(© John Chaney/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest)
Elephants are the most remarkable creatures. This picture shows an elephant standing over the carcass of a dead member of the herd. Just standing to ward off the jackals. There are many who feel they mourn their dead in a very specific manner, and often do spend time with the remains. Sometimes touching them or like this elephant, holding the tusk. I have never quite understood why I am so moved by them. or why stories and photos of their abuse send me right over the edge into a very visceral place. When this photo started making the rounds on FB, I felt I wanted to write a bit about it. There is no way to know if the story that accompanied the picture was true. Though this is indeed an elephant standing over a lost one. This was the comment placed next to the picture
Good Bye Old Friend
Elephants are legendary for their memory and intelligence including attributes associated with grief, making music, altruism and compassion. The elephant whose corpse was overcome by vultures and jackals. From a distance we heard and then saw another elephant approaching at a fast pace. She was successful at chasing away the predators and then very slowly and with much empathy wrapped her trunk around the deceased elephants tusk. She stayed in this position for several hours guarding her friend.
When people write about animals, many apply human emotions. The worst offenders are probably the animal rights activists. I don’t often agree. I don’t know that we have any idea what animals “feel” or don’t feel. I think they do form strong bonds. They can feel pain and fear. The herds of elephants I observed in Africa did have a very clear hierarchy. That is no different from a herd of horses. I have never seen a horse mourn another. Not in an outward way, like the image above. Though people claim their horses mourn. Guess ours just were not that attached to the ones we have lost. The only thing close is when a mare loses a foal. They will spend time with the dead foal, and stand over it. Sometimes touching, but most of the time just standing nearby. There are some that would label that mourning. I think it may be more likely there is an instinctive process going on. A mare is so driven hormonally and by a very deep evolutionary drive to protect. I don’t think in that early period she can figure out what to do. But, since they can’t tell us what they are feeling, I can’t rule out mourning. I cannot say it is either. and I wonder why we have a hard time raising money 😉 I can’t put human emotions onto my animals. I can’t write these long drawn out stories that have you crying- like those damn ASPCA ads with Sarah Mclachlan singing in the background. If that doesn’t get people opening their purses, I don’t know what will.
But back to the animals and their emotions. I think due to their intelligence (studied and published about) elephants may well have some sort of mourning process. Just as is seen in primates. Their strong family bonds are broken when one passes away. They as a herd, or group, deal with that. Can I say they are sad? no. Are they feeling a loss, yes. Because there is an actual loss. I guess I am saying, I am at a loss, until someone proves otherwise. I think animals can suffer. Just as we suffer. I know they feel pain and fear. I have seen horses exhibit severe neurotic habits, such as self-mutilation, when kept poorly and abused. They also can display repetitive movements, which they will do when confined, anxious, or stressed. They react to stress in some ways like humans- ulcers. It is clear they do experience some of the same things we do. But, that is as far as I will go. Guess that is the product of being raised in a very pragmatic an animal is an animal and a human is a human- they are not the same- way. I don’t think that will change. It is the reason I still eat meat. I am very well aware of the horrors of factory farming. Though I cannot go that extra step and lay sweeping blankets of human emotions on animals in that system. Don’t get me wrong. I cannot stand how animals are kept and slaughtered in our current factory farming system. It is unthinkable. I do think the system should be altered to make it more humane. But that is very different from assigning human emotions to a sow in a gestational crate.
Animals are extremely complex creatures. The ones with the highest degrees of intelligence, like the elephants, being the most complex. I do wish there was a way to figure out if they were indeed experiencing emotions like we do. I think somewhere down the line it will be studied and figured out. Till then, they are just animals. I know that sounds awful harsh. And it is. But I cannot fathom the suffering being endured on a regular basis if they do, in fact, experience all the emotions we do.