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(CNN) – An elephant crying real tears is making people smile. The story of a chained elephant, crying as he was rescued, has gone viral.
They appeared to be tears of joy as he tasted freedom for the first time.
50-year-old Raju bobs his head relentlessly. His caretakers say it’s a sign of the trauma he’s had to endure. He was shackled and abused for five decades.
Even though he’s now in a safe house with almost a dozen other rescued elephants, they say he’s not quite sure how to react to his new surroundings.
Raju is still very uncomfortable with human beings, so this is the closest I can get to him. But this is one way to train captive elephants, with positivity and treats.
The rescuers say he was poached and sold on and on, and may have had up to 27 owners.
All his life, Raju was forced to work as a begging prop for his owners. Sometimes he would be rented out of India weddings.
To keep him under control, his owners allegedly starved and beat him.
"I know this is hard to believe but these are not from a torture chamber, they are actually things we took off Raju,” Wildlife SOS co-founder Katrick Satyanarayan said. “These spears they were used every day to spear Raju when he wouldn't listen. And these spikes, they are spikes that he's worn for the past 50 years of his life every single day, day and night.”
After investigating Raju’s case for more than a year, Kartic Satyanarayan and his team from Wildlife SOS rescued Raju last week.
A team of 10 wildlife experts and 30 enforcement officers entered his enclosure, on the side of the road, in the middle of the night.
Images of what happened next have gone viral.
"He had these huge gushes of liquid coming out of his eyes and just pouring down on either side of his cheek,” Satyanarayan said.
The rescue operation took eight hours. As Raju was unchained, Satyanarayan says he cried again.
"It was a very emotional moment and our vet doctor, who is by far the most scientific person in our group, said, you know you can't say those tears have nothing to do with pain initially and the he said you know it looks like he understands that we are here to help him," Satyanarayan said.
"It's okay for animals to have some tears but he was weeping there was so much tears coming out we could see he was in a lot of pain," Senior Veterinary Officer Dr. Yaduraj Khadpekar said.
"But can elephants actually cry, show emotions?" CNN reporter Sumnima Udas said.
"Yes, of course elephants are very emotional, they show the emotions as we do,” Dr. Khadpekar said.
Wildlife SOS has rescued thousands of animals, including 11 elephants. Those who have been rehabilitated walk around freely.
Some 3000 elephants remain in captivity though, in India alone.
In a country where the majority of Indians still live in impoverished circumstances, animals, for the most part, have yet to become a priority.
"I think the biggest challenge is the mindset of the people who deal with captive elephants,” Wildlife co-founder Geeta Sehsamani said. “They justify almost every kind of cruelty that is practiced against captive elephants on ground of tradition. And this is what we are trying to fight.
As for Raju, the experts say it will take years for him to learn to accept the kindness of human beings.
He is still half the weight he should be, but for now, at last, he’s free.