Story by Suz
When my friends and colleagues at Global Sanctuary for Elephants approached me to write a piece for their Every Elephant Matters Campaign, my mind immediately skipped over all the elephants I have known and loved intimately, the ones I have laughed and cried with, and instantly went to an elephant whose name I have never known.
Like many people in their mid-twenties, when I was 25, I was drifting aimlessly through life. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, I had no direction. I was two years out of college and living in a small town in southwest Virginia, working at a 7-11. I had never been in an airplane, never left the US. I knew I wanted more, but didn’t know where or how to begin. I traveled to Rhode Island with some friends, and a CouchSurfing host told me, “if you are ever searching for something in your life, and don’t know what, go to India, India will provide.” That random piece of wisdom combined with a love of Indian food was enough for me to buy a one-way ticket to India.
Looking back on it today, I shake my head and laugh. If I met a 25-year-old woman today who had never left the US and was hell bent on a one-way ticket to India with no plan beyond a hotel room booked for the first night, I would try to talk her out of it. Thankfully, I was (and still am) a stubborn idealist who refuses to listen to anyone else, so, off I went. I traveled around India for six months, and had an incredible, life changing time, and wouldn’t trade a moment of it. It was literally a whole new world. Seven years later, and more than a dozen other countries under my belt, my trip to India is a blur of brightly colored saris, delicious food, vibrant markets smelling of curry and vanilla, temples, and incredible sights.
Several months and at least a hundred temples into my trip, I was somewhere in the south of India. I remember the guidebook mentioned the town I was in had a temple elephant that “isn’t too badly treated, as far as temple elephants go.” I hadn’t felt any deep connection to elephants up to that point in my life. Several weeks before, while on a boat, I saw a herd of wild elephants grazing in the distance, and took a few pictures, but really hadn’t felt a pull to the species at then either. It was a beautiful sight, but that was it. Nonetheless, I thought, “a temple elephant? That sounds cool!” so off I went, with little other thought.
So, there I was, in the temple. At this point, my memory becomes vivid. I even remember what pants I was wearing, and the color of the scarf on my head. I remember in the main room of the temple, there was water. And I placed my puja, or offering, in it, and then turned to walk out. And there she stood.
Her eyes were sunken, her legs chained. Her weight was shifting constantly, almost like a dance, but not one of beauty. Her mahout stood beside her, bull hook in hand. He eyed me as a foreigner, and started his pitch; telling me how many rupees for a blessing, how many rupees for a photograph… It was a business for him, but I can’t judge it, in a country as poor as India, everyone does what they need to just to survive. But as he asked me for money, she looked over at me, and when I looked back at her, our eyes met, and everything else melted away. It was just her and I. I felt her look into my soul. I felt her truly look at me, like no being ever had. And she saw who I truly was. And as I looked at her, I looked deep into her soul. And there was so much sadness. So, so much sadness.
It was the sadness of a creature so intelligent that she understood her own fate, the depth of her own hopelessness, and that her misery would only end when she died.
It was too much to bear, and I took a step back, back from the pain, and at the same time reached out my hand towards her, wanting to comfort myself as much as to comfort her. We were several feet away from each other, too far to touch, but when I reached out my hand, the mahout stepped between us, and told me how many rupees to touch her. And our moment was broken, yet reality had shifted. Everything in my life had changed, and would never be the same again. I knew that then, and I know that now. That moment changed my life.
I went directly back to my hotel, laid in bed, and cried and cried. I cried for her, I cried for the world that made her who she was. I cried for myself. I just cried. My heart was broken.
When I say she showed me a sadness I had never known existed, I want you to remember that I had been traveling around India for several months at this point; I had seen starving children, starving dogs, starving mothers pleading for pennies while holding starving babies to their dried up breasts. I had walked the streets of Varanasi, where the dying go to die. I had seen lepers, I had seen disabled people begging and starving on the trains, in the streets. I had seen sadness, I had seen tragedy, but nothing could compare to what I saw in that elephant’s eyes, what I felt when she shared her soul with me.
When I eventually left India, I moved to New York City for a bit, and started telling everyone I met that my purpose in life was to “move somewhere and love elephants.” I had no idea what I meant by that, I just knew that I meant it. I felt it in my soul. That elephant had given me a glimpse, and there was no going back. I had to help.
When I went to India, following that advice of “India will provide,” I really didn’t expect it to provide me with a life purpose of loving elephants, but life is unpredictable like that.
In all the love and loving kindness I have given elephants along the way, I done so with the understanding that I can never make up the wrongs that have been done to them, as individuals or as a species. I know that all I can do is help each elephant, as an individual, find peace and happiness in the here and now, and that doing that is enough.
Every dollar I have donated, every drop of sweat I have sweated stacking hay and shoveling big ole elephant poops in the summer, and every frozen finger I have had to warm after powerwashing a barn in the winter…everything I have done, I have done for that sweet girl, cursed to live her life chained in a temple in India. The elephants I have served in Sanctuary have changed my life. They have changed who I am, how I love, how I live my life.
That day in India, when I looked in that elephant’s eyes, I saw she had found peace with her lot in life, but I never have. I think of her often, and I wish I could go back, and find her, and tell her about what I have done, about the elephants I have helped, and to tell her how sorry I am that I could never help her. Part of me thinks she knows, part of me thinks she knew all along, and that’s why, when she looked at me, she chose to open her soul to me. I will never know.
So, to that dear sweet elephant whose name I will never know, I am here to tell you that my heart continues to break for you… I am so sorry for your truths, and yet I thank you from the depths of my heart for opening me up to a lifelong journey of loving and learning from the power, beauty, and peace that only your species knows. I am forever in your debt.