The Tears Of An Elephant

Thailand's Elephant Hospital and Mahout School

Yesterday, there was a strikingly good reported piece in the NYT magazine on the growing evidence that consciousness does not have some kind of radical break between humans and every other species on the planet. And by consciousness, at varying levels, I mean, for example, the ability to feel fear, or joy, or anxiety, or even grief. This is emphatically not about anthropomorphism. It’s about the reality of creation:

A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence. In the summer of 2012, an unprecedented document, masterminded by Low — “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals”[PDF]  — was signed by a group of leading animal researchers in the presence of Stephen Hawking. It asserted that mammals, birds and other creatures like octopuses possess consciousness and, in all likelihood, emotions and self-awareness.

And then I come across this rather beautiful story about an elephant around my own age, captured in his infancy, chained and shackled his entire life, until he is released by an animal welfare group:

Fitted with painful shackles for nearly his entire life, Raju had been forced to walk the dusty roads of India, interacting with tourists in exchange for coins and food. His body bears the signs of malnutrition and the scars of physical abuse — but the emotional toll was no less profound. Late last week, a team led by the UK-based animal charity, Wildlife SOS, intervened to liberate Raju from his cruel keeper. As it started to become clear that they were there to help him, the elephant wept.

Wept? I was doubtful until I read other tales of exactly this phenomenon: in a book from Jeffrey Masson, When Elephants Weep, and a recent story about a newborn elephant calf, rejected by its mother, who then cried uncontrollably for five hours.

Does weeping mean in elephants what it does in humans? We cannot know, of course. But when it is occasioned by the kind of event that prompts human tears, it does not seem to me to be indulging in anthropomorphism to posit that something like grief or relief (or some elephantine version of either) is behind it. And that, to my mind, tells us a huge amount empirically about the way we treat animals in our society: we treat countless living creatures as if they had no feelings and as if we shared nothing in our experiences. That’s not just based on untruth; it is the kind of thing that future generations may well look back on in horror and disbelief.

To see what is in front of one’s nose …

(Photo: Tears run down the face of Motala the elephant. She is crying from the pain as vets clean up the damaged tissue that is all that is left of her front left foot. She is a patient at the Elephant Hospital where vets and doctors hope she will recover from extensive damage when she stepped on a landmine on the Thai/Burma border. The hospital was founded by Khun Soraida Salwala, and the NGO Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE). By Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images)