now wild lion who was the head of his own pride. The lion instantly recognized the men, showed elated affection, and even introduced his new family. Just this past year a group of animals was rescued and, unfortunately, separated in California. A goat named Mr. G embarked on a depressed hunger strike until the caregivers managed to reunite him with his best friend, a donkey named Jellybean. Mr. G and Jellybean are happily recovering together.
Every person who lives with an animal as part of the family knows that special bonds occur. People observe animals expressing emotions and reacting to their emotions; but do animals think about what they are feeling and doing? Raju’s tears of joy and the other stories of animal awareness might indicate that they are conscious of more than their current states. Perhaps, instead of just feeling sentimental about a happy ending such as Raju’s, people should become more mindful about how they share the world with animals. It is becoming harder to deny that animals are sentient beings, especially when it is clear to see the tears running down Raju’s cheeks. Maybe, by observing how an elephant weeps when freed from captivity, people can come closer to giving animals the concern and protection they deserve. Further, the people who perpetrated 50 years of outright torture on this elephant fully deserve to be prosecuted as if they had done the same to a person.
Opinion By: Rebecca Savastio