The capital of Chennai’s Madras High Court saw a crucial judgment this week, relating to the safety and continued comfort of a very special elephant named Lalitha. Sheik Muhammed has been Lalitha’s caretaker for over 20 years, but this week’s case risked moving the elephant from his care and to that of the State Wildlife Department. Luckily, the two have been allowed to remain together.

It’s a tricky situation, to be certain. There’s no evidence that Tamil Nadu’s State Wildlife Department was acting in bad faith when they initiated the court battle, as Muhammed’s beloved elephant is still considered a wild animal. However, it’s important to note that, prior to the court’s judgment the caretaker had attempted to obtain a proper ownership certificate, one which this same department rejected. 

Elephants are special animals, though, and the emotional bond between Lalitha and Sheik Muhammed was indisputable and proven over such a long period of time. Additionally, Muhammed had never made any motions to keep the elephant a secret, making it even more obvious that this wasn’t the case of an illegal pet being kept as a novelty or status symbol. 

Primate and elephant and even pig societies show considerable evidence of care for others, parent-child bonding, solidarity in the face of danger, and so on. - Christopher Hitchens

Justice Swaminathan, who would ultimately rule in favor of Muhammed, even went so far as to make a surprise inspection of the property to evaluate the elephant’s living conditions. He noted: “What pleased me was that she was not at all chained…I checked if there were any injury marks on her. There were none. The elephant looked happy and healthy.” Muhammed’s nephew helps in Lalitha’s care and was on hand to introduce her to Swaminathan, and the Justice remarked on the gentle friendliness of the animal to a stranger, however properly introduced.

And so, Sheik Muhammed and Lalitha are allowed to remain together, though the court did assert permissions for similar inspections to be conducted in the future. It’s a strange circumstance, where Muhammed still does not technically have ownership of the animal, proving that some bonds are stronger than any legal precedent. 

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