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A House Divided The Impact of Divorce on Adolescents

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

THE experts thought they had it right. ‘You need to focus on your happiness,’ they advised parents in troubled marriages, quickly adding: ‘Don’t worry about the children. They’re resilient. It’s easier for them to deal with divorce than to live with two parents who can’t get along!’

Yet, some counselors who once sang the praises of divorce have changed their tune. ‘Divorce is war,’ they now say. ‘Neither party walks away without wounds; nor do the children.’

The Myth of Easy Divorce

It could make a hit TV sitcom. The plot? Dad and Mom divorce. Mom gets custody of the children and then marries a widower with children of his own. Week after week the mismatched family faces one absurd predicament after another—each one being resolved in 30 minutes flat with no shortage of witty humor in the process.

Perhaps the above situation makes for entertaining TV. But a real-life divorce is no sitcom. On the contrary, the process is painful. “Divorce is litigation,” writes M. Gary Neuman in his book Emotional Infidelity. “Someone is suing someone. The second you decide to divorce, you are giving up control over your child. You are also giving up control over your finances, and perhaps even where you will live. You may resolve your issues in mediation, but maybe not. Ultimately, a stranger called a judge could be the one to tell you how often you will see your child and how much of your money you will keep. Unfortunately, that stranger doesn’t think exactly like you.”

Often, divorce merely exchanges one set of problems for another. Indeed, everything from living arrangements to financial status may change—and likely not for the better. And then there is the impact divorce has on children.

A bride choosing a groom

‘THIS TIME I’LL GET IT RIGHT’

Studies reveal that second marriages have a higher failure rate than first ones, and third marriages fare even worse. In his book Emotional Infidelity, M. Gary Neuman points out one reason for this. “If you have difficulties in your first marriage,” he writes, “it’s not all about your poor choice of a spouse. It’s about you. You fell in love with this person. You worked with this person to create whatever you have or don’t have.” Neuman’s conclusion? “It’s better to get rid of the problem and keep your spouse than to get rid of your spouse and keep the problem.”

Divorce and Adolescents

Divorce can devastate children, regardless of their age. Some claim that adolescents fare better. After all, the reasoning goes, they are more mature and are in the process of separating from their parents anyway. However, researchers see a flip side to the coin. They have found that because of those very factors, divorce can hit adolescents the hardest.* Consider the following:

  • As they navigate their way toward adulthood, adolescents are highly insecure, perhaps even more so than when they were children. Do not let their independent streak fool you—adolescents need the anchor of family stability as never before.
  • At the very time in life when adolescents are learning to forge mature friendships, divorce teaches them to be skeptical of such values as trust, loyalty, and love. Later, as adults, they may avoid close relationships altogether.
  • While it is common for children of all ages to act out their pain, adolescents are more likely to do so in dangerous ways, including delinquency, alcohol abuse, and drug abuse.

This is not to say that adolescents whose parents divorce are doomed emotionally or otherwise. They can succeed, especially if they have a relationship with both parents.# However, it is naive to think that divorce will always be, as some might say, ‘better for the children’ or that it will put an end to all tension between spouses. In fact, some find that they have to deal more with their “intolerable” spouse after the divorce than before and on much more volatile issues, such as financial support or child custody. In such cases divorce does not end family problems; it simply moves them to a different arena.

IF A MARRIAGE ENDS

The Bible acknowledges that extreme circumstances may lead to divorce.* If that is the case in your family, how can you help your adolescent children to cope?

Tell your adolescent what is happening. If possible, both parents should do this. Together, let your adolescent know that the decision to divorce is final. Give assurance that he or she is not to blame and will continue to be loved by both parents.

Get off the battlefield—the war is over. Some parents remain entangled in conflict long after the divorce. They become, as one expert puts it, “legally divorced but still emotionally betrothed combatants who have not been able to negotiate a truce with peace.” Not only does this deprive adolescents of their parents—since Dad and Mom always seem caught up in one skirmish or another—but it also encourages them to pit one parent against the other in order to get their way. For instance, a boy might tell his mother: “Dad lets me stay out as late as I want. Why won’t you?” Not wanting her son to defect to the “enemy camp,” Mom relents.

