Is cruelty on your vacation itinerary?

By Dr. Heather Rally

For many people planning overseas vacations, the exotic lure of India beckons. From the great Ganges River and the beaches of Goa to the iconic Taj Mahal and the towering Himalayas, the south Asian country holds an irresistible appeal. But beware: Almost as soon as a tourist sets foot in India, an enslaved elephant is offered for “entertainment.”

Elephants in India are forced to work under a variety of unnatural conditions, from festivals and temples to tourist rides. Those used in cities spend the entire day—and much of the night—walking on scorching-hot, pothole-ridden roads, breathing in exhaust fumes and “begging” for food in return for “blessings.” They’re often crippled with painful foot and toenail disease, sleep-deprived, malnourished and denied everything that makes an elephant’s life worthwhile: social interactions with their families, swimming and making choices about their daily lives.

My visit to one of India’s top tourist destinations, the Amer Fort in Jaipur, was particularly disheartening. About 100 elephants there are forced to carry tourists back and forth from the entrance to the main gate. The elephants’ mahouts (handlers) carry sticks to jab them with to ensure that they obey. As a veterinarian, I observed that many of the elephants being used to ferry tourists back and forth to the Amer Fort were suffering from serious, even life-threatening, foot disease. Many were also visually impaired. Some elephants had holes punched in their sensitive ears and drilled into their tusks just so that the mahouts could hang decorative ribbons from them. Captive elephants like these are often forced to work for long periods without adequate time to rest and recuperate.

The suffering begins almost from the day they are born. Often when they are just 2 years old, baby elephants are torn away from their mothers’ tender care and either tied up between trees with heavy chains and ropes, which cause painful abrasions, or confined to a tiny wooden enclosure called a kraal. Trainers then beat them with sticks and jab them with ankuses until their spirits are utterly broken. Shockingly, this torture can go on for months.

When elephants are not being forced to work, they are often chained to concrete stalls for hours on end so that they’re unable to move more than a step in any direction and forced to stand in their own excrement. They are rarely provided with adequate veterinary care and can suffer from tuberculosis, which can be transmitted to humans; skin ailments; eye infections; cataracts; and crippling arthritis and foot disease. Their quality of life is abysmal. When denied everything that gives their lives meaning, they become profoundly depressed. Many of them rock and sway constantly, a symptom of mental illness, and lash out at their mahouts and others around them.

Elephants are highly social animals who lavish affection and attention on their family members. In the wild, each day is filled with socializing, exploring, playing and participating in other group activities. Births are cause for celebration, and deaths of loved ones are mourned. Scientists have documented the depth and reach of elephants’ intelligence and emotional range. They are self-aware and empathetic, they plan ahead and they enjoy a social life as rich and complex as our own.

In captivity, these social and emotional bonds are destroyed.

Elephants in India endure this torment because tourists don’t realize that when they take elephant rides or participate in other forms of entertainment that uses elephants, they are directly supporting it. If you’re planning a trip to India, enjoy all that India has to offer, but please don’t support cruelty to elephants.