Herds Have Extremely Tight Social Bonds
Aristotle held elephants in high regard. He said that they ‘surpass all others in wit and mind’. It was easy enough for him to understand that from what he saw. What we have discovered since his time has only served to reinforce that. Elephants are pretty amazing.
When we think of intelligent animals, we think of primates. It’s probably because we’re used to considering humans as the most intelligent, and so we think of the apes we came from as standing second. But we don’t take into account something called convergent evolution. To put very simply unlike the jargon of science, it indicates that different branches of evolution can reach similar destinations. That apes are smart enough to use tools and make monkeys out of us doesn’t mean that another branch of evolution – pachyderms – cannot also be just as smart. So are dolphins, of course, but elephants, unlike dolphins who kill porpoises for fun, are also kind.
Elephants Remember Everything
The saying about elephants’ memories is true. They do have excellently long memories. They don’t have the best eyesight, but they still don’t seem to forget a face. Take for instance what happened at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee when a new elephant named Shirley was being introduced. One particular girl named Jenny became very excited and could hardly be held back. But it wasn’t aggression – when they got to each other, it was very much like two very old friends meeting each other after a long time, trunks checking each other for scars and trumpeting. The puzzled observers dug into Shirley’s past and found out that 23 years ago, they’d been in the same circus. Not only did they remember each other, but they also had a bond that had not been broken by time.
The bond between Shirley and Jenny was not out of the ordinary. Elephants generally form matriarchal family units that are very closely knit. Every calf that is born is taken care of by the entire herd. Cynthia Moss, an ethologist whose specialisation is elephants, wrote in her book about an incident when poachers shot two elephants in a herd. One died; the other was wounded but standing. Two of the elephants in the family (the injured elephant’s mother and another) walked to the injured one and tried to hold her up. When she dropped to her knees, they tried to lift her up. The injured elephant died, but they still tried to help – the mother split her tusk trying to lift the lifeless body up.
When it was obvious that she was dead, they buried her in a shallow grave, covering her with leaves. They stayed with her through the night and eventually, in the morning, they moved on. Her mother was the very last to leave. Oh, and the poachers who shot the elephants were chased away by the rest of the family. Even the three musketeers could learn from this kind of togetherness.
Elephants Have Great Empathy
We’ve already talked about how elephants form deep bonds with each other that cannot be broken by time. They love each other and feel great grief and despair over the death of their family members, as has been observed from their behaviour and body language – they even weep over their dead. They also have burial rituals for their dead, just like we do.
But elephants’ compassion is not limited to their own species. They show great empathy and go out of their way to not hurt any animal or person. There have been documented instances where elephants have refused to obey commands that might mean hurting somebody – like refusing to put logs down if an animal would have been under it. There have also been instances where elephants have stayed with and cared for injured and isolated humans until they were found by people.
It is extremely rare for an elephant to attack anybody except during the time of musth for bull elephants, when they become extremely testosterone-driven and violent. Most other incidents of violence have been because the elephants have been repeatedly ill-treated by people, far beyond any human endurance levels. These incidents are usually damning proof of man’s evil, not elephants’ behavior.
As far as abstract expressionism is concerned, elephants might be doing a better job than people. There are star artists among captive elephants, one of the most famous of whom is Ruby. Ruby holds the brush with her trunk and is said to show a keen awareness of different colours and the sequence in which she wishes to apply them on canvas. Guided by trainers, elephants can often paint identifiable objects, as well. Elephants are also said to be able to recognize different melodies and music. Shanthi, another elephant, played the harmonica.
An elephant’s life and growth mirrors that of humans. Elephant calves need about the same amount of care, though they can walk much sooner than human babies can. They grow at about the same pace, becoming fully adult at about 20. Their natural lifespan is about 70 years, just like humans. Going by current evidence, we would say that they are capable of feeling more empathy than humans are – they have never tried to pluck pretty teeth from humans’ mouths and then left them to die, while humans seem determined to hunt elephants to extinction for their tusks. Who’re the real monsters here?
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