A divorced father and his son

If you share custody, encourage your adolescent to have a healthy relationship with your ex-spouse

Let your adolescent talk. Adolescents may reason, ‘If my parents stopped loving each other, they may stop loving me’ or ‘If my parents broke the rules, why can’t I?’ To alleviate your adolescent’s fears and to correct flawed thinking, give him or her plenty of opportunity to talk. But a caution: Do not switch roles and look to your adolescent for emotional support. This is your child, not your confidant.

Encourage the adolescent to have a healthy relationship with your ex-spouse. The person you divorced is your ex-spouse but not your child’s ex-parent. Bad-mouthing that person is damaging. Says the book Teens in Turmoil—A Path to Change for Parents, Adolescents, and Their Families: “If parents choose to use their children as artillery on the divorce battlefield, they must expect to reap what they have sown.”

Take care of yourself. At times, you will feel overwhelmed. But do not give up. Maintain a healthy routine. If you are a Christian, stay involved in spiritual activities. Doing so will help you and your adolescent to maintain balance.—Psalm 18:2; Matthew 28:19, 20; Hebrews 10:24, 25.


* According to the Bible, only sexual relations outside the marriage provide adequate grounds to end the marriage with the opportunity to remarry. (Matthew 19:9) If unfaithfulness occurs, it is up to the innocent mate—not to family members or others—to decide whether divorce is the best option.—Galatians 6:5.

A Third Option

What if you are in a troubled marriage and have thought about divorce? This article has presented compelling reasons to reconsider. Divorce is not a cure-all for marital misery.

But do not misunderstand: The answer is not simply to tolerate a bad marriage. There is another option—If your marriage is in trouble, why not work to make it better? Do not hastily dismiss this idea by asserting that your marital problems are incurable. Ask yourself these questions:

  • ‘What qualities initially drew me to my spouse? Are not those qualities still there to a degree?’—Proverbs 31:10, 29.
  • ‘Can the feelings that I had before marriage be rekindled?’—Song of Solomon 2:2; 4:7.
  • ‘Despite the actions of my mate, what can I do to apply the suggestions found [in “Secrets of Family Success”]?’—Romans 12:18.
  • ‘Can I explain to my mate (face-to-face or in writing) just how I would like our relationship to improve?’—Job 10:1.
  • ‘Can we sit down with a mature friend who can help us set realistic goals to improve our marriage?’—Proverbs 27:17.

The Bible says: “The shrewd one considers his steps.” (Proverbs 14:15) That principle applies not just when choosing a mate but also when considering what to do about a marriage relationship that is faltering. Indeed, as brought out [in “Secrets of Family Success”], successful families also have problems—the difference is in how they handle them.

To illustrate: Imagine that you have embarked on a long journey by car. It is inevitable that you will encounter problems along the way, including severe weather, traffic jams, and roadblocks. On occasion, you may even get lost. What will you do? Turn around and go back or find a way to overcome the obstacle and move forward? On the day of your wedding, you embarked on a journey that was sure to bring its share of problems, for the Bible says that “those who marry will have pain and grief.” (1 Corinthians 7:28, The New English Bible) The question is not whether problems will arise but how you will face them when they do. Can you find a way to overcome the obstacle and move forward? Even if you feel that your marriage is hopelessly lost, will you try to get help?—James 5:14.

A couple on their wedding day

Work to uphold the commitment you made on your wedding day

A Divine Institution

Marriage is a divine institution that should not be taken lightly. (Genesis 2:24) When problems seem insurmountable, remember the points discussed in this article.

  1. Try to rekindle the love that you once felt.—Song of Solomon 8:6.

  2. Decide what you can do to make your marriage better, and then do it.—James 1:22.

  3. Clearly but respectfully tell your mate—either face-to-face or in writing—what improvements you feel need to be made in the marriage.—Job 7:11.

