After what must have felt like an eternity of torment, Raju had no doubt forgotten what it was like to walk without metal spikes digging into his ankles. The shock of having these chains removed, then, was probably like a bolt from the blue, and this poor creature’s reaction showed more humanity than his abusers ever did.
As with many rescued elephants, much of Raju’s past is a mystery. Supposedly, the majestic creature began life as a free soul. But at a very young age he was apparently taken from his family and turned into, essentially, a slave for the tourism industry.
Yes, for decades the poor pachyderm was forced to walk the hot streets of India earning rupees for his keepers. Raju endured untold horrors of abuse and suffered at the hands of these cruel handlers, who are referred to as “mahouts.”
In fact, Raju’s long walks on the asphalt-covered roads had left him with some serious foot problems. His footpads and nails had overgrown, for example, and he was in danger of developing infections that, if left untreated, could’ve resulted in the elephant no longer proving profitable to his keepers. And that fate was often a one-way road to euthanasia.
Thankfully, the animal charity Wildlife SOS India was able to intervene. “People would give the mahout tips in exchange for ‘blessings’ by Raju,” the organization explained. But little of that money was spent on keeping Raju healthy. Wildlife SOS India said, “Most of the food he got was inappropriate for an elephant. However, half starving, Raju would eat almost anything.”
“By the time we found him he was in a pathetic condition. He wasn’t fed properly and was in a state of hunger and exhaustion. He began eating plastic and paper,” Wildlife SOS wrote. But that wasn’t the full extent of the mahouts’ cruelty; Raju was the victim of severe abuse as well as neglect.
For instance, one of the methods the mahouts used for controlling the once-majestic beast was to put spiked chains around his ankles. As the elephant walked, then, the spikes would dig into his flesh and make each step one of agony.
“He has abscesses and wounds because of his spiked shackles,” Wildlife SOS India wrote on its website. One of the most heartbreaking details about Raju’s story, though, is that this wasn’t his first abusive owner, or even his fifth. Alas, he’s had a far more troubling life than that.
“Raju’s case was particularly tragic. He has been sold on and on. We believe he has had up to 27 owners,” Wildlife SOS’s Pooja Binepal said. “By the time we found him he was in a pathetic condition. He wasn’t fed properly and was in a state of hunger and exhaustion.”
So how did the organization come to rescue him? Well, it took almost five long decades of torture and suffering, but someone finally reported Raju’s situation to the authorities. Then, just a year later, Wildlife SOS were closing talks with India’s Uttar Pradesh Forest and Wildlife Department to get legal permission to take Raju away from his latest owner.
Wildlife SOS eventually gained the proper permissions and set off to free Raju from his personal hell. Still, this was a rescue mission that required some stealth in case the owner refused to cooperate. So, at midnight on July 2, 2014, the wildlife team located Raju and broke his chains.
The down-on-his-luck elephant did not look good. “His withering body bore multiple scars from ‘ankush’ (bull hook) use, and his spirit was all but broken, a testament to the ordeals he had been through,” Wildlife SOS India’s website described.
In fact, as the team worked to take off each of Raju’s chains, the elephant started to cry. “Raju was in chains 24 hours a day, an act of intolerable cruelty,” Binepal said. “The team was astounded to see tears roll down his face during the rescue. It was incredibly emotional.”
The rescue team furthermore worked through the night to remove Raju’s spiked shackles. “His mahout and previous owner were non-cooperative and made things very difficult to rescue Raju,” Wildlife SOS said.
“They put more chains on him and pulled the spikes tighter and then had people blocking the roads leading to the rescue truck,” Wildlife SOS wrote. But despite all of that, the rescuers finally got Raju free. Then it just became a process of earning the elephant’s trust and coaxing him onto their truck. Thankfully, fruit and several hours of patience did the trick.
So, after a long 350-mile journey, Raju found a new home on July 4, 2014 at Wildlife SOS’s Elephant Conservation and Care Center in Mathura. His wounds were tended to, and he was fed some appropriate food to treat his malnutrition. But after only a few months at the center, Raju’s future suddenly got murky.
Just when it looked like Raju was safe in his new home, the elephant’s previous owner, a Mr. Shahid, proceeded to take Wildlife SOS to court in an effort to win back what he claimed was rightfully his. There was just one problem: Shahid had been keeping the elephant illegally. So, in the end, Raju was officially classed as free.
“Raju was timid and fearful at first, unable to comprehend his freedom and still unsure about walking free without his spiked chains. It took him a few weeks to familiarize himself with his new home and to accept that he was finally free, and that his life had changed for the better,” Wildlife SOS wrote.
“Until we stepped in he’d never known what it is like to walk free of his shackles,” Binepal added. “But today he knows what freedom is and he will learn what kindness feels like.” Raju is now living happily with his new elephant family at the Wildlife SOS sanctuary.
“Raju remains a star at our center,” Wildlife SOS wrote. “He can be seen reveling in his new home, splashing about in his pool, eating, playing with his toys and enrichments, going on long strolls and socializing with the other wonderful elephants at our center – healthy, happy and free at long last.”