At Indian court, pachyderm plaintiff gains a victory - and half the courthouse lawn

During the long, drawn-out court battle, the plaintiff never appeared in court. Her girth prevented her from climbing the spindly, wooden stairs in the courthouse. And she was in no state to appear in public: ''highly aggravated'' one moment, in a state of ''deep depression'' the next. She had been forced to retire prematurely, well before the accepted age.

She was a ''working woman,'' battling for recognition in a male-dominated world, and had now been deprived of her livelihood, through no fault of her own. She had loyally served her employer, ''without bonus or overtime.''

The bespectacled magistrate nodded solemnly in understanding.

A little girl began to cry.

Then, it was finally over, after two years in court.

Much to the delight of children all over India, Rampyari was awarded $2,300 in damages. And all court costs were to be paid by the defendant.

She thus became not only wealthy, at the age of 32, but the first elephant in Indian history to win at the bar.

A majestic, lovable circus performer, who had thrilled audiences for 16 years , Rampyari, along with three other elephants, in a tail-to-trunk holding file, were ambling down the Poona-Bombay national highway on Dec. 12, 1980, an early Indian winter night.

A truck careened out of nowhere, crashing into the line. Rampyari was dragged nearly six meters, by her entangled hind leg.

Because of the injury she now walks with a limp and, according to her owner, Bhimrao Patil, she can no longer perform. Mr. Patil was seeking $7,500 in damages.

The Motor Accident Claims Tribunal in Poona accepted Mr. Patil's claim, amid demonstrations by truckers, counter-demonstrations by children, and Rampyari, seemingly unmoved by it all. During the protracted proceedings, she appeared perfectly happy to eat up half of the courthouse lawn.

Since she is still young for an elephant, she is going back to work. But, Mr. Patil hastened to explain, entertaining at the Badrinath temple is far less strenuous, far less lucrative, than is circus performing.

According to bemused legal sources, her ability to work again, albeit for less money, could give defense lawyers a case for an appeal.

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