  4. Get help. You do not have to save your marriage by yourself!

Is Divorce the Answer?

FOUR THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT DIVORCE

A couple thinking about divorce

After assessing the damage, the owners have a choice—either tear down the house or save it.

IS YOUR marriage at a similar juncture? Perhaps your spouse has betrayed your trust or recurring conflicts have sapped the joy from your relationship. If so, you might tell yourself, ‘We’ve fallen out of love’ or ‘We just aren’t meant for each other’ or ‘We didn’t know what we were doing when we got married.’ You could even be thinking, ‘Maybe we should divorce.’

Before making a hasty decision to end your marriage, think. Divorce does not always end life’s anxieties. On the contrary, often it merely exchanges one set of problems for another. In his book The Good Enough Teen, Dr. Brad Sachs warns: “Separating couples fantasize about the perfect divorce—the sudden and permanent passing of gray and stormy conflict, replaced by the cool, comforting breezes of serenity and congeniality. But such a state is just as eternally elusive as is the perfect marriage.” It is important, then, to be fully informed and to approach the question of divorce realistically.

The Bible and Divorce

The Bible does not treat divorce casually. It states that Jehovah God views as treacherous and hateful the frivolous putting away of one’s mate, perhaps with the motive of taking another spouse. (Malachi 2:13-16) Marriage is a permanent bond. (Matthew 19:6) Many marriages that broke up on trivial grounds could have been saved if partners had been more forgiving.—Matthew 18:21, 22.

At the same time, the Bible allows for divorce and remarriage on one ground—sexual relations outside the marriage. (Matthew 19:9) Therefore, if you learn that your mate has been unfaithful, you have the right to terminate the marriage. Others should not impose their views on you, and it is not the purpose of this article to tell you what to do. In the end, you are the one who will live with the consequences; therefore, you are the one who must decide.—Galatians 6:5.

Nevertheless, the Bible states: “The shrewd one considers his steps.” (Proverbs 14:15) Hence, even if you have Scriptural grounds for divorce, you would do well to give serious thought to what that step will entail. (1 Corinthians 6:12) “Some may think that they have to decide quickly,” says David, in Britain. “But having been through a divorce, I can say from experience that time is needed to think things through.”*

Let us consider four important issues you need to think about. As we do, please note that none of the divorced individuals quoted say that they made a wrong decision. However, their comments highlight some of the challenges that often arise in the months and even years after ending a marriage.

1 The Problem of Finances

A mother reviewing her finances

Daniella, in Italy, was married for 12 years when she found out that her husband had been having an affair with a colleague. “By the time I knew about it,” says Daniella, “the woman was six months pregnant.”

After a period of separation, Daniella decided to get a divorce. “I tried to save my marriage,” she says, “but my husband continued to be unfaithful.” Daniella feels that she made the right choice. Still, she relates: “As soon as we separated, my economic situation became disastrous. Sometimes I didn’t even have an evening meal. I would just drink a glass of milk.”

Maria, in Spain, suffered a similar setback. “My ex-husband doesn’t give us any financial support,” she says, “and I have to work very hard to pay off debts he had. I also had to move from a comfortable house to a small apartment in an unsafe area.”

As these experiences show, the breakup of a marriage often deals a devastating financial blow to women. In fact, a seven-year European study revealed that while the income of men increased by 11 percent after divorce, women’s income decreased by 17 percent. “It’s difficult for some women,” says Mieke Jansen, who headed the study, “because they have to care for the children, find a job as well as deal with the emotional trauma of divorce.” London’s Daily Telegraph noted that according to some attorneys, such factors are “forcing people to think twice about splitting up.”

What might happen: If you divorce, there may be a reduction in your income. You may also have to move. If you retain custody, it may be difficult to support yourself and adequately care for the needs of your children.—1 Timothy 5:8.

