In a significant order, Justice G.R. Swaminathan of the Madras High Court permitted the caretaker of an elephant to retain her custody, after taking into consideration the 20-year bond between them.
Justice Swaminathan observed, “Elephants are known to be sensitive and possessed of self-awareness. They have passed what is known as a “mirror test”. The German naturalist Peter Wohlleben, after years of direct, personal observation, says that animals also feel the very same emotions which the humans are capable of. Feelings of love, grief and compassion are equally found in the animals.
The court was hearing the petition filed by caretaker Sheik Mohammed of Virudhunagar district. He had purchased the elephant, Lalitha, in 2000 and applied for the transfer of ownership in 2002. The request was rejected in 2020. He sought the rejection order be set aside and grant him the certificate of ownership.
Considering the plight of the elephant and her caretaker, the judge made a surprise inspection to ascertain the status of Lalitha in Chokkanathanputhur in Virudhunagar district. “When I reached the spot, I found her being sumptuously fed. What pleased me was that she was not at all chained...I checked if there are any injury marks on her. There were none. The elephant looked happy and healthy. Lalitha exhibited great friendliness,” the judge said.
“Article 51A (g) of the Constitution of India calls upon us to have compassion for living creatures. Lalitha is entitled to express her normal patterns of behavior. She has been with her caretaker for more than 20 years...The department was issuing directives from time to time and they were complied with by the petitioner. Microchip has been implanted in her body so that her movements can be tracked. She has developed a great bonding with her caretakers. Forcible relocation in alien surroundings is sure to traumatise her. I, therefore, felt that the approach that we adopt in child custody cases must be followed in the case of Lalitha also,” the judge observed.
Further, the judge said that when he questioned the caretakers regarding Lalitha’s maintenance he was told that she was taken to some of the well known temples and dargahs of south Tamil Nadu and the organisers of the religious functions pay for her majestic participation. “Lalitha does not beg on the roads. Her dignity is intact,” the judge said. He took cognisance of the fact that veterinarians appointed by the department had certified that she was being maintained properly by the petitioner.
The State had argued that no person, without previous permission in writing of the authority concerned, can keep in possession, custody, control or transfer any wild animal. The court held that therefore the request for the certificate was rightly rejected. The court, however, directed the authorities to permit the caretaker to keep the custody of the elephant and granted the authorities the liberty to inspect the elephant at any time.