Cher’s four-year journey to help save an abused elephant from a Pakistani zoo is documented in “Cher & The Loneliest Elephant” now on Paramount+ and premiering May 19 on Smithsonian Channel.
The special follows the iconic singer/actress’ efforts to rescue Kaavan, a 37-year-old elephant kept chained to a wall, alone, in an Islamabad zoo in squalid conditions. His mate, Saheli, died in 2012 from gangrene caused by the chains on her legs, causing Kaavan to rock back and forth from stress and anxiety.
Kaavan’s plight was brought to Cher’s attention in 2016 through the efforts of animal rights advocate Anika Sleem, who launched a #FreeKaavan social media campaign that quickly gained traction.
“I had been trying to save an elephant here I really loved with absolutely no luck,” Cher told The Post. “Fade out, fade in, some years later…I have to thank the kids — I’m sure not all of them are kids, but I just call them that — on my Twitter site because I would never have done this without them bothering me. It was #FreeKaavan every time I was on [the site] and I kept thinking, ‘OK, if I don’t answer them they’ll leave me alone.’
“But they didn’t, thank God,” she said. “My first thought was, ‘I’m not going to be able to do anything [to help Kaavan]; I’m just an entertainer and he’s in Islamabad and there’s pandemic.’ I felt hopeless, but then I remembered a friend I met in Qatar, [musician/activist] Bob Geldof’s manager, Mark Cowne, and just cold-called him. I said something really stupid like, ‘You might not remember me but we rode in a car together and I know you’ve saved elephants in Africa. Can you help me?’ I want to save an elephant in Pakistan.’
“A couple of days later he was there in Islamabad,” she said. “He’s a big guy and he went up to [zoo officials] and said, ‘Take [Kaavan’s] shackles off, put some corrugated metal on top of this bulls–t thing he’s living in, it’s not big enough for him, and put some water in that little pool,’ which they did.”
Cowne contacted animal rights group Four Paws International. Led by experienced veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil, they were tasked with transporting Kaavan from Islamabad to a 30,000-acre animal sanctuary in Cambodia. It was risky, since Kaavan was in Musth, a periodic condition in which male elephants’ testosterone rises dramatically, causing aggressive behavior. It also necessitated a specially constructed container Kaavan had to be trained to enter so he could make the seven-hour air journey to Cambodia.
Cher, meanwhile, flew with a small security detail to meet Kaavan in Islamabad, then journeyed on to Cambodia to welcome him at the sanctuary.
“I had to make a decision whether I was going to go to Islamabad in a pandemic and not knowing what the people there were going to think of me, or even if they knew who I was,” Cher said. “I was hoping they didn’t know, because then they would know I’m this chick from America who was naked for almost her entire life and that wouldn’t have gone down so well. But I met a lot of nice people there.”
As viewers will see, Cher and Kaavan bonded over a piece of watermelon, with Dr. Khalil close by. “I felt the connection,” she said. “We hung out and sang a real bad [rendition of] ‘My Way,’ which is not a song I think I would ever sing in my life. Elephants adore music; I don’t think people have any idea how the emotions of human beings and elephants are the same. They have compassion and anger and they can reason — they do better with human qualities than we do.
“When Mark first unchained Kaavan he didn’t know that he could move…they’re still getting rid of the burns on his ankles [from the shackles]…and putting all kinds of medicine on them. Can you imagine chaining your dog to something for so long and not letting him move for no apparent reason?”
Kaavan’s trip to Cambodia was uneventful, and he will now transition (in three stages) into living in his natural habitat, roaming free and surrounded by other elephants.
“I watched him when we first got [to Cambodia]. It was night, but it wasn’t completely dark, and I was standing behind the crate when Kavaan had to back out of it,” Cher said. “I watched him walk around the enclosure and saw his back — he was just curious and was looking around, there was not one shake of his head or his body. He wasn’t freaking out or anything.
“And there are girl [elephants] there,” she said. “[Kaavan’s keeper] Derek said he was having some communication with the females and I said, ‘Oh my God — a new house and chicks at the same time!’ You saw him with one of the girls holding trunks. The tips of their trunks are much more sensitive than fingertips.”
Cher said she will eventually return to visit Kaavan. She co-founded an international charity, Free The Wild, with Cowne and his wife, Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne, to rescue other animals in dire straits.
“I’m going to Thailand and then I’m going to stop in Cambodia to see [Kaavan], but not now because it’s too hard,” she said.