2 Parenting Issues

“My husband’s unfaithfulness came as a terrible shock,” says a woman in Britain named Jane. “Also, I was devastated to think that he actually chose to leave us.” Jane divorced her husband. She still believes that she made the right decision, but she admits: “One challenge I faced was having to be both mom and dad to the children. I had to make all the decisions myself.”

The situation was similar with Graciela, a divorced mother in Spain. “I was given full custody of my 16-year-old son,” she says. “But adolescence is a difficult time, and I was ill-prepared to raise my son alone. I spent days and nights sobbing. I felt like a failure as a mother.”

Those who share custody may face an additional problem—having to negotiate with the ex-spouse on such delicate issues as visitation arrangements, child support, and discipline. Christine, a divorced mother in the United States, says: “Creating a working relationship with your ex is not easy. There are so many emotions involved, and if you’re not careful, you could end up using your child as a tool to try to manipulate the situation.”

What might happen: The custody arrangements set forth in a court of law may not be what you would prefer. If you share custody, your ex-spouse may not be as reasonable as you would like regarding the aforementioned matters of visitation, financial support, and so on.

“EVERY CHILD’S BIRTHRIGHT”

“When I was five years old, my father had a brief affair with his secretary, and my parents divorced. As far as taking care of me, they did everything ‘right’ according to the wisdom of the day. They reassured me that while they did not love each other anymore, they still loved me, and after my father departed to his bachelor apartment across town, both continued to care for my material needs.

“Two years later my mother remarried, and we moved out of the country. After that, I only saw my father every few years. I have seen him just once in the past nine years. He missed most of my growing up, and he does not know my three children—his grandchildren—except through what I’ve shared with him in letters and photos. They have missed knowing their grandfather.

“As a child of divorce, I grew up without any visible scars. But inside I battled monsters of rage, depression, and insecurity without knowing why. My trust in men was nonexistent. It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that a mature friend helped me to identify the roots of my hostility and I began to work at letting go of it.

“My parents’ divorce took away from me every child’s birthright—the feeling of being secure and protected. The world is a cold, scary place, but it seems to me that the family unit is a wall against it, where the child can come to feel nurtured and comforted. Shatter the family unit, and the protective wall crumbles too.”—Diane.

3 The Effect of Divorce on You

Mark, from Britain, was betrayed by his wife more than once. “The second time,” he says, “I couldn’t cope with the possibility that it could happen again.” Mark divorced his wife, but he found that his feelings for her lingered. “When people say negative things about her, they think they’re helping; but they’re not,” he says. “Love stays for a long time.”

David, quoted earlier, was similarly devastated when he found out that his wife was involved with another man. “I reacted with total disbelief,” he says. “I truly wanted to spend every day of my life with her and our children.” David chose to divorce, but the breakup has left him with doubts about his future. “I wonder if someone could really love me or whether this might happen again if I remarry,” he says. “My confidence has been shaken.”

If you are divorced, it is only to be expected that you will experience a wide range of emotions. On the one hand, you might still feel love for this person with whom you shared a one-flesh bond. (Genesis 2:24) On the other hand, you might feel resentful over what has occurred. “Even after several years,” says Graciela, quoted earlier, “you feel confused, humiliated, and helpless. Many happy moments from your marriage come to mind, and you think: ‘He used to tell me that he couldn’t live without me. Was he always lying? Why did this happen?’”

What might happen: You may have lingering feelings of anger and resentment over the ways in which your spouse mistreated you. At times, loneliness may be overwhelming.—Proverbs 14:29; 18:1.

4 The Effect of Divorce on Children

Sad children

“It was devastating,” says José, a divorced father in Spain. “The worst moment was when I discovered that the other man was my sister’s husband. I just wanted to die.” José found that his two boys—ages two and four—were also affected by their mother’s course. “They could not come to terms with the situation,” he says. “They didn’t understand why their mother was living with their uncle and why I had taken them with me and moved in with my sister and my mother. If I had to go somewhere, they would ask, ‘When are you coming home?’ or they would say, ‘Daddy, don’t leave us!’”

