Suraj lived most of his life in a dark and damp room, with no opportunity to feel sunshine on his skin — which is ironic, considering his name translates to “sun”. Like many other Asian elephants in India, he lived his life as a temple elephant. The practice of having elephants at the temple is one that is interwoven deep within our history, and keeping a single elephant captive means that there is no scope for social interaction with another of its kind. Suraj shares a similar story, wherein he lived surrounded by people that loved and revered him, but continued to suffer due to his poor living conditions.
Suraj had been residing as a temple elephant for over four decades, enduring several health problems in a space that had no special provisions for musth management or care for male elephants. Suraj had also lost his left ear, presumably during the separation from his herd as a young calf. He was kept chained up in an improper manner, which led to the poor condition of his ankle joints. The people who lived in the area surrounding the temple honoured Suraj, but they were unaware of how his living conditions were highly detrimental to his health. Suraj was always present at their place of worship and would stay there throughout prayer sessions and processions, but the harsh reality is that noise and chaos on such occasions cause immense stress to the sensitive ears of elephants.
The more time Suraj spent as a captive elephant inside that dingy room, the lesser time he had to demonstrate his natural behaviour, as he would have amidst nature in the wild — Suraj could not forage for food he liked, he could not walk on tender grass, he could not feel either the wind on his face or even the warm rays of the shining sun on his back.
In the end, the forest department made the decision to shift Suraj to the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre where he would receive the necessary medical care to live a happy and healthy life. The rescue didn’t go as smoothly as expected, with a mob of people around the temple preventing Suraj from reaching the elephant ambulance. Though the team was accompanied by a force of more than 70 law enforcement officers, there was a constant risk of violence, and the negotiations lasted for hours.
The veterinary officers charted out a treatment plan for the multiple bullhook wounds, overgrown toenails, foot rot and terrible malnourishment that Suraj had. Slowly, but surely, most of his physical injuries healed. However, his mental scars took a lot longer to heal than the physical ones that he bore.
Despite his tall stature and immense tusks, when Suraj first arrived, he was extremely anxious and flinched at every little noise. He would display stereotypic behaviours such as swaying and head-bobbing whenever he felt stressed. During times when there would be rain or thunder, Suraj showed signs of stress and fear, and nothing that his caregiver did would put him fully at ease. He would hide in his enclosure and continue stereotypy when he heard the loud claps of thunder. This behaviour proved to be much more difficult for Suraj to overcome, and it took a lot of effort from his caregiver to gain his trust.
Day and night, Suraj’s caregiver continued to assure Suraj that he would not be beaten or chained mercilessly, that he would continue to receive a steady supply of food which would not arbitrarily stop, and that he would always have soft mud baths to sleep at night instead of hard concrete floors. Over time, Suraj began to respond to his care and soon, his true personality started to show.
Many of us expected that much like other male elephants, Suraj too would become a little stubborn or temperamental once he healed. Much to our delight and surprise, Suraj has a sunny personality! This giant elephant — who has grown to be one of our most majestic resident tuskers — is also one of the most gentle, kind and big-hearted jumbos, showcasing a deep level of compassion for the people around him. He is careful of the presence of small animals like birds and squirrels if they are in close proximity to him. In case a few birds sit perched atop his mud-bed or his water hole, he makes sure not to go near them, in case he scares the birds off!
He also enjoys taking cool showers while his caregiver scrubs dirt off of his body. Sometimes, while taking these showers in the summer, he dozes off and completely loses track of everything in his surroundings. He is fond of going on long walks, and doesn’t mind the presence of peacocks or cranes walking alongside him as he samples the grass and plants in his path. Though bull elephants tend to become quite aggressive during their musth period, our veterinarians are able to conduct minor treatments on Suraj when his caregiver gives the green light.
Suraj is inquisitive about all the new faces that he sees when visitors come close to his enclosure. When our documentation officer first ventured to see Suraj, the jumbo was being bathed by his caregiver. He had been sound asleep till then, but when his trunk caught a whiff of a new person, he opened his eyes and was at once alert. However, once his caregiver soothed him and let him know that the presence of the documentation officer wasn’t a matter of worry, Suraj went right back to sleep. Afterwards, he also went on a long walk, accompanied by his caregiver and the documentation officer, while taking joyful dust baths and using a tree as a makeshift scratch pole!
On a daily basis, Suraj eats over 10 kilograms of porridge, which is a mix of brown rice, ragi, ghee and vegetables. Some elephants like Maya and Phoolkali consume only about 2-3 kilograms of porridge everyday along with their fruits and vegetables, but others like Suraj and Suzy eat more porridge as it is softer and easier for them to digest at their advanced age. Suraj prefers sweet fruits like watermelons, but tends to leave out bits of his pumpkins, beetroots and horseradish. The elephant care team is now familiar with his likes and dislikes and feeds him his meals accordingly.
At the moment, Suraj is being treated for his chronic hip abscess. He receives oral supplements, as well as topical medication. Feeding an elephant medicine is no easy task, but Suraj makes the process easy! Having a strong sense of smell, elephants like Rajesh and Pari deftly pick out medicines that are hidden within porridge or layers of fodder and spit them out. However, Suraj can simply be given his pills without the need of any stealthy tactics like covering them in jaggery or balls of porridge; he calmly consumes them.
We are glad to help Suraj in his journey of healing. He really brings sunshine into the life of every human and animal that he interacts with. There is a lot that we can learn about empathy from Suraj’s kindness and willingness to forgive, despite undergoing the horrors of his past. If you would like to ensure many more happy and healthy years for Suraj, you can donate to his care here!