Elephants actually have superhuman senses, so life for elephants is likely superhumanly vivid.
Last week footage of five young elephants being captured in Zimbabwe to sell to zoos travelled round the world. Parks officials used helicopters to find the elephant families, shot sedatives into the young ones, then hazed away family members who came to the aid of the drugged young ones as they fell.
The film, shared exclusively with the Guardian, showed the young captives being trussed up and dragged on to trucks. In the final moments of footage, two men repeatedly kick a small dazed elephant in the head.
Removing young elephants from their parents and sending them into captivity is largely justified on the basis that they do not feel and suffer as we do. For decades we have been admonished against anthropomorphism – imbuing animals with human-type emotions such as sadness or love.
But, actually, humans have these emotions because other animals do as well. Brain science, evolutionary biology, and behavioural science now show that elephants, humans, and many other animals share a near-identical nervous system and likely experience near-identical basic emotions. Human and elephant brains are bathed in the same chemicals that create mood and motivation in us. We are all mammals, and under the skin we are kin.
Scientists have watched rats’ brains as they dream, and dogs’ brains showing love. In fact, sperm whales’ family structure is nearly identical to that of elephants. Animals living in stable social groups – apes and monkeys, wolves and wild dogs, hyenas and cats, various birds, some dolphins and others, know who they are and whom they are with.
Mammals and birds, likely all vertebrates, experience pleasure, pain, and fear that guide them within the boundaries of survival. Octopuses are molluscs but they recognise human faces and use tools as well as most apes. Pet dogs recognise photos of people they know. Orcas frequently live into their 50s (rarely to 100), but sons and daughters never leave their mothers. Similar revelations and new discoveries appear with increasing frequency. Ours are not the only hearts and minds on this planet. We are not alone. We have company.
I have spent decades amassing insights into animal cognition, emotion, and family lives. For that, elephants provide a perfect trifecta. Elephants actually have superhuman senses, so life for elephants is likely superhumanly vivid. Their hearing is far better than ours, and while we hear their pealing trumpeting, they communicate largely with sounds too low for humans to detect. Often when you are near elephants you can feel vibrations in your chest from their loud rumbling calls that you cannot hear. Using special sensory receptors in their feet – unlike anything we possess – they can detect these rumbles from many miles away. This is probably why elephants often seem to know when distant elephants are being killed, and why they have been spotted running uphill before humans when a tsunami is on its way.
Elephants are most touching with the care they devote to their young and siblings. Several years ago in Kenya’s Amboseli national park, Dr Vicki Fishlock and I watched elephant families on their daily commute. Some of the elephants bathed in a spring-fed pool, but when they emerged shiny and wet, one stay-behind adult had not yet entered the water. Her baby was hesitant. The mother was patient, tapping the water with her trunk as if to indicate her intention. We watched the patient mother enter the water with her baby. The baby got alongside, wrapping her trunk around her mother’s right tusk for support. Soon the water floated the baby, and the mother, with her own trunk, guided her child to the farther shore.
Mothers and aunties help newborns stand; babies spend their first several years within two paces of their mother; family members rush to help any baby who tangles in tall grass, or trips, or announces need of help. (Babies sometimes exploit their power for getting attention; in humans we call this being spoilt.) Elephant mothers and daughters stay together longer than any land animal – often 40 to 60 years. Elephants know and keep track of hundreds of individuals and dozens of families. Some families are particularly good friends and often visit and spend time together. If unfamiliar elephants show up, they immediately notice. They know who they are, whom they are with, who their enemies are, and where they are. They don’t just exist – they have lives.
Breaking these extraordinary care-bonds triggers intense emotional suffering for elephants, explains Cynthia Moss, who has studied elephants for more than 40 years. Dr Gay Bradshaw, in Elephants on the Edge, argues persuasively that elephants’ brain chemistry makes them experience post-traumatic stress identically to humans. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who has half a century’s experience with traumatised orphans, told me matter of factly: “An elephant can die of grief.” She has seen it.
The fact is that elephants are acutely conscious. The neuroscientist Christof Koch defines consciousness simply as “the thing that feels like something”. When we are given total anaesthesia, or are “knocked unconscious”, we lose the experience of all sensory input. We cease to feel, hear, see. Regaining consciousness simply means we again experience our sensory input, quite as if our senses had been unplugged from our brain and then reconnected.
Why do we deny and ignore the feelings of other species against everything science and our own senses show us? Two reasons: our favourite story is that humans are absolutely unique and special in every way. Acknowledging that other animals have mental and emotional experiences spoils our conceit. The other reason: denying that other animals feel allows us to do to them whatever we want.
In 1789, Jeremy Bentham pointed out that only one question about what we do to animals really matters. “The question is not, can they reason?; nor, can they talk?; but, can they suffer?” Charles Darwin wryly noted: “Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal.” He hated human slavery, too.
I have seen free-living elephants show most of the virtues and none of the avarice that we show to one another. Their major self-governing principle is not just live and let live, but live and help live. They live in better resonance with themselves and their world. I came away changed.
Carl Safina’s most recent book is Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel. A MacArthur fellow, he holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and is the founder of the not-for-profit Safina Center.
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