Children are often the forgotten casualties on the divorce battlefield. But what if two parents just do not get along? In such a case, is divorce really “better for the children”? In recent years, that notion has come under attack—especially when marital problems are not extreme. The book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce states: “Many adults who are trapped in very unhappy marriages would be surprised to learn that their children are relatively content. They don’t care if Mom and Dad sleep in different beds as long as the family is together.”

Admittedly, children are often aware of parental conflicts, and marital tension can take a toll on their young minds and hearts. However, to assume that a divorce will automatically be in their best interests could be a mistake. “The structure that marriage provides appears to help parents maintain the kind of consistent, moderate discipline to which children respond, even when the marriage is less than ideal,” write Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher in their book The Case for Marriage.

What might happen: Divorce could have a devastating effect on your children, especially if you do not encourage them to have a healthy relationship with your ex-spouse.—See the box “Caught in the Middle.”

This article has discussed four factors that you would do well to consider if you are thinking about divorce. As mentioned earlier, if your spouse has been unfaithful, the decision is yours to make. Whichever course you choose, you need to be aware of the consequences. Know what challenges you will face, and be prepared to deal with them.

After considering the matter, you might feel that the better option is to work to improve your marriage. But is that really possible?

What Would We Do Without Donkeys?

ON THE streets of Addis Ababa—the capital city of Ethiopia, the 16th most populous country in the world—the donkey has long been an important form of transportation. Most drivers of automobiles have learned to adapt to them, aware that donkeys generally know where to go and do not lack determination. While donkeys do not fear heavy traffic, their wide loads are tricky, and they do not look back. So, if you don’t want to brush against the charcoal, dried cow dung, or whatever the load happens to be, you had better move out of the way!

The estimated donkey population in Ethiopia is about five million, almost 1 donkey for every 12 people. Millions of Ethiopians live on isolated hilltops, which are separated by deep gorges. Sections of the country’s large central plateau are divided off by countless small streams. To construct bridges or even unpaved access roads to these locations would strain the resources of any country. So the enduring and sure-footed donkey is an ideal means of transportation.

The donkey can handle just about all of Ethiopia’s many climates—from dry, hot lowlands to alpine regions. And it is splendidly suited for negotiating steep slopes, narrow footpaths, stony riverbeds, muddy passages, and other uneven terrain. It can go where no horse or camel can. For millions of people, the donkey is the main means of transporting goods, especially in cities where many homes cannot be reached by motorized vehicles.

Donkeys are able to negotiate tight corners and wind their way through narrow, fence-lined access paths. They need no costly tires and rarely have problems on slippery surfaces. They carry loads of all shapes and sizes, providing home delivery to almost anywhere. While red-faced car drivers sit blowing their horns, donkeys easily find their way through traffic jams. No policeman would think of fining a donkey when it enters a one-way street from the wrong end. And parking is never a problem. A donkey may sell for about 50 dollars, but when you consider the cost of motorized transportation, there is no comparison!

Donkeys in the Capital

In the morning, donkeys by the thousands travel to Addis Ababa—with a population of over 3,000,000—often from more than 15 miles [25 km] away. Wednesdays and Saturdays are especially busy, as these are the weekly market days. The journey may take up to three hours, requiring departures before dawn. Sometimes their owners walk with them, but more often, they run behind them, hurrying to keep up.

Common loads are bags of grain, vegetables, firewood, cement, and charcoal, as well as metal drums of cooking oil and cases of bottled drinks. Some donkeys carry loads of 200 pounds [90 kg] or more. Long loads, such as bamboo or eucalyptus poles, are tied to their sides and are dragged behind them on the road. Perhaps the most picturesque loads are the high bundles of straw or pressed hay under which the animals almost disappear.

