An online campaign to rescue a six-year-old Asian elephant successfully convinced authorities to remove the animal from abusive handlers at zoos in central China and reunite her with her mother in the southwest.
Molly, who was born in Kunming Zoo in 2016, in the Yunnan provincial capital of the same name, was sent to Henan province at the age of two, ostensibly to diversify their gene pool and prevent inbreeding.
She ended up performing tricks for tourists across multiple zoos in the province, with many videos emerging of her being "trained" by her handler with chains and iron hooks.
Over the past years, she was videotaped carrying tourists around on her back and performing tricks such as standing on her front legs and spinning a hula hoop at various zoos in Qinyang and its neighbouring cities.
The online campaign, titled Rescue Molly the Little Elephant, took off when pictures emerged of a glum-looking Molly with a vacant look in her eyes. The photos were compared to images of her when she was one year old, seeming to show a completely different animal.
The Jiaozuo Forestry Zoo, one of the zoos where Molly lived, denied mistreating her in a statement in September last year. However, because they did not provide details, online users kept pushing for Molly's reunion with her mother in Kunming.
A Weibo hashtag about saving Molly became a top topic for discussion on the platform late last month, with celebrities, including Taiwanese actors Shu Qi and Joe Chen, defending her.
On Sunday, the Henan Forestry Bureau, which oversees the province's zoos and wildlife parks, announced that Molly was returning to Kunming because of "a response to public concerns" and hoped she would "live and grow in better conditions".
Molly will receive a thorough health assessment at the Kunming Zoo, officials said in a statement early Tuesday (May 17) morning.
China has multiple laws and regulations covering wildlife protection and animal performances, but some contradict each other. It is illegal to host animal performances in zoos, but other laws allow for "the commercial use of wildlife". China has no anti-cruelty legislation to penalise animal abuse.
Animal shows such as cycling bears and dancing elephants are common at zoos and wildlife parks around the country.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.