How a Skinny, One-Eared Elephant Became One of Time Magazine's Animals of the Year

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It's been a year since the long-suffering elephant named Suraj traded a grim life of servitude for much happier trails.

Suraj, a 45+-year-old elephant, was rescued by conservation group Wildlife SOS.

Suraj the elephant enjoys a walk at his spacious new home: the Elephant Conservation and Care Center.

You can’t undo 50 years of abuse in a few weeks. But we’ve gotten to know Suraj — experiencing his first taste of freedom, his capacity to forgive, and his absolute joy in little things. It’s rewarding and just completely indescribable.

Just over a year ago, an emaciated elephant named Suraj found a new life. The 45-year-old had spent countless years wasting away in a tiny, dank temple room in the Indian state of Maharashtra — chained up as a captive spectacle for temple visitors. According to Yahoo News, when Wildlife SOS (WSOS) workers found him there, Suraj suffered from dehydration, malnutrition, and a multitude of other untreated injuries, and was living in “solitary confinement in a 20 foot by 20 space with tight spiked chains on all four limbs… 24/7, from dawn to dusk."

Today he roams the open spaces at a WSOS rescue center in Mathura and was just named among Time magazine’s Most Influential Animals of 2016. The transformation has been remarkable. According to the Daily Mail UK, Suraj has found a new life at the WSOS rescue center and spent the holidays doing exactly what elephants should be doing: “strolling free, foraging, investigating new smells and sounds.” He seems to have developed a very keen interest in the organization's wading pool — and a taste for elephant delicacies such as peppermint, peanuts, and papaya.

It took a lot to get Suraj to this point — according to the Daily Mail UK, when WSOS removed him from the temple, they needed an armed escort of more than 70 law enforcement officials to quell a tense confrontation with about 200 temple supporters. Suraj was in such a weakened state from his temple life that he even needed the assistance of a crane to lift him from a resting position early on at the rescue center. And his health issues are ongoing, requiring constant care by WSOS veterinarians. The road has certainly not been easy for this long-suffering elephant, but he's well on his way to recovery.

“You can’t undo 50 years of abuse in just a few weeks,” said WSOS Elephant Campaign Manager Rhea Lopez in a December webinar commemorating the elephant’s first anniversary with the organization. “But over the first few months at the center, we’ve gotten to know Suraj — experiencing his first taste of freedom, his capacity to forgive, and his absolute joy in little things. It’s rewarding and just completely indescribable.”

“It’s amazing to see the progress Suraj has made in the last year," added Wildlife SOS Executive Director Nikki Sharp. "Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the amount of pain and loneliness he endured for so many years. We can’t return him to the wild from where he was taken, but we can give him some joy in his life. Seeing him doing so well makes us more motivated to help others in a similar situation as he was.”

About Wildlife SOS: A non-profit organization, Wildlife SOS is one of the largest rescue and conservation charities in South Asia, operating 10 wildlife rehabilitation facilities across India, including the world’s largest sloth bear rescue center and the recently established Elephant Conservation and Care Center, which is the first in India and currently houses 22 rescued elephants. Wildlife SOS runs a tribal rehabilitation project that aims to create an alternative livelihood for poachers and other indigenous communities that once depended on wildlife for a livelihood. We also run a leopard rescue center, a wildlife hotline in New Delhi and Agra, and Forest Watch, which is an anti-poaching wildlife crime enforcement unit. More information about the organization can be found at The U.S. branch of Wildlife SOS is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, ands received 501(c)3 charity status in 2005.

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