A donkey pulling a cart of straw

On their way to market in the morning carrying their heavy loads, donkeys may trot at quite a speed. Once the sales are completed and their burdens are gone, they return home at a more leisurely pace, even stopping to nibble on vegetation by the roadside. On their days off, donkeys are still used for their daily duties of fetching water and fuelwood. They may also be lent or rented out. Some even belong to “fleets” that are part of professional donkey-pack transport operations! In some places donkeys pull carts, or at times, a pair will pull a fair-size wagon.

Worthy of Respect

Donkeys are relatively maintenance-free. They search out their own food and eat just about anything. When treated well, donkeys become attached to their masters. As to intelligence, they have been rated ahead of horses. They also have an excellent memory for directions. Unaccompanied, they can fetch water from locations over five miles away, only requiring that someone at each end load and unload them. They may even be equipped with bells so that people at addresses along the way can hear the donkey coming and accept its deliveries.

While donkeys are hard workers, they have firm opinions on the size of a maximum load, as well as when a pause is required. In these situations, or when the load has been positioned in a way that causes pain, they may just lie down. At such times they may be misunderstood and abused verbally or physically. You may recall the account in the Bible of this happening.—Numbers 22:20-31.

Donkeys deserve consideration and care. It is tragic when a load is not well secured and shifts, causing the donkey to fall into a ditch and break its legs. Sores, various parasites, foot rot, pneumonia, and other problems can weaken these diligent burden-bearers. In view of this, a modern donkey clinic has been established in Debre Zeyit, not far from Addis Ababa. It is equipped with computers, treatment rooms, vehicles for ambulatory treatment, and even a fine theater for donkey surgery. Thus, in 2002, about 40,000 donkeys received various forms of medical attention.

The patriarch Abraham crossed mountainous terrain with his donkey when on his way to Mount Moriah. (Genesis 22:3) Throughout the long history of the nation of Israel, the donkey was part of daily life. Even the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem was on a donkey.—Matthew 21:1-9.

In Ethiopia too the donkey has a long history. Yet, here it has not lost its importance in people’s lives. While trucks and cars have changed over the years, the donkey is still the same model. And it is certainly deserving of respect!


What It Takes to Drive an Elephant

MAN AND ELEPHANT—A LONG HISTORY

Man’s domestication of elephants has a long history. Perhaps the most famous example in antiquity is that of Hannibal, a Carthaginian general. In the third century B.C.E., the North African city of Carthage was fighting Rome in a century-long series of battles known as the Punic Wars. Hannibal assembled an army in the city of Cartagena, Spain, with the plan of marching on Rome. He first crossed the Pyrenees to enter what is now France. Then, in what Archaeology magazine terms “one of the boldest military maneuvers in history,” his army of 25,000 men—accompanied by 37 African elephants and scores of pack animals loaded with supplies—crossed the Alps into Italy. They had to contend with cold, snowstorms, rockslides, and hostile mountain tribes. That journey was extremely strenuous for the elephants. Not one of them survived Hannibal’s first year in Italy.

AS A mahout, or elephant driver, cooked his meal by the side of the Narmada River, he left his child between the trunk and forefeet of his resting elephant. The child repeatedly tried to move away, but “the recumbent elephant gently curled its trunk around the child and drew him back to where his father had left him,” recounts the book Project Elephant. “The father continued his cooking and appeared to have absolute confidence that the child was in safe custody.”

Work elephants have been in the service of man from as early as 2000 B.C.E. In ancient times, elephants were trained mainly for warfare. In modern India, they are trained to work. They are used in the logging industry, at religious festivals and weddings, in advertising, in circuses, and even for begging. How are these elephants domesticated? And how are they trained?

A Course in Elephant Training

A number of centers in India are equipped to care for elephant calves that have been captured, abandoned, or injured in the wild. One such training center is in Koni, in the state of Kerala. Here the calves are trained to become work elephants. A mahout must first win the trust of a calf. Feeding is an important way to build this trust. A calf recognizes its mahout’s voice, and when called for feeding, it will hurry over to receive its milk and millet paste. Training for work does not usually take place until young elephants reach their early teens. Then they are put to work when they reach the age of 25. In Kerala, government norms require that working elephants be retired at the age of 65.

