The Emotional Lives of Elephants: 3 Facts that Make Elephants as Admirable as Humans
When it comes to elephants, there is not doubt that this is one of the most beloved and cherished species in the animal kingdom. From cards to photographs, to clothes, to ornaments and toys, it seems like we always want to be surrounded by elephants. We genuinely love them.
It is widely known to people that elephants are kind, patient and gentle sentient beings; but do we know the depths of their wisdom, compassion and loyalty?
The purpose of today’s article is to share bits of research and evidence on what makes elephants so extraordinary and why we, as mothers, sisters and caring humans, need to do more to protect them.
Fact #1: Empathy - Elephants grieve. They feel empathy. When a herd has lost one of its members, the group dynamic is affected. They visit the place where the elephant died. When a mother has lost her offspring, she acts lethargic for days. Often times they are seen next to the body for days, to guard them from predators. This National Geographic video shows how a group of elephants visited the site of a matriarch in Africa who died weeks earlier. They exhibited a specific response to this occurrence and stayed next to the body, touching it and standing silently around it. The scientist noticed how there were tears in their eyes.
Another example of scientific recognition of elephants emotions took place recently. In a statement by world renowned conservationist, Dr. Jane Goodall indicated that elephants “(…) have the same emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, despair and so on as we do. They try to help family members or friends who are wounded. And they grieve when one dies.” Elephants unequivocally understand the feeling of sadness.
Elephants are empathic. There is empirical evidence showing how they comfort each other by using their trunks during times of distress. In this article published by Science Daily, Joshua Plotnik, PhD, shared the findings of his research of Asian elephants and was able to conclude and demonstrate that elephants console each other through vocalization or by putting their trunk in the other elephant’s mouth. They also use their trunks to reassure one another through touch. Consolation, he explains, is a rare conduct amongst animals.
Fact #2: Devotion - Elephant bonds last a lifetime. It has been documented that female elephants in the wild stay together until one of them dies or gets taken away. Male elephants can stay with their herd up to 18 years. This recent publication from National Geographic explains how mothers and daughters never separate. This is not surprising as the gestation period of elephants lasts 22 months and the suckling phase, up to four years.
Additionally, there are allomothers in the herd, which means that aunties, sisters or grandmothers will assist in taking care of the babies and protect them whenever is needed.
During the week I volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiangmai, Thailand, I saw how important the support, reassurance and touch was to the members of the herd. There were different herds and the behavior amongst the members was always the same. The majority of the elephants living there had been rescued. Many bonded over time and built their own group.
In one of them, there was a baby. Whenever he needed to sleep, the other female elephants gathered around him in a circle, to protect him. The elephants in the herd were loyal and affectionate to one another, especially to the youngest one.
This kind of devotion is very similar to the one we see in humans. For example, a mother would never leave her baby behind, especially in nursing stages. A mother elephant wouldn’t do that either, nor would the herd. This is way it is heartbreaking when you see baby elephants begging on the streets of Bangkok, offering massages on the Thai beaches of Koh Samui or Phuket or performing in places like Chiangmai. These babies have been taken away from their families and have been broken and trained so that they give up and obey for the rest of their lives.
The unethical tourist industry continuous to be a threat forAsian elephants. Read more here. It is highly possible too that once separated from their mothers they will, sadly, never be reunited.
Fact #3: Fear – Just like us, elephants are afraid of death, pain, scarcity. Elephants mothers, like their human counterparts, can tell when their calves are calling for help because they’re threatened or because they want attention. When they’re older, elephants communicate and share important information to keep the herd safe. Matriarchs for example, take others to where there’s water and food available. They also lead their members away from predators and communicate through special sounds and calls, too low for people to hear, so that they can warn other elephants of danger.
In this article, National Geographic shared a study that took place in Kenya in which scientists detected that elephants were able to detect how dangerous local men were by the way they spoke. This one shows the different kinds of calling sounds they make and their meaning. Imagine how intelligent they are!
They’re also afraid of punishment. It is out of fear that elephants allow people to ride them. They have great memory for traumatic experiences such as going through the phajaan, an ancient method in which they are brutally trained so that their spirit is broken. (Think babies taken away from their mothers, tied to a tree or chained for days, deprived from food and water and consistently beaten until they give up).
Captive elephants fear that, if they’re not do as told, there will be repercussions. They obey commands because they fear being reprimanded and because they remember what they went through during the phajaan. Captive elephants suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
This article by Harvard’s Medical School affirms what scientists have discovered in the pas.
It's well known that early traumatic experiences can have long-lasting effects, raising the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and violence. Today, in increasing numbers, elephants are showing signs of abnormal startle responses, unpredictable aggression, and antisocial behavior.
An example of this is given by Michele Franko a Research Associate at the Kerulos Center and a senior sanctuary elephant carer. When she was working as an appointed government humane officer, she was commissioned to oversee elephants in captivity in California during almost two decades. In her interview with Psychology today she stated that: ”All of the Elephants have permanent life-long injuries and are plagued with psychological trauma symptoms.” This video of Tyke, a circus elephants exemplifies it.
As sad as it is that what has been done can’t be changed, this is our turn to make things right for the elephants. This is why it is crucial for our generation to be actively compassionate and stop attending events and paying for activities that keep elephants away from their herd and natural habitat. When we do that, we will end our part in keeping these animals grieving and separated from their loved ones.
Have you had interactions with captive elephants? Do you have a heartwarming story you’d like to share? I would love to know. Please feel free to leave your comments in the section below.
Thank you for being here. Namaste.