Elephants aren’t just big puppy dogs; they are extremely complex and intelligent animals. Elephants empathize, they get angry, they play and they have hobbies. As science advances and elephant studies dig deeper, we can see that elephants are quite like us…
1. They Are Extremely Social
We all know that elephants travel in herds, but did you know that these herds can be for life? Elephants, like humans, are led by their elders. Matriarchies are the most common structure, with the eldest female leading the group. Herds will raise babies together, even designating a nanny elephant to watch after the baby in some cases. Similar to western human culture, males will leave the female herd around 12-18 years of age to live temporarily with other young males before starting a life of their own.
2. They Have Proper Reunions
In recent years, elephant habitats have become increasingly vulnerable to destruction. Subsequently, more and more elephants have been captured, or relocated apart from their herd. When this happens, if elephants are lucky enough to find themselves under the care responsible humans, they have a better chance at being reunited, and it is a beautiful sight.
Upon first contact with their long lost friends and family, many elephants display behaviors like Shirley and Julie; two former circus elephants who were separated for more than 20 years. They flapped their ears in excitement and talked to each other, intertwined trucks and nuzzled faces. Given the space, elephants have been known to literally run to each other, trumpeting in excitement between the distance.
3. They Have Impressive Memories
The story of Shirley and Julie lends itself to the old saying, “An elephant never forgets”. An elephant’s memory can span back to childhood. The evolutionary importance of a fantastic memory is for herds to navigate their habitat based on where they found food or water the year before. Recently, however, with the overlapping lives of humans and elephants, elephants also remember trauma and despair, making their keen memory a much more complex tool. This element has led mankind to consider the treatment of elephants to be very important as elephants carry these memories with them everywhere they go.
4. They Grieve
Do you remember the Elephant Graveyard in the Lion King? Well, you might be surprised to know that places such as these actually exist. Elephants will sometimes collect the bones of the deceased to carry them to a place of mourning. When another elephant dies, they aren’t simply abandoned. The herd has been known to bury their loved ones with sticks and leaves, and take a few moments as if saying ‘goodbye’.
Grieving can last well after an elephant has passed. When a mother loses her baby, she may go into a depression; lagging behind the herd and eating less, or even carrying the dead calf for days. Much like humans, elephants are deeply affected by the loss of a loved one for years.
5. They Cry
In times of deep sadness, and occasionally, overwhelming happiness, elephants have been known to shed tears. Too often, elephants have watched the ones they care about die in front of their eyes. Whether it is a mother coming to terms with a baby who has starved in a drought, a herd losing a member to poachers, or an adolescent being captured for profit - tears have been documented time and time again.
As humans, we don’t always have to know or precisely understand what is happening in order to cry. Our emotions are triggered by circumstances which upset us, scare us or which are so far out of the ordinary that they leave us feeling alone and confused. Elephants experience just the same.
6. They Get Fed Up
Apart from natural animalistic displays of aggression between competing males or a mother protecting her baby, elephants have found themselves working for “the man”, and they don’t like it. Many cases have been documented of circus elephants being pushed to the limit, trampling out of the tent in rage. There have also been cases of tourist deaths by the stomping feet of elephants who decided to no longer comply with the abusive circumstances of the elephant-riding industry.
What their anger, and studies about their anger, tells us is that elephants have complex thoughts. They are able to weigh the difference between fair and unfair and they have a limit of how far they are willing to be pushed.
7. They Have Mother-Baby Bonds
From the moment a baby calf is born, it’s the apple of its mother’s eye. The mother feels a strong desire to protect her baby, and the baby walks underneath the mother’s long legs, hiding from the threats. The mother checks in on her baby with a touch of her trunk and lends the baby her tail to walk with her across the plains. The mother bathes and scrubs her baby as a human would. The relationship between a mother and daughter elephant is especially precious and are known to last a lifetime- just like us.
The more we understand about the incredible range of elephants’ emotions and the level of their intelligence, the easier it is for us to treat them with respect. The idea that these creatures feel, think and desire like humans allows us to empathize with them. When we see an elephant suffer, we suffer. And when we see an elephant thrive, we thrive.
To support the progression of elephant welfare and public education, check out the African Wildlife Foundation.