June 25, 2018
It might seem absurd, but elephants, especially those in captivity are sometimes fitted with shoes.
This is mostly as part of treatment for foot+related diseases that can cause immense pain to the elephant, if left untreated.
Though the practice is rare in India, it is not old. In 2013, articles came out about Nike’s elephant sneaker, made for an elephant named Bandula which was suffering from arthritis. When even pet cats and dogs have shoes these days, many, including animal rights activists, are still unaware that there are shoes for elephants.
“I have not come across one myself, but the thing is, there isn’t a need for such a thing. Wild animals should be left in their natural environments,” says R Mohammed Saleem, president of the Environment Conservation Group, Coimbatore. “These artificial things should not be put on elephants. We don’t know its side effects or how it would affect the elephant. If it is for medical purposes, it can be allowed,” he adds.
The first thought that comes to people, especially in South India where elephants are paraded for religious purposes on tarred roads, is that this could come handy. Scientific studies have proved that elephants have pressure-sensitive nerve endings on their foot which help them pick up vibrations. This could make walking on the burning roads really difficult.
But elephant shoes have a whole other purpose and nothing to do with walking on hot roads.
The soles of elephants are heavily padded. But that does not mean that walking on hot roads is easy for them. “It would be logistically impossible to have shoes for elephants for that purpose,” says forest veterinarian Dr N S Manoharan.
Elephant shoes are used for purely medical reason. A pilot study conducted by K S Subramanian, T G Prabhakar and M G Jayathangaraj from Madras Veterinary College from April 2008 to February 2010 proved that a majority of captive elephants in South India suffered from a plethora of foot ailments.
The sample study examined captive elephants from Tamil Nadu and at the Guruvayur Devaswom in Kerala. It showed that more than half of these animals had foot-related ailments that often left the animal crippled.
“In camps in Tamil Nadu, we don’t generally use shoes for elephants” says Dr Manoharan, “But speaking as a veterinarian, shoes can definitely help elephants. When the elephant suffers arthritis, or some injury, or other foot diseases, the shoe can help in the healing process. It can be worn over a bandage as well.”
“It will definitely add comfort for the elephant, making it easier for the elephant to move around” he added. Elephant feet supports the entirety of its weight which is more than several tons. When they suffer foot ailments, these specially made shoes can help the elephant and act as a support.
N I Jalalludin, Nature Conservation Society, Coimbatore, president N I Jalaluddin says a majority of these foot diseases come from involvement with cattle.
“Elephants are used to wild jungles, not concrete jungles. Encroachments have increased the amount of man-animal conflict,” he said, adding that these animals should not be held captive at all, “The need for artificial shoes comes when there is a lack of padding at the bottom of the elephant’s feet. This can happen due to a variety of reasons like arthritis and lymph node swelling.”
“It can also happen when the elephants walk through man-inhabited places. There would be things like glass bottles left by tourists that can pierce their foot. It will cause blood clots and finally lead to infections,” he added. There was an overall lack of awareness in people regarding such issues.
Jalaluddin recalled that he had once seen an elephant in Coimbatore fitted with shoes. “Elephants mainly get foot-related diseases from cattle. You can see this more in captive elephants than in the wild.”
“These animals should not even be kept captive as they are wild ones. In the wild, they get to walk for miles everyday, whereas in captivity, they become weak. Captive elephants are much weaker and thinner than wild ones,” he added.
Many other activists and veterinarians refused to comment as they were unaware or not familiar with the subject.