BOSTON (CBS) – My secret is out; I’m a sucker for them. Elephants. Ever since catching “Dumbo” at a local theater and my first trip at age five to the old Boston Garden for a Ringling Brothers extravaganza, I’ve been a loyal member of an elephant fan club. I even got the opportunity to climb aboard a multi-ton beauty during a charity fundraiser a few years back. It was quite the bonding experience, with the elephant (an adorable female as I recall) treating me to an A-one ride. I hung on for dear life at first but within a few moments we settled into a mutually comfortable rhythm she and I. Here’s a word to the wise— if you’re leery of heights or have any issues with hamstrings, you might want to pass on hopping up ten feet or more aboard an elephant. It takes some getting used to.
They are the largest mammals alive on land today, directly descended from wooly mammoths, their prehistoric ancestors. As such, elephants provide us with a most visible link to the past as well as a better understanding of evolutionary process. They are some of nature’s marvels.
Over the years, I’ve hosted my share of radio programs with naturalists working to preserve elephant populations. All of the experts I’ve met agree that these creatures exhibit a high degree of intelligence. Not that I need more science to prove to me that elephants are complex, reactively emotional animals, but along comes a study just last week that cements the deal.
Shortly after an elephant gave birth to a calf at the Shendiaoshan Wild Animal Reserve in Rongcheng, China, the mother rejected her baby ultimately stepping on him. Veterinarians treated the newborn’s minor injuries and returned him to the mother’s cage only to have the mother attack her calve again. So doctors did the prudent thing and again separated him from his mother. No surprise, the baby was visibly upset, crying steadily for five hours before being consoled by staff. Tears flowed from the animal for hours. Now, all land mammals produce tears for eye lubrication that is true. But this little guy (OK not so little) sobbed heavily having suffered the utmost of rejection, an obvious cause and effect. The animal reacted as any human child would. The study also revealed that the adult elephant has lost her appetite and is showing signs of depression. Her symptoms are very similar to those of depressed people. Not the least bit surprising.
The episode is further proof in my estimation that elephants, as well as most mammals, possess a range of several emotions from joy and sadness to fear and grief. Elephants are widely known to mourn their dead by circling the bodies, touching the fallen and roaring loudly. They are known to flap their ears excitedly and blare triumphantly when a newborn arrives. Scientists speculate that they possess active memory, the key to triggering emotional response to happy and/or sad times. The research continues and for good reason. By studying them, we learn more about our ecosystem and the role we and other animals play in it.
The most recent story about elephants and emotion reinforces the fact that life is so very wondrous and mysterious. And that we bipeds are not necessarily the most interesting, nor are we the center of all species. We could take a lesson from our wise pachyderm friends and never ever forget that.