After many years of what could only be described as torturous confinement, Mariappan, a 23-year-old elephant who had been kept chained in abysmal conditions inside a dark shed at Arulmigu Mariamman Temple at Samayapuram, has been freed and is on his way to a better life.

 The move is the result of a campaign led by local activist Radha Swami and assisted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India. Mariappan had been kept chained by all four legs by temple authorities since 2002 and could not take even a single step forwards or backwards. His shackles were removed in January, and he was transported from the temple to a spacious compound at Arignar Anna Zoological Park at Vandalur, where he can finally walk around and enjoy the trees and fresh air. Three other elephants held captive at local temples are still in chains and have yet to be moved.

“The living conditions under which Mariappan was kept were hell on Earth and unsuitable for any living being”, says PETA India’s Dr Manilal Valliyate. “Daily walking and mental stimulation are essential to an elephant’s mental and physical health. Lack of exercise and years spent standing in one position on hard surfaces amid one’s own waste can lead to painful and crippling foot ailments and arthritis. We are grateful to the Forest Department for liberating Mariappan and hope that the same will be done for the three other elephants who are still being deprived of all that is natural and important to them.”

There is a growing scandal over the way in which elephants used in temples are typically kept – as if they were bicycles to be chained up and ignored. They are controlled through beatings and prodded in sensitive areas behind their knees and ears with an ankush (a rod with an iron hook). They rarely receive enough food or water, and most of them never see a veterinarian, even when they are injured or ill. Elephants at temples also show signs of severe psychological distress, such as swaying, head-bobbing or weaving – behaviour which is not found in healthy elephants in the wild.

Actions to relieve the suffering of Mariappan and three other ailing elephants housed in Sugavaneswarar Temple in Salem, Alagar Kovil in Madurai and Suchindram Temple in Kanyakumari were first initiated by the Tamil Nadu government in 2008. The government ordered that these four elephants be rehabilitated and sent to appropriate rescue centres where they can move about, stretch and exercise. The government also agreed to pay for their future care. However, until recently, no action had been taken.

As a result of pressure from non-governmental organisations and other caring individuals, Mariappan is the first of the elephants to be moved. The government is now being strongly encouraged to take action quickly on behalf of the three remaining elephants.

~ Many thanks to Dr Manilal Valliyate, Director of Veterinary Affairs at PETA India, for permission to reprint this news.

Benazir Suraiya

Manilal Valliyate