Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Elephants: Do They Have Human-Like Emotions?

Elephants drinking water
Courtesy of Bernard Dupont
Elephants are the largest land mammals on Earth. They are also credited with having relatively large brains, great memory and almost human characteristics, despite the obvious physical differences. Among elephants' human qualities is the ability to create art, made possible by their observation skills and dexterous trunks. This in itself is amazing. However, their ability to display emotions is even more so.

It is a common belief that only humans experience emotions like happiness, sorrow and compassion. This is a misconception, judging by the behavior of animals like dolphins and elephants. Every day, elephants prove that humans are not the only animals capable of caring for other individuals, despite the lack of personal gain. Their behavior proves that they can display, at the very least, happiness, grief and compassion.

Elephants Displaying Elation

Elephants have been observed countless times doing something that can only be described as celebrating a birth. When a calf is born, members of the herd are attentive of the new mother and calf, but what is interesting is the noisy party that follows. Elephants will trumpet and make all sorts of sounds after a healthy baby is born. Judging by the fact that these noises obviously are not for survival or necessary communication, it must be concluded that they are celebrating. Well, there can only be one reason to celebrate and that is happiness. Therefore, it is assumed by many that these birth celebrations are a sign that elephants experience happiness.

Another elephant behavior obviously speaks of happiness, or at least relief. It is known as an elephant "greeting ceremony." When an elephant family member or close individual is reunited with its acquaintances or relations, the previously absent elephant and its loved one(s) will start communicating from a distance. As the distance closes, the elephants begin running to greet each other. Once the distance has been gapped, a celebration of noise, holding trunks (something like holding hands) and ear flapping ensues. This celebration can involve up to 50 elephants and lasts up to five minutes. There is the possibility that this is some sort of important communication that humans have yet to decipher. However, it seems to be that the elephants are simply celebrating the return of a lost loved one. After all, what survival benefit is there to expending this much energy?

Elephants Displaying Grief

An elephant display of grief is a touching thing to behold. If you have never seen it, click here to watch a video of elephant grieving behavior. It shows clearly a behavior that must be brought on by emotions, because there is no need for it in the context of what we think of as animal behavior. In other words, it does nothing to feed them, keep them from being eaten or aid in mating.

Elephant expert Joyce Poole is one of the many who has witnessed and documented the grief of elephants. In her case, it was the death of an infant elephant and its mother's reaction to the stillbirth that made elephant grief obvious. Joyce wrote in her "Coming of Age with Elephants" that she watched elephant Tonie try to revive her dead baby for several days. The mother seemed dejected and unwilling to face the fact that her baby was dead.

Tonie's behavior is not the only example of elephant grief. Whole herds will return to the scene of an elephant death days later to stand over the remains of the dead elephant and touch it. If the remains are reduced to bones, the elephants will pick up, investigate and move the bones while keeping vigil over them.

Elephants Displaying Compassion/Empathy

Given the above behavior characteristics of elephants, it is easy to believe that elephants are also capable of compassion and empathy. They are known to assist sick or fallen members of the herd, orphaned elephants and even members of other species. This suggests that they know the animal is hurting and are aware of the implications. That is the essence of empathy. It takes awareness of illness and death to feel these feelings. Many other animals appear to lack this awareness. Apparently, elephants do not.

It is often said that people look for human behavior in animals so they can relate. There is some truth to this notion. Just look at people who dress their animals in human clothes or swear that it is not food, but love, that brings their cats home to them. Nevertheless, we cannot let this fact keep us from recognizing emotions in intelligent animals. After all, who are we to label these things as "human" behavior when they could very well be shared with other creatures?


MacKenzie, Paul, Grieving, retrieved 2/25/11, elephant.ehost.com/About.Elephants/Senses/Grieving/grieving.html

Elephant Emotions, retrieved 2/25/11, pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/unforgettable-elephants/elephant-emotions/4489

Greeting Ceremony, retrieved 2/25/11, elephantvoices.org/elephantvoices-calls-database-context-types.html?catid=86

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