To drive an elephant safely, the mahout must have good training. According to the Elephant Welfare Association of Trichur, Kerala, a new mahout needs intensive training for at least three months. Such training is not limited to learning to give commands. It also covers elephant science as a whole.

An elephant driver

An adult elephant takes longer to train. From outside the enclosure where the elephant is kept, the trainer first teaches his animal to understand verbal commands. In Kerala, a mahout uses some 20 commands and signals to get his elephant to do the needed work. The mahout gives clear and loud commands and, at the same time, prods his elephant with a stick and shows it what to do. When a command is obeyed, the elephant is rewarded with a small treat. When the trainer is sure that his elephant is friendly, he enters the enclosure and caresses it. This interaction reinforces mutual trust. In time, the elephant can be taken outside—with caution, of course, as it still retains some of its wild characteristics. Until it becomes clear that the elephant is fully tamed, it is chained between two trainer elephants when taken out for bathing and for other excursions.

After an elephant grasps verbal commands, the mahout sits on its back and teaches it how to respond to physical commands by prodding it with his toes or heels. To make the elephant move forward, the mahout presses both of his big toes behind the elephant’s ears. To make it back up, he presses both of his heels into the animal’s shoulders. To avoid any confusion, verbal commands are given by just one mahout. An elephant will understand all the commands within three or four years. Thereafter, it never forgets them. Even though an elephant has a brain that is small in proportion to its body, it is a very intelligent animal.

Elephant Maintenance

An elephant needs to be kept healthy and in good spirits. A daily bath is important. At bath time, the mahout uses stones and neatly cut coconut husks to scrub his charge’s thick yet soft and sensitive skin.

A man bathing an elephant

The mahout scrubs his elephant’s thick yet soft and sensitive skin

Then comes breakfast. The mahout prepares a thick paste of wheat, millet, and horse gram, a type of fodder. The main course includes bamboo, palm leaves, and grass. The elephant is delighted if raw carrots and sugar cane are added as well. Elephants spend most of their time eating. They need about 300 pounds of food and some 40 gallons of water every day! To stay good friends with his pachyderm, the mahout has to satisfy these needs.

The Results of Abuse

The gentle Indian elephant cannot be driven or made to work beyond a certain point. Elephants may turn on mahouts who inflict punishment, verbal or otherwise. India’s Sunday Herald newspaper spoke of one tusker—that is, a male elephant with tusks—that “went be[r]serk . . . following ill-treatment by the mahouts. The elephant which was reacting to the beating meted out to it by the mahout went on a rampage . . . and had to be tranquilized.” In April 2007, India Today International reported: “In the past two months alone, more than 10 tuskers have run amok at festivals; since January last year, 48 mahouts have been killed by the raging beasts.” Such displays often occur during the period known as musth. This is an annual physiological phenomenon connected with the mating season, during which the testosterone level of healthy adult male elephants rises. The result is aggressive and erratic behavior toward other bull elephants and humans. Musth can last from 15 days to three months.

Another situation in which an elephant can get agitated is when it is sold and a new mahout takes over. Its attachment to the old mahout is evident. To effect a smooth transition, the previous mahout usually travels with it to its new home. There, both handlers work together until the new one gets used to the moods of the elephant. When a mahout dies and a new one takes over, problems can be even greater. However, the elephant eventually comes to recognize and accept the new situation.

Even though some people might fear this mighty land animal, a well-trained elephant will obey a kind master. When kindness reigns, the elephant need not even be chained when his mahout is temporarily absent. All the mahout needs to do is place one end of his stick on the elephant’s foot and the other end on the ground and ask the animal not to move. The elephant obediently stands still with the stick in place. As illustrated in the introduction, the cooperation between an elephant and its mahout can be both surprising and touching. Yes, a good driver can trust his elephant.

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