For today, I recommend Caitrin Nicol’s piece in The New Atlantis from last year, “Do Elephants Have Souls?” Nicol’s essay surveys the meanings of soul, explores animal sentience, and offers many fascinating facts and anecdotes about elephants. I especially appreciate the section on anthropomorphism. Some selections:
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
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.
Staff members at the Elephant Sanctuary told me of an incident with one of their “girls,” who spotted a fallen bird outside her barn and ran right over to it, utterly distraught. She crooned and stroked it and did not settle down till it had been properly laid to rest. What did this mean to her, exactly? We don’t know. But she was clearly very moved by a fellow creature’s woe and had no trouble seeing it for what it was, different life forms though they were. How sad when we, “higher” animals who share this gift, convince ourselves to dull it.
Incidentally, in an entirely different kind of “image test,” elephants are distinguished as well: they can recognize themselves in mirrors. Very few other animals have been shown to do this, mainly dolphins and great apes. The test is performed as follows: While the animal is unconscious, some part of its anatomy out of its range of vision is marked with odorless paint, and often for control a corresponding location is marked with a clear version of the paint. When presented with a mirror wherein the mark is reflected, it turns to that location on its own body to explore it, indicating both self-awareness and an understanding of the meaning of the mirror. Human beings begin to pass this test at about eighteen months of age.
But here he [man] is joined by the elephants, the only other known creatures that — whatever it may mean to them — purposively commemorate their dead, in a way Joyce Poole calls “eerie and deeply moving”: “It is their silence that is most unsettling. The only sound is the slow blowing of air out of their trunks as they investigate their dead companion. It’s as if even the birds have stopped singing.” Using their trunks and sensitive hind feet, the ones they use for waking up their babies, “they touch the body ever so gently, circling, hovering above, touching again, as if by doing so they are obtaining information that we, with our more limited senses, can never understand. Their movements are in slow motion, and then, in silence, they may cover the dead with leaves and branches.”
After burying the body in brush and dirt, family members may stay silently with it for over a day; or if a body is found unattended by elephants not related to it, they may pause and stand by for some time. They do this with any dead elephant, recently deceased or long departed with only the skeleton remaining. “It is probably the single strangest thing about them,” Cynthia Moss writes:
Even bare, bleached old elephant bones will stop a group if they have not seen them before. It is so predictable that filmmakers have been able to get shots of elephants inspecting skeletons by bringing the bones from one place and putting them in a new spot near an elephant pathway or a water hole. Inevitably the living elephants will feel and move the bones around, sometimes picking them up and carrying them away for quite some distance before dropping them. It is a haunting and touching sight and I have no idea why they do it.
Understandably, for many years it was rumored that elephants had designated graveyards. This has proved essentially untrue, although their skeletons often do collect in the same place, such as near a water hole, where the ailing and elderly tend to stay towards the end of their lives — and as Moss notes, sometimes do get moved around. The mother of a dead baby may drape it over her tusks and carry it with her for days, if she is not standing vigil.
Elephants even react to carved ivory, long divorced from the original remains and altered and handled extensively. Poole writes of a woman who came to visit Tsavo National Park wearing ivory bracelets: as an elephant approached, the park warden cautioned her to hide them behind her back; but when the elephant arrived, she reached around behind the woman and contemplatively perused the bracelets with her trunk. Poole then had a friend stage a repeat performance later, and the same thing happened. Conversely, elephants have also been observed to become quiet and pensive in an area where relatives died, even years ago, although the bones have long been removed.
While elephants are unfailingly interested in the remains of their own kind in whatever form, they have occasionally been known to bury dead rhinos, lions, and humans as well. In some cases, the people were only sleeping, and awoke to find themselves trapped under enormous heaps of foliage. Other times, they have been injured or paralyzed with fear by a furious elephantine rampage, which came to an abrupt end when the elephant perceived them lying still on the ground, and switched in an instant from ferocious self-defense to solemnly performing its rites for the dead.
To many Westerners, Africa is Eden or the Heart of Darkness, maybe both. To Africans, Africa is where they live. Many see the tremendous foreign interest in and power brought to bear on protecting their wildlife as just the latest version of imperialism. It is all very well, it seems, for people whose countries have never dealt with native elephants to have the luxury of tooling around in the barren strip malls that support a comfortable lifestyle and counting on far-off places to hold the soul of the natural world in trust, occasionally piped into our living rooms via nature documentaries — but there are people living there as well, with their own needs and aims and points of view.
Elephants have long been a nuisance in many populated areas, marauding through crops and becoming dangerous when challenged. More importantly, when sources of income are nearly nonexistent, and there is a voracious if illegal market for elephant products, the incentives to ignore the law are far stronger than most local governments’ power or resolve to enforce it.
And, to end, here is a hobbit peasant rhyme recited by faithful Samwise:
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie.
May elephants ever roam our world!