Tonight Paul O’Grady is off to India for the first time. Instead of marvelling at the usual sights, he visits an elephant sanctuary south of Delhi where he has to shower an obese elephant. A thousand miles to the east, in Assam, nine baby rhinos need toilet-training.
He tells us about the highs and lows of the trip….
The entire series was filmed in India, was this your first trip there?
Yes! My first trip to India, I didn’t want to go. You know when people say “it’s a free holiday”, well no it’s not, because I didn’t want to go! I’ve always avoided it like the plague. I’ve been all round the world but I missed India out. What a fool! I say that on camera. Why did I leave it so long before I came here, because it’s possibly the most remarkable place I’ve ever been to.
Paul O’Grady with the tea-pickers of the Kaziranga tea gardens
What did you make of it as a country?
Loved it… the atmosphere, the life, the energy. The people are so optimistic. Some of them have got nothing and yet they’re so optimistic. The kids are lovely. The scenery. The food. Everything about it I absolutely loved. But the cruelty to the animals, the elephants and the dancing bears is heartbreaking.
There are some emotional moments. Can you tell us a bit about meeting Mohan, the elephant who has spent over 50 years chained up?
Oh I was in pieces. Mohan had just been brought in to the sanctuary and he was in his 50s, badly emaciated, been brutalised all his life, spent 50 years in chains. He was laying down and he was skin and bone. I’m with him, talking to him, stroking him, and a big tear rolled out of his eye. Oh my god, I lost the plot completely. That finished me off. I’ve never ever lost it on-screen before, not even in the Battersea series, never. The crew nearly died. They all gasped in shock. The witch cries!
Tell us about the bears.
They would get a red-hot poker and put it through their muzzle, and then they put a rope through it. Then they would take all their teeth out and take their claws away. And the reason they would dance was: because they pulled hard on the rope, the bear jumped up in pain. They’re weren’t dancing, they were in agony. You are looking at a bear that’s in agony. It was outlawed in 1972 but continued because it was an income for a lot of people, so you’ve got to find them something else to do. They would take these bears round to various villages and make them dance and all the muzzles were hanging off and they got holes in their faces where the rope has ripped. It’s heart-breaking. They just pace around and they’ve spent their whole life being tortured. The cubs were often stolen from the mothers and the mothers killed. Then the bears were brutalised so that they became passive. It’s shocking. It was still going on until about 2014 and still goes on in other countries.
Is it encouraging to see the efforts being made to help some of these animals?
It’s marvellous. It’s called Wildlife SOS and they rescue working elephants, dancing bears, every animal really. They’re so committed. That’s all they care about. I’d like to do something like that. I’d like to go for a year and just look after the elephants, the babies and the adults. I get on really well with elephants, they just come to me and they sit and listen to me when I’m talking to them. I don’t know what it is. I get on with elephants and orangutans. I’m lousy with humans but I’m great with them!
What can viewers expect from the series?
I hope they will learn a lot from it. And hopefully it will make them think twice before they go for a ride on an elephant’s back when they go on holiday. That’s what I want to stop: that’s the aim of the game for me with this series. When you’re sat on the back of an elephant in Thailand thinking, ‘isn’t this wonderful?’ No, it’s not. Because that elephant’s been tortured and is crippled with arthritis from dragging people up and down hills all day, seven days a week for its entire life. Also, if you see begging elephants outside temples, have nothing to do with them because you’re just encouraging a foul trade.
Paul O’Grady meets SOS Wildlife co-founder Kartick Satyanarayan and two of the elephants at the SOS Sanctuary near Delhi
It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs
I promise there are lots of lighter moments, too. I’m laughing throughout most of this series! Getting soaked trying to shower the elephants with a hosepipe. I’m up every two hours through the night to bottle-feed the baby rhino. I’m mostly all smiles in this series and I’m not normally like that. Seriously, I’m normally scowling and complaining, but not here. We went to the Taj Mahal and it was closed. But two seconds later I turned my back and was feeding biscuits to all the street dogs outside. It’s all about the animals, you know.
But you do see what India looks like. And it is fabulous. It’s rough and ready; it’s not always pretty. But I love that, going round on one of those tuk-tuks around the back streets. I felt like Indiana Jones! It was fabulous. I loved it.
Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Animals – India is on Tuesday 25 April on ITV at 9pm
Radio Times holidays
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