A couple months ago I blogged about the possibility of crows showing behavior resembling a funeral ritual. I discussed this with caveats about the dangers of analyzing of animals by applying human standards, known as anthropomorphism. But what of elephants? Do elephants have funerals? Do they have feelings? How intelligent or altruistic are they? Are there elephant artists? Should they be afforded the same ethic standards that we apply to humans? Or, is this all just anthropomorphising?
First, let me say that I think elephants are one of the coolest critters in the world. It is hard to imagine that Mastodons wandered around in North America up until about 10,000 years ago and wooly mammoths did not become extinct until about 4,000 years ago. Contrast that with dinosaurs, which disappeared about 60 million years ago. In fact, human hunting is thought to be a major contributor to the demise of both species. Too bad. I think it would be neat to have elephant-like animals in my back yard (Well, maybe not.).
But we still have elephants, the largest land animals in the world. I highlight elephants, because, it seems to me, to be one of the harder examples of animals to be dismissive of what appears to be human-like behavior. Here's an excellent article from Scientific American Magazine about elephants that I recommend.
An interesting aside, when I was researching this topic, I learned of a new word (DYT Blog readers know how much I love words)--the opposite of anthropomorphism-- "theriomorphism," i.e. to ascribe animal characteristics to humans (Quit acting like an ape, ya knucklehead. She eats like a bird!).
So, what of elephants? In what ways do they resemble humans?
For one thing, they're very intelligent. Proportionate to body size, elephant brains are very large, and seem to be organized similar to humans. (Note: This proportion is a pretty crude, and sometimes misleading, indication of intelligence. More info here.) In terms of intelligence, elephants seem to be comparable to cetaceans (whales and dolphins), corvids (crows, ravens, magpies and jays), and non-human primates. Elephants have a strong sense of community, in a matriarchal system. They also have high levels of what appears to be emotional intelligence, with strong senses of empathy and altruism, possibly even across species. Here's a Wikipedia link on elephant cognition, which lists a wide variety of abilities, "...including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, play, altruism, use of tools, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and language." Wow! Quite a list. I really had no idea, when I started researching this topic, that elephants had that many skills.
Check out the video below, where, Kandula, an elephant at the National Zoo figured out how to use a cube to reach food that was suspended just out of reach overhead. This shows pretty good evidence of creative problem-solving and tool using skills, but elephants have a lot more indications of higher
Below are some videos showing examples of supposed elephant "art" that set my skeptic-sense tingling. Have you ever heard of elephant painting? How about an elephant orchestra? Below are three videos of so-called elephant "art." And, not to be outdone, one example of dolphin "art."
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In contrast, I'm a little less doubtful of the possibility of elephant funerals. Apparently, elephants have been known to remain near a dead companion for a long time after they expired. Here is an account from the Wikipedia article cited above.
Elephant researcher Martin Meredith recalls an occurrence in his book about a typical elephant death ritual that was witnessed by Anthony Hall-Martin, a South African biologist who had studied elephants in Addo, South Africa, for over eight years. The entire family of a dead matriarch, including her young calf, were all gently touching her body with their trunks, trying to lift her. The elephant herd were all rumbling loudly. The calf was observed to be weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream, but then the entire herd fell incredibly silent. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next two days quietly standing over her body. They sometimes had to leave to get water or food, but they would always return.
I concluded my talk with a discussion of the ethics of keeping elephants in zoos and circuses. This is a tough call for me. I encourage the reader to give some thought about the ethics of keeping such large, intelligent, animals in a zoo enclosure, or transported from city to city to perform in circuses. Here's an article that lists the pros and cons of Zoos. Zoos have done a lot of work to try and preserve species through captive breeding programs. There are more tigers in captivity now than in the wild. In addition many zoos have worked to create a more humane environment for the animals, providing more space and trying to preserve family structures--very hard to do with elephants, given their complex family structure and large size. Zoos educate the public, particularly important in cities where nature is scarce. I think the experience of seeing and elephant or a polar bear in a zoo can go a long way toward creating an appreciation and public awareness for natural history, and may encourage the preservation of ecosystems and even mitigation of the global climate change crisis. In other words, one might invoke a "greater good argument." reminiscent of arguments justifying the use of animals in medical research for the greater good of benefiting human beings, in developing an understanding of, or even cures, for disease. Similarly, it may be defensible to keep charismatic zoo and circus animals for the benefits accrued in public entertainment and education. But, to re-state my position, this is a tough call for me, and I would hope that zoos would provide as ideal and humane an environment for the animals as possible.
A few years ago this was a prominent local issue in the Seattle area when a baby elephant died in the local Woodland Park Zoo. I invite you to check out the local news coverage if you want details.
So, that is the basic outline of my talk. I really feel like it would take a lot more than a one hour talk to do this subject justice. I haven't read this book,
"The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa," by Caitlin O'Connell, but it seems quite highly regarded by reviewers at Amazon, if you want more info. Maybe I'll read that next.