Sweetie Kali’s Water Trough

When Paspat, the mahout supervisor at National Trust for Nature Conservation, asked about a water trough for Sweetie Kali, I nearly fell off my chair. Seriously— his question was a shocker because captive elephants are not given free-choice access to anything in Asia. The belief is that allowing them to make choices will spoil them for their mahouts. The great fear is that if elephants experience a sense of freedom and are content, they will refuse to respond to their mahouts.

The fact that Paspat asked for a water trough reinforced my belief that he genuinely cares about his elephants’ welfare. Even in the United States— land of the brave, home of the free—many captive elephants are not given free-choice access to water.

I was deeply touched by Paspat’s request—so outside of the normal thinking of mahouts—and I assured him I would make it happen. The grin that spread across his face when he understood my response was priceless.

It struck me that this might be the first time Paspat was in a position to create a practice contrary to tradition. A chill ran up my spine as I looked long and hard at this man, who supported the chain-free yard concept and suggested free-choice water. Even though we do not share one word of a common language, I felt the connection loud and clear.

First stop: the concrete factory

After securing the required authorization to add a water trough to Sweetie Kali’s yard, I posed my challenge to Kiran, the veterinary tech/nail cutter extraordinaire. He was excited to help.

I explained what I needed: a sturdy, bathtub-shaped, concrete drinking trough, with inlet and outlet holes, heavy enough that Sweetie Kali cannot knock it over.
In his broken English Kiran said he knew a man who could make the trough for us. So off we went on his motorcycle, zooming down the pothole-rutted village road toward the other side of town.

We arrived at the concrete factory. There was a yard full of custom-made concrete posts for building supports and culverts used for septic tanks but I did not see anything that vaguely resembled a water trough.

I also did not see a single person.

Kiran parked his bike and charged over to a three-sided shack, calling out to someone. There was a man inside who was fast asleep.

Kiran entered the building without so much as knocking. The man, who was lying on a thin mattress on a wood-frame sleeping platform, was the soundest sleeper I ever saw. Kiran was nearly yelling—and the guy did not move. It was only when Kiran shook him that he awoke.

Midday is nap time as it is too hot to do much else. The bewildered look on the shopkeeper’s face was not as result of being woken abruptly but out of surprise to see us out and active in the sweltering heat.

The man rubbed his sleepy eyes as he sat up, trying to understand what Kiran was asking. I watched—which is how things work when you don’t speak the language—once again ever thankful for Kiran’s willingness to be my translator.

Finally the man seemed to understand what we wanted and began asking questions. Kiran included me in the three-way animated conversations, complete with crude drawing on the shop’s dirt floor. We decided on the width, length, height and wall thickness. I kept emphasizing to Kiran that it had to be heavy and strong enough that Sweetie Kali cannot pull it over or break it.

We decided on a free-standing version because if the trough was ground-level, dirt would get into it.

There was much discussion about the wall thickness and amount of steel bar required to make it strong enough. Explaining the inlet and drain holes was a bit challenging. When I finally saw the shopkeeper’s eyes light up in comprehension, I knew he understood what we wanted.

I kept pushing for an estimate but the shopkeeper was reluctant to give one. He had never created a trough before and clearly did not want to underestimate the cost. After much prodding on Kiran’s part, though, we had a bid in hand and commitment that he would start on our project the next day. I was so excited!
How would he actually make it?

At no time during the process did I think to ask how he would create the mold for the trough. He would build a frame out of two by fours and plywood and pour the concrete in, of course. How else?

The concrete factory was halfway between Kiran’s house and Sauraha. He passed the shop each morning on his way to pick me up for foot trimming and kept me apprised of the progress. Indeed, work had begun immediately, as promised, with an estimated curing time of ten days.

The wait was excruciating, so after about five days I just had to check on progress myself.

When we arrived the yard was empty. My heart sank when I saw nothing that resembled a water trough. But as we drove slowly toward the back of the yard, which borders a neighbor’s cornfield, I saw it.

The mold was not what I expected but, considering available resources, it made perfect sense. A hole the exact dimensions of the outside of the trough had been dug into the earth, then the concrete was poured and molded by hand. It was stunning!

I could not help but ask how he would get that heavy trough out of the ground. Kiran laughed and explained that several men would pull the trough from the ground by hand and load it onto a wagon for delivery. I did not think to ask how it would be off-loaded into Sweetie Kali’s yard.

The trough arrives

The day finally arrived and the wagon carrying the water trough was backed into Sweetie’s yard. All the mahouts gathered around, very willing to be of assistance.
I watched as the deliverymen discussed the best way to unload this 700-pound tub of concrete and steel. The weight and slick bottom of the trough made it a dangerous situation.

They decided to park the wagon at an angle, place a large tire on the ground just below the tailgate and slide the trough off the trailer onto the tire. I kept my nose out of the planning but two things nagged at me—the steep angle of the trailer and the weight of the trough. But, the deliverymen were in charge, so I kept my mouth shut.

Then it happened, catching the men by surprise. One tug on the trough sent it careening toward the open end of the wagon—and all the men. As it picked up speed, the men scattered. I heard my own “oh no!” pierce the silence as the trough became airborne, turned in mid-air and landed with a thump on its side, feet from its intended landing spot on the tire.

I scanned the scene to see if the trough had landed on anyone. The area was clear and everyone looked fine. But then I noticed Paspat rapidly exiting the scene with Babu Ram close behind. He was holding his hand high in the air. It was then that I saw blood running down his hand.

Paspat had caught his hand between the trough and the bed of the trailer, slicing across the top of it from thumb to baby finger. It was not a pretty sight.

Nandu fired up his motor cycle. Paspat climbed aboard, but not before washing the blood from his good hand so as not to soil the bike. With the entire group looking on in silence, Paspat was raced to the local clinic, hand held high above his head to help slow the bleeding.

The men wrestled the trough into place in a most unceremonious manner. The accident had dampened everyone’s spirits.

Within minutes we learned that Paspat had no broken bones, but the muscles in his hand were pressed back toward his wrist. The muscles were massaged back into place and he received twelve stitches. The biggest concern was infection. Paspat is diabetic so the doctor was concerned about how well he would heal.

Hand healed, trough in place

More than a week has passed and I am happy to report that Paspat’s hand healed without complication.

As for the trough, it is a work of art. Every angle is perfect, all the surfaces smooth to ensure that Sweetie does not scratch her trunk and that it is easy to keep clean. I marveled at the amount of work that went into the mold and the craftsmanship it required. I could not have been happier.

Sweetie Kali wasted no time making use of her trough. The mahouts seem to enjoy watching her almost as much as she enjoys splashing, bathing and drinking.


Some of you commented on the newspaper that covers the outside of the trough, making it look like papier mache. The newspaper was used to line the inside of the earthen mold to keep the concrete clean; now it’s nearly one with the concrete so the mahouts decided to leave it.

A huge thank-you goes to the mahouts for their willingness to try something new and to all the supporters who underwrote the cost of adding this trough to Sweetie Kali’s yard.

view the video of Sweetie Kali playing in her troughSweetie Kali's new water trough

Thank you all so much.

another possible care center in India

For the past two months I have been in communications with a well-established foundation interested in collaborating with Elephant Aid International on a care center in Northeast India.

Early next week I will walk the land proposed for the care center. It took a bit of flight rescheduling to accomplish this layover, but passing up the opportunity to consider an additional site for a care center was simply not an option.

I have a short twelve hours to travel from the airport to the proposed site, walk the land, assess its suitability for a care center and meet with the foundation and forest department representatives to discuss my findings.

Am I excited? Absolutely!

I realize I posted a bevy of ChipIns this past week. All our projects came to fruition in rapid succession and I am eternally grateful to everyone who rallied to make the fundraising efforts a huge success.

This time I need to raise $421 for airfare to visit this proposed care center site in India.

If you already gave to Sweetie Kali’s yard or water trough or the pool for the babies at the government breeding center, don’t burden yourself thinking you need to give again. Others will contribute and feel the joy of giving to a good cause. I have complete confidence that the funds will be raised.

As always, my sincerest thank you for your compassion and concern for elephants.

On Patrol

When Nandu learned that I wanted to accompany Sweetie Kali on her anti-poaching patrol he directed me to Ram Kumar who graciously cleared my request with Paspat, the mahout supervisor. Realizing how much is lost in translation, I felt it best to experience Sweetie’s patrol duty first hand. I planned to walk instead of ride, which, for the most part, I did.

It was reassuring to watch Sweetie Kali voluntarily exit her yard without hesitation. The deepest concern shared by mahouts was that after being chain-free she would refuse to respond to her mahout. That fear has proven to be unfounded.

Puntea, Sweetie’s phonet (lead mahout) used a burlap bag to “slap off” the thick layer of fine dirt Sweetie had spent the last several hours throwing on her back. In places where the dirt was very thick he struck her firmly with blunt side of his crew pa (machete), creating an avalanche of silt cascading to the ground.

This approach to sweeping dirt off Sweetie appears a bit rough and indeed it is. But she showed no concern, moving gracefully from a lying, to half-sitting and then standing position to accommodate the process.  I did catch myself questioning—for the umpteenth time–why the mahouts handle their elephants in such a rough manner.  Nothing is gentle — not a touch or a word; no silent tactile moment of praise.

Reconsidering the decision to walk

In seconds we were on our way, me with a satchel of essentials — camera, water, hat, umbrella and Chap Stick — and Puntea perched on Sweetie Kali’s back with the multi-functional burlap bag as a seat cushion. He carried a small wooden switch and badly tattered umbrella. I noticed immediately that he was not carrying a bottle of water and mistakenly took it as a sign that our outing would not be rugged.

Keeping pace with Sweetie on foot was no problem. Her mahout allowed her to amble at a comfortable speed.

Our first stop was the river — spectacular. With ease, Sweetie Kali submerged herself in the water with Puntea still perched atop her back. He managed not to get so much as a toe wet — for what reason I don’t know, since it was already sweltering hot. Following one word commands, Sweetie tilted from side to side in the strong current, bobbing like a buoy.

At this point I realized my plan to make this excursion on foot was flawed. The current would make crossing a challenge but the bigger issue was slithering down the river in our direction—a large crocodile.  Apologizing to Sweetie for the extra burden, I clambered aboard and we crossed safely to the opposite shore.

Grass: food and trimming tool

In front of us lay a vast grassland, high as an elephant’s eye, as the saying goes. In stark contrast, in the hazy distance rose a mountain range dense in vegetation, its forest seeming to pulsate in the early morning heat.

As Sweetie effortlessly ambled through the tall grass she reached to the side, grasped a trunkful of grass, pulled it tight and, with her next step, severed it at the soil line with a strike of her foot. All this without missing a step.

I remember watching in awe at the Sanctuary the first time I watched Jenny cutting grass in the same manner as she grazed.  With each step she’d grab a trunkful of grass, casually swung her foot forward and effortlessly sever the grass with her toenails. There is quite a hypnotizing, even relaxing, rhythm to this action. The abrasive quality of grass works as a natural trimming tool; this is one way elephants keep their nails, cuticles and pads trimmed to a healthy length.

Joining the patrol

We traveled in complete silence for some time, umbrellas balanced overhead to shade ourselves from the scorching sun. But soon the silence was pierced when from out of nowhere we were joined by two young elephants and their mahouts. For the next five hours the mahouts chattered nonstop, like school girls at a slumber party. Since I don’t speak the language, I soon drifted off into my own world, taking in every scent and plant and animal sighting.

Two hours into our patrol we approached a circle of high arching trees where many elephants and mahouts had gathered. Some mahouts were sprawled out, fast asleep on elephant back, while others napped on the ground while elephants grazed close by.

In the middle of the partially shaded clearing an energetic young mahout was putting his equally young elephant through what appeared to be a training exercise.

I breathed a sigh of relief to think we were about to take a break. I was ready to continue this excursion on foot as planned. But instead of stopping we crossed through the clearing, exiting the other side.

The next hour-and-a-half was spent in serious patrolling, or at least that is how it appeared. The mahouts ventured off the trail continually, ducking under low hanging tress scouring the undergrowth for “something.”  Obviously they never found what they were looking for or I would know what it was.

Rest stop

Then we came upon a circle of towering shade trees that created the perfect place for a rest stop. We no sooner disembarked when all three elephants moved outside the circle to cover their bodies with a fine layer of dirt flung effortlessly onto their backs.

I watched silently, wondering if they would exchange tactile greeting or show any sign of recognition. Although they stood centimeters from each other, they acted as if the other did not exist. The lack of physical interaction seemed so unnatural, and unfortunate. These three girls, close to the same age, have so much in common, including knowing that forming relationships with each other was discouraged by their mahouts.

They grazed the tall grass while we napped, burlap bags used as bed rolls.  About fifteen minutes into our slumber Sweetie Kali tiptoed over to my sleeping spot. I felt her approach.  When realizing she intended to make a personal visit I casually propped myself up into a sitting position from where I could quickly stand if need be — and cleared my throat. I would have loved to share a special moment with Sweetie but the truth is, we do not have a relationship and having her so close could be dangerous.

I know from experience that even while asleep, mahouts are on high alert. Hearing my unspoken warning sign, Puntea got to his feet and Sweetie retreated to the company of the other elephants.

My role

One trade-off that I have reconciled myself with is that I am a distant figure in the lives of these elephants. It is not appropriate to insert myself into their lives. I am here to improve their welfare. It is not about me having the chance to form a close relationship with them; it is about me encouraging the mahouts to form a healthy relationship with them.  When we establish the retirement home things will be different and I will have a close relationship with all the residents, but for these elephants who are not under my direct care, a relationship between us would only complicate their lives.

The mahout-elephant relationship

The day was long and hot for everyone concerned. When we reached an offshoot of the river the elephants submerged while the mahouts quenched their thirst from a spring oozing from the side of the bank. All parties drank their fill.

The next hour was spent leisurely grazing the sandy grassland that borders the river. When we finally crossed we were immediately immersed in a dense vibrant forest. The temperature dropped by at least ten degrees, the trees blocked the glare and penetrating heat from the sun.

Umbrellas were closed and stored, mine in my satchel and others, hung by the handle from the back of the mahout’s shirt. What a novel idea and handy hanging location; the neckline of the shirt works perfectly.

Tree branches invaded the trail, making passage difficult.  I was told that the noise in the trees was monkeys but I never caught a glimpse of one. Spotted deer and birds were abundant. At least one tiger had walked the same sandy path recently, leaving behind huge paw prints. Seeing the size of the prints made me reconsider—once again— my decision to walk instead of ride.

Soon and without a verbal farewell, our fellow patrollers turned off at different paths, disappearing into the dense bush, on their way to a different hattisar. As we traveled the last mile of our patrol I was lost in thought about the relationship between mahout and elephant. It is a strange one — no outward display of affection, no praise, continual directions and corrections. It takes a strong individual to do this job day in and day out, both elephant and human.