Ele­phants mourn. Dogs love. Why do we deny the feel­ings of other species?

The Guardian Australia - - Environment - Carl Sa­fina

Last week footage of five young ele­phants be­ing cap­tured in Zim­babwe to sell to zoos trav­elled round the world. Parks of­fi­cials used he­li­copters to find the ele­phant fam­i­lies, shot seda­tives into the young ones, then hazed away fam­ily mem­bers who came to the aid of the drugged young ones as they fell.

The film, shared ex­clu­sively with the Guardian, showed the young cap­tives be­ing trussed up and dragged on to trucks. In the fi­nal mo­ments of footage, two men re­peat­edly kick a small dazed ele­phant in the head.

Re­mov­ing young ele­phants from their par­ents and send­ing them into cap­tiv­ity is largely jus­ti­fied on the ba­sis that they do not feel and suf­fer as we do. For decades we have been ad­mon­ished against an­thro­po­mor­phism – im­bu­ing an­i­mals with hu­man-type emo­tions such as sad­ness or love.

But, ac­tu­ally, hu­mans have these emo­tions be­cause other an­i­mals do as well. Brain science, evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy, and be­havioural science now show that ele­phants, hu­mans, and many other an­i­mals share a near-iden­ti­cal ner­vous sys­tem and likely ex­pe­ri­ence near-iden­ti­cal ba­sic emo­tions. Hu­man and ele­phant brains are bathed in the same chem­i­cals that cre­ate mood and mo­ti­va­tion in us. We are all mam­mals, and un­der the skin we are kin.

Sci­en­tists have watched rats’ brains as they dream, and dogs’ brains show­ing love. In fact, sperm whales’ fam­ily struc­ture is nearly iden­ti­cal to that of ele­phants. An­i­mals liv­ing in sta­ble so­cial groups – apes and mon­keys, wolves and wild dogs, hye­nas and cats, var­i­ous birds, some dol­phins and oth­ers, know who they are and whom they are with.

Mam­mals and birds, likely all ver­te­brates, ex­pe­ri­ence plea­sure, pain, and fear that guide them within the bound­aries of sur­vival. Oc­to­puses are mol­luscs but they recog­nise hu­man faces and use tools as well as most apes. Pet dogs recog­nise pho­tos of peo­ple they know. Or­cas fre­quently live into their 50s (rarely to 100), but sons and daugh­ters never leave their mothers. Sim­i­lar rev­e­la­tions and new dis­cov­er­ies ap­pear with in­creas­ing fre­quency. Ours are not the only hearts and minds on this planet. We are not alone. We have com­pany.

I have spent decades amass­ing in­sights into an­i­mal cog­ni­tion, emo­tion, and fam­ily lives. For that, ele­phants pro­vide a per­fect tri­fecta. