This in-depth look at elephants’ intelligence, awareness, and emotion serves as a striking reminder of the need for careful stewardship—as only 2 percent of their population remains.
There is mystery behind that masked gray visage, an ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea.
—Peter Matthiessen, The Tree Where Man Was Born
The birth of an elephant is a spectacular occasion. Grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and cousins crowd around the new arrival and its dazed mother, trumpeting and stamping and waving their trunks to welcome the floppy baby who has so recently arrived from out of the void, bursting through the border of existence to take its place in an unbroken line stretching back to the dawn of life.
After almost two years in the womb and a few minutes to stretch its legs, the calf can begin to stumble around. But its trunk, an evolutionarily unique inheritance of up to 150,000 muscles with the dexterity to pick up a pin and the strength to uproot a tree, will be a mystery to it at first, with little apparent use except to sometimes suck upon like human babies do their thumbs. Over time, with practice and guidance, it will find the potential Welcome to the world: This newborn hasn’t yet stood up and stretched its legs, let alone figured out how to use its trunk. In this appendage flailing off its face to breathe, drink, caress, thwack, probe, lift, haul, wrap, spray, sense, blast, stroke, smell, nudge, collect, bathe, toot, wave, and perform countless other functions that a person would rely on a combination of eyes, nose, hands, and strong machinery to do.
Once the calf is weaned from its mother’s milk at five or whenever its next sibling is born, it will spend up to 16 hours a day eating 5 percent of its entire weight in leaves, grass, brush, bark, and basically any other kind of vegetation. It will only process about 40 percent of the nutrients in this food, however; the waste it leaves behind helps fertilize plant growth and provide accessible nutrition on the ground to smaller animals, thus making the elephant a keystone species in its habitat. From 250 pounds at birth, it will continue to grow throughout its life, to up to 7 tons for a male of the largest species or 4 tons for a female.
Of the many types of elephants and mammoths that used to roam the earth, one born today will belong to one of three surviving species: Elephas maximus in Asia, Loxodonta africana (savanna elephant) or Loxodonta cyclotis (forest elephant) in Africa. There are about 500,000 African elephants alive now (about a third of them the more reticent, less studied L. cyclotis), and only 40,000–50,000 Asian elephants remaining. The Swedish Elephant Encyclopedia database currently lists just under 5,000 (most of them E. maximus) living in captivity worldwide, in half as many locations—meaning that the average number of elephants per holding is less than two; many of them live without a single companion of their kind.
For the freeborn, if it is a cow, the “allomothers” who welcomed her into the world will be with her for life—a matriarchal clan led by the oldest and biggest. She in turn will be an enthusiastic caretaker and playmate to her younger cousins and siblings. When she is twelve or fourteen, she will go into heat (“estrus”) for the first time, a bewildering occurrence during which her mother will stand by and show her what to do and which male to accept. If she conceives, she will have a calf twenty-two months later, crucially aided in birthing and raising it by the more experienced older ladies. She may have another every four to five years into her fifties or sixties, but not all will survive.
If it is a bull, he will stay with his family until the age of ten or twelve, when his increasingly rough and suggestive play will cause him to be sent off. He may loosely join forces with a few other young males, or trail around after older ones he looks up to, but for the most part he will be independent from then on. Within the next few years he will start going into “musth,” a periodic state of excitation characterized by surging levels of testosterone, dribbling urine and copious secretions from his temporal glands, and extreme aggression responsive only to the presence of a bigger bull, who has an immediate dominance that the young male risks injury or death by failing to defer to. Although he reaches sexual maturity at a fairly young age, thanks to the competition he may not sire any children until he is close to thirty. (Ancient Indian poetry lauds bulls in musth for their amorous powers, even as keepers of Asian elephants have respected the phase as one highly dangerous to humans since time immemorial. Until 1976, it was widely believed in the scientific community that African elephants do not enter musth. This changed when researchers at Amboseli National Park in Kenya were dismayed to note an epidemic of “Green Penis Syndrome,” which they feared signaled some horrible venereal disease—until they realized it was nothing more nor less alarming than the very definition of a force of nature.)
Other than this primal temporary madness, elephants (when they do not feel threatened) are quite peaceable, with a gentle, loyal, highly social nature. Here is how John Donne, having seen one at a London exposition in 1612, put it:
Natures great master-peece, an Elephant,
The onely harmlesse great thing; the giant
Of beasts; who thought, no more had gone, to make one wise
But to be just, and thankfull, loth to offend,
(Yet nature hath given him no knees to bend)
Himselfe he up-props, on himselfe relies,
And foe to none, suspects no enemies.
Donne is not the first or the last to view the elephant in its stature and dignity as a synecdoche for the total grandeur of the universe, come to earth in lumpen grey form. Here he suggests that it represents a moral ideal as well. Animals are often celebrated for virtues that they seem to embody: dogs for loyalty, bears for courage, dolphins for altruism, and so on. But what does it really mean for them to model these things? When people act virtuously, we give them credit for well-chosen behavior. Animals, it is presumed, do so without choosing.
From a religious, anthropocentric perspective, it might be said that while animal virtues do not entail morality for the animals themselves, they reveal to us the goodness in creation; as the medieval theologian Johannes Scotus Eriugena wrote, “In a wonderful and inexpressible way God is created in His creatures.” From a more biological view, it might be noted that people mostly do not choose their dispositions either, that behavioral tendencies are more determined than we like to tell ourselves, and that blame and credit for such things are often misapplied in human contexts too.
But the latter idea—that humans, although capable of conscious self-direction, are as mutely carried along by the force of selection as your friendly neighborhood amoeba—simply elides the question, while the former raises many more; the tiger is as much God’s creature as the lamb. In any case, the capacity for “choosing” is a binary conceit that gestures at something much fuller, an inner realm of awareness, selfhood, and possibility. In other words, a soul.
To the ancients, soul was anima, that which animates, the living-, moving-, breathing-ness of a biological being. In this sense, not only animals but plants have souls (of different capacities appropriate to what they are). For many religions, by contrast, the soul is specifically incorporeal, perhaps immortal, and believed to be unique to human beings, who are responsible (to a point) for its condition. To modern science it is, if anything, the hard problem of consciousness, also commonly thought to be the province of just one species.
Without either choosing sides or somehow reconciling these three dueling realities with each other, it would be impossible to say what a soul is, let alone who has one. But there is a fourth sense in which when we talk about it, we all mean more or less the same thing: what it means for someone to bare it, for music to have it, for eyes to be the window to it, for it to be uplifted or depraved. Even if, religiously, we know by revelation that other people possess them for eternity, we only engage with or know anything about them at a quotidian level by way of the same cues and interactions that a more this-worldly view would take as their sum total: bright eyes, a dejected slump, a sudden manic inspiration or a confession of regret.
Also a matter of conventional wisdom is the idea that human beings are on one side of a great divide while all animals are on the other, subjects of their instincts and our necessities and pleasures. What exactly the divide is, though, is difficult to define. Various contestants have included reason, language, art, technology, religion, walking upright and the use of hands, knowledge of mortality, sin, suicide, and more. In The Explicit Animal (1991), Raymond Tallis rounds up a master list of them:
Man has called himself (among other things): the rational animal; the moral animal; the consciously choosing animal; the deliberately evil animal; the political animal; the toolmaking animal; the historical animal; the commodity-making animal; the economical animal; the foreseeing animal; the promising animal; the death-knowing animal; the art-making or aesthetic animal; the explaining animal; the cause-bearing animal; the classifying animal; the measuring animal; the counting animal; the metaphor-making animal; the talking animal; the laughing animal; the religious animal; the spiritual animal; the metaphysical animal; the wondering animal. . . . Man, it seems, is the self-predicating animal.
As Tallis goes on to explain, any given one of those distinctions is both too narrow, in being an insufficient explanation of what makes human beings human, and too open, in being demonstrably shared to some extent by another species.
Chimpanzees and other large primates, for instance, are so intelligent and personable that they blur many of these boundaries. But since we are so closely connected evolutionarily, it is easy to tacitly view them as way stations toward the human apex, impoverished versions of ourselves rather than somebody in their own right. There is, however, nothing else remotely like an elephant. (Its closest living relatives are sea cows—dugongs and manatees—and the hyrax, an African shrewmouse about the size of a rabbit.) As such, it presents the perfect opportunity for thoughtful reconsideration of the human difference, and how much that difference really matters.
An Elephant Never Forgets
To the elephant, our scrap of consciousness
May seem as inconsequential as a space-invader blip.
—Heathcote Williams, Sacred Elephant
In 1974, Thomas Nagel famously took a stab at one of the great riddles of the universe: What is it like to be a bat? To some scientists and philosophers, he noted, this is an unanswerable question; it is not like anything to be a bat because (they believe) the bat does not have enough awareness to subjectively experience itself. Nagel, taking for granted that bats have some kind of experience, also determined that the question is unanswerable because however well we imagine what it would be like for us to live as bats, the bat is so biologically foreign that its experience is beyond our mental grasp.
For people hoping nonetheless to comprehend the lives of elephants, there is an astounding wealth of information about them, a tiny fraction of which appears in the addendum at the end, a slightly larger fraction on my office shelves, and a realistically inexhaustible fund in libraries, databases, and oral histories around the world. The best of these come out of an ethological renaissance kicked off with Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton’s Among the Elephants (1975) and continued in such works as Cynthia Moss’s Elephant Memories (1988), Joyce Poole’s Coming of Age with Elephants (1996), Katy Payne’s Silent Thunder (1998), and more, with longitudinal findings compiled in the magisterial volume The Amboseli Elephants (2011). The result of a close-knit, crack team of researchers who have been patiently and creatively observing the same elephant families for decades, this work combines the power of concrete study with the power of story and narrative.
Powerful for us, that is, onlookers from the outside. What is it like to be an elephant? Is it like anything? How would we know?
One of the major clues that elephants have something we would recognize as inner lives is their extraordinary memories. This is attested to by outward indicators ranging from the practical—a matriarch’s recollection of a locale, critical to leading her family to food and water—to the passionate—grudges that are held against specific people or types of people for decades or even generations, or fierce affection for a long-lost friend.
Carol Buckley, co-founder of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a retirement ranch for maltreated veterans of circuses and zoos, describes the arrival of a newcomer to the facility. The fifty-one-year-old Shirley was first introduced to an especially warm resident of long standing named Tarra: “Everyone watched in joy and amazement as Tarra and Shirley intertwined trunks and made ‘purring’ noises at each other. Shirley very deliberately showed Tarra each injury she had sustained at the circus, and Tarra then gently moved her trunk over each injured part.” Later in the evening, an elephant named Jenny entered the barn—one who, as it turned out, had as a calf briefly been in the same circus as Shirley, twenty-two years before:
There was an immediate urgency in Jenny’s behavior. She wanted to get close to Shirley who was divided by two stalls. Once Shirley was allowed into the adjacent stall the interaction between her and Jenny became quite intense. Jenny wanted to get into the stall with Shirley desperately. She became agitated, banging on the gate and trying to climb through and over.
After several minutes of touching and exploring each other, Shirley started to ROAR and I mean ROAR—Jenny joined in immediately. The interaction was dramatic, to say the least, with both elephants trying to climb in with each other and frantically touching each other through the bars. I have never experienced anything even close to this depth of emotion.
We opened the gate and let them in together. . . . they are as one bonded physically together. One moves, and the other shows in unison. It is a miracle and joy to behold. All day . . . they moved side by side and when Jenny lay down, Shirley straddled her in the most obvious protective manner and shaded her body from the sun and harm.
They were inseparable until Jenny died a few years later.
More stories of kind mentoring in a new home come courtesy of another elephant rescue site, this one in Kenya, where orphans are raised to be reintroduced as adults into the wild. This is a big adjustment, not often attempted for animals who have lived for some length of time in a captive or domesticated setting, but the new releases are helped by older elephants who have gone through the same thing themselves (especially important in welcoming them into a herd that is not their blood kin). In a 2011 report in National Geographic, head keeper Joseph Sauni recounts how an adventurous little one named Irima ran away to try out his independence early. After a few days, a trumpety clamor was heard at the gate. “Irima must have told the group that he still needed his milk and orphan family and wanted to go back,” says Sauni, so Edo, a graduate of the center, walked Irima home. “The keepers opened the gate, and Edo escorted Irima all the way back to the stockades. Edo drank some water from the well, ate some food, and took off again. Mission accomplished.”
Such solicitude is not limited to their own kind. In Coming of Age with Elephants, Joyce Poole tells the story of a ranch herder whose leg was broken by a matriarch in an accidental confrontation with her family. When his camels wandered back without him in the evening, a search party was sent out. He was eventually discovered under a tree, attended by a female elephant who fiercely prevented anybody from approaching. As they were preparing to shoot her, the herder frantically signaled for them to stop. When they were finally able to draw her far enough away for them to go and get him, he explained that after the elephant had struck him, she “realized” that he could not walk and, using her trunk and front feet, had gently moved him several meters and propped him up under the shade of a tree. There she stood guard over him through the afternoon, through the night, and into the next day. Her family left her behind, but she stayed on, occasionally touching him with her trunk. When a herd of buffaloes came to drink at the trough, she left his side and chased them away. It was clear to the man that she “knew” that he was injured and took it upon herself to protect him.
From whence come these altruistic actions? Are they the product of blind instinct in the animal, the residue of ancestral behavior benefiting kin, whereas for humans they would be a generous and morally commendable choice? Or is the truth somewhere in between, some combination of the two, for both of us? Poole illustrates how the standard framework of evolutionary theory is problematic in describing even highly survival- and reproduction-oriented interactions:
As a behavioral ecologist, I have been trained to view non-human animals as behaving in ways that don’t necessarily involve any conscious thinking and that their decisions have been simply genetically programmed through the course of natural or sexual selection. But in the course of watching elephants, I have always had a sense that they often do think about what they are doing, the choices they have, and the decisions that they are making. For example, when a young musth male is threatened by a high-ranking musth male, his usual response is to drop out of musth immediately. He lowers his head, and urine dribbling can cease in a matter of seconds. Many biologists would explain this phenomenon simply by arguing that males who behave in manner X live to produce more surviving offspring than males who behave in manner Y, and thus the trait for behaving in manner X is passed on to future generations. Thus, male elephants today automatically behave the way they do because they have been programmed through the successful behavior of their ancestors to do so.
It is worth noting that selectively, the decision tree here can go both ways: drop out of musth, avoid the fight, and live to try again another day; or don’t, and make the best play you can to pass your genes on then and there. It is easy to see how either behavior might be rewarded and reinforced by reproductive success over time, either explained just as handily. But the bigger problem is the assumption that in a way, the choice is already determined prior to the interaction, even prior to those two elephants’ births, because as an encoded response there is no room for it to be a choice at all. This automatically excludes a key factor in the scenario, as Poole continues:
Although I rely on such explanations myself, as I have gotten to know elephants better I have been more and more convinced that they do think, sometimes consciously, about the particular situations in which they find themselves. In the case of the young musth male, I believe that he may actually consider his options: to keep dribbling, stand with head high, and be attacked, or to cease dribbling, stand with head low, and be tolerated. In other words, the male may in fact have some conscious control. . . . With dominance rank between males changing on a daily basis, a male needs to be able to adjust his behavior accordingly. From past experience he knows the characteristics of his rival’s body size, fighting ability, and how that rival normally ranks relative to him, but if his rival is in musth he also needs to assess whether he is in full musth and what sort of condition he is in. All of this information must be assimilated on a daily basis and gauged relative to his own condition. Can so complex an assessment be carried out without thinking? And I wonder whether the more parsimonious explanation wouldn’t be that they think.
Of course, similar mechanistic explanations are now often applied to human actions as well. As Poole acknowledges, they are grounded in something real, but do not allow for the fullest understanding of what is going on. In a way, it may actually be more instructive to look at the flaws in this line of reasoning with an animal example, which helps to avoid some of the metaphysical minefields surrounding the issue. Properly nuanced discussions about animal activity can be soundly materialistic without being reductive. Animal science that describes their real abilities, where they can receive credit for intelligent or compassionate actions driven by more than mere instinct, would by extension elevate man’s stature too—not flatten it with animals’, but raise them both above the low bar of pure determinism.
This moral question is at the heart of Tarquin Hall’s To the Elephant Graveyard (2000), a real-life chronicle of the hunt for a rogue bull elephant that reads almost like a detective novel where nothing is as it first appears. The victim is a drunk man plucked from out of his house and impaled in his own yard. The suspect is a large “tusker” who seems to have sought him out in the village for that express purpose, with no provocation, and has done this to thirty-seven previous victims. A marksman is contracted by the Indian government to shoot the bull and put a stop to this behavior. Hall, a journalist based in New Delhi, believes something fishy is up and finagles his way into the search party so he can expose it.
Sure that Dinesh Choudhury, the marksman, is a stone-cold mercenary insensate to the dignity of elephants, probably framing some meek hapless creature for crimes it could not really have committed, Hall pompously lectures him about them—only to have his pretensions flattened by this man who loves and understands the hathi (elephants) far better than Hall knew was even possible, and who inducts him into a whole hathi universe of deep feeling and sly intelligence and indeed, moral agency.
At one point they catch up with the elephant and Mr. Choudhury steals off to confront him alone—not to shoot, but simply to meet his eyes and give him warning. “I have thrown down the gauntlet. Now the rogue will either mend his ways or I will deal with him,” he explains to an astounded Hall. “If a human kills, he is given a fair trial before sentencing is carried out. Therefore, I always give each elephant a chance to redeem himself. I say to him, ‘If you stay, you will die. If you go, you will live.’” For a man who wants the elephant to take the offer, who hates nothing more than shooting them, it seems an odd profession to go into; but Mr. Choudhury notes that someone would be hired to do it, and “at least with me in charge, the elephant has a chance.”
Having tracked the hathi deep into the northern forest, one night they encounter a legless man who turns out to be his former owner. Many years ago, the man purchased him on a whim, having a lifelong affection for the creatures but not knowing anything about them. Further, being often away from home on business, the owner heedlessly left him in the care of a vicious scamp, returning one day to find him tied up to a tree, malnourished, and scarred from frequent beatings. The keeper (who was nowhere to be found until he was discovered locked up for fighting in a bar) was immediately fired, and a kinder one employed to nurse the hathi back to health. But a few weeks later, the old keeper showed up again, belligerently drunk, demanding money from the owner and taunting the elephant. At the sight of his tormenter, the elephant broke out of his restraints and smashed the keeper to the ground repeatedly, crushing the owner’s legs on the way out.
“I believe the elephant did this to me deliberately,” the owner says. “He wanted me to live in agony. He wanted me to remember him every day for the rest of my life. And so I have done for the past ten years.” The elephant, in those ten years, has ranged all around killing dozens of men in like manner—drunks who resembled his old foe. The owner does not want revenge, he says, because he blames himself for what has happened; but if they can shoot the hathi, he goes on, they “would be ending a lot of pain and misery. Most of all his.”
As a kind of trial, the elephant’s chase poses a question familiar from real trials held in courtrooms every day: how much are violent offenders warped by atrocious pasts responsible for what they do? How relevant is this to what becomes of them, when there is a fundamental obligation to protect society?
Like humans, most traumatized elephants do not become violent, but just absorb their hurts in confusion and sadness and respond to them in other familiar ways. In The Dynasty of Abu (1962), the zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson recounts the story of an elephant named Sadie, who was practicing but failing to learn a circus routine. Finally she gave up and bolted out of the training ring, causing her to be chastised (not cruelly, he stresses) “for her supposed stupidity and for trying to run away.” At this, she dropped to the ground and dumbfounded her trainers by bawling like a human being. “She lay there on her side, the tears streaming down her face and sobs racking her huge body.”
In almost half a century of close association with the Abu [elephants], including and even after reading a substantial part of the vast literature concerning these majestic creatures, I have not encountered anything that has moved me so greatly, and I write this in all seriousness and humility. Its ineffable pathos constantly brings to mind that most famous verse “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). What on earth are we to make of a so-called “lower animal” crying?
If you shoot an animal, you may expect it to make whimpering noises. . . . That any animal, and especially one weighing 3 tons, should lie down and sob her heart out in pure emotional frustration is something else again. It almost looks as if, despite all that we like to believe, we humans are not the only creatures that possess what we call emotions and higher feelings. In fact, if we insist upon making a distinction between ourselves and other animals in this respect, we will then have to provide a special niche for the Abu.
In Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals—an 1872 work that, together with The Descent of Man (1871), applies the principles of evolution to the question of human origins—elephants appear twice: briefly in a note on the way their ears flare when they charge each other for a fight, and more extensively with an inquiry into the phenomenon of captive elephants weeping. Darwin reports the observations of a colonial secretary in Ceylon (Sri Lanka): “When overpowered and made fast, [one newly captured bull’s] grief was most affecting; his violence sank to utter prostration, and he lay on the ground, uttering choking cries, with tears trickling down his cheeks.” Others, meanwhile, simply “lay motionless on the ground, with no other indication of suffering than the tears which suffused their eyes and flowed incessantly.” A zookeeper in London, Darwin adds, witnessed similar occurrences whenever his companion pair of cows were split up. Ever the painstaking naturalist, Darwin latches onto a physiological investigation of the muscles surrounding the eyes—how their contraction may cause or allow for tears, whether they are more likely to be contracted while prostrate, and so forth. He manages to induce a batch of children to squeeze these muscles repeatedly as a test, to very little tearful effect.
To continue reading the full essay from the New Atlantis here.
Photo credit: Siddharth Maheshwari via Wikimedia Commons