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Cher on saving an elephant, 'badly' serenading him with Frank Sinatra: 'It was so frightening'

Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY
·4 min read
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Cher has performed at Las Vegas casinos, the Super Bowl and Amanda Seyfried's fictional Greek hotel.

But her toughest audience may have been a 36-year-old elephant named Kaavan, whom she saved from captivity in Pakistan last November. Upon meeting the long-neglected creature, the pop legend fed him watermelon and serenaded him "really badly" with Frank Sinatra's "My Way," she says with a laugh.

"It was so frightening for a singer, but then I thought, 'What the hell,'" Cher says. "And what does Kaavan know? He hasn't gone to any concert."

Cher's melodious rescue mission is the focus of a new documentary, "Cher & the Loneliest Elephant," now streaming on Paramount+ Thursday to commemorate Earth Day. It airs on Smithsonian Channel May 19 (8 EDT/PDT).

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The hourlong film tracks the public campaign to save Kaavan, who was gifted by the Sri Lankan government to Pakistan shortly after his birth in 1985. He was soon placed in the Islamabad Zoo with his partner, an elephant named Saheli, who died in 2012. Kaavan was frequently kept in small enclosed places with his legs shackled, and his physical and mental health deteriorated due to the dire conditions.

Samar Khan, a veterinarian from the U.S., first learned of Kaavan's plight in 2015 and started a Change.org petition to free him that garnered 400,000 signatures. Cher was alerted to the elephant's cause the following year by some of her nearly 4 million Twitter followers.

"All of a sudden, people started texting me this picture of an elephant with his nose pressed against a wall in this tiny little space," says Cher, 74. "(The movement) didn't go away and I found myself thinking, 'Obviously, this came to me for a reason.'"

In 2017, the Oscar-winning "Moonstruck" actress released a song, "Walls," inspired by Kaavan, and co-founded an animal rights organization, Free the Wild, with Mark Cowne, Jennifer Ruiz and Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne (former business adviser to Meghan Markle). But the zoo administration refused to part with the elephant, and Kaavan's future was uncertain until last year, when Pakistani lawyer Owais Awan won a court case granting the animal's release.

Kaavan was soon cleared to go to an animal sanctuary in Cambodia when another obstacle came up: Who was going to move him to his new home during the COVID-19 pandemic?

That's when Cher knew she had to fly to Pakistan.

"Everything seemed like it was happening so quickly," she says. "It was another area, it was a place I was kind of nervous of and there was a huge pandemic. It was surreal. While I was packing, I kept going, 'Am I really going to be doing this? Is this really gonna happen?'

"And then I just finally thought, 'Shut up. You've been doing this for four years. I don't care what happens – I'm going.'"

James Blue, head of Smithsonian Channel, says he's most impressed by "the length and depth" of Cher's commitment to Kaavan.

"Most people would not have stuck to this campaign as she has," Blue says. "The fact that she kept her word and traveled to Pakistan in a pandemic speaks volumes about her drive to see this resolved."

Like Kaavan, the rescue mission was "a group effort of gargantuan size," as the singer traveled with nonprofit group Four Paws to Islamabad Zoo. There, they put him into a transport crate and onto a cargo plane to Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, a 25,000-acre forested area where he's "really happy" and "mesmerized by trees" after so many years spent in captivity, Cher says.

Getting to spend some time with Kaavan, she was most surprised by his gentleness: "After being brutalized, mistreated and shackled his whole life, I didn't expect such a sweet elephant."

Since Kaavan's release, Cher has continued to advocate for other animals, recently campaigning for the release of an Asian elephant named Lucy from Canada's Edmonton Valley Zoo. A mom to two Highland Lynx cats – Zen and Mala, named for the Buddhist terms – the Grammy winner encourages people to think of their own pets while watching the documentary.

"Animals deserve to be taken care of," Cher says. "You wouldn't shackle your pet to a wall for years with no contact, just throwing food at them. I would like for people to look at their pets and then see the horrible conditions these animals have been kept in, and just ask themselves, 'Would I ever let (someone) do this to my pet?'"

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cher recalls saving, singing to an elephant named Kaavan in new doc