One of the most common questions we get after saving an elephant is, “why does she still have a bell on?” It’s an emotional subject because after all, it’s a symbol of their brutal life laboring on the streets.
Despite their size and weight, elephants can walk very quietly. When they’re in an unnatural setting like a busy city, owners use the bells to alert people of the elephant’s presence. The bells are also a traditional “decoration” for captive elephants. In Hinduism, the sound of a bell is considered auspicious, which welcomes divinity and dispels evil. But of course as compassionate elephant lovers, we see the bells much differently. They’re a symbol of the elephant’s cruel bondage.
So why don’t we remove an elephant’s bells immediately after a rescue? The simple answer is that removing the bell can be disruptive and even add to the stress of an elephant as they try to adjust to their new surroundings. This can be especially true with a blind elephant like Nina, who is guided only by sound and smell … she has had the clanking of a bell around her neck for many decades.
In those first days after an elephant’s rescue, the sight and sound of the bell is much more distressing for us than it is for the elephant. So we generally wait a week or two to remove a newly rescued elephant’s bell and even have a small ceremony to mark the moment as a final step to freedom.
When Karma’s bell was removed last year in a ceremony surrounded by her new friends Holly and Kalpana, she had moments of disorientation at her newfound silence. The blind elephant took careful, silent steps around her enclosure as she began to understand the significance of the event. The moment was both beautiful and tragic as observers realized the prominence the sound of the bell had in Karma’s life.
After a removal ceremony, Wildlife SOS often puts the elephant’s bell up for auction. It’s a way for people to support the elephant’s rescue, and at the same time have a unique and provocative piece of history that represents the elephant’s past life. The sight of the bell is heartbreaking, but also an opportunity for lively discussion about the plight of India’s captive elephants.
If you would like to see some past bell removal ceremonies, watch our NatGeo WILD series episode “Operation Elephant” that highlights Kalpana. It’s a beautifully captured moment of reverence for Kalpana’s strength and recognition of her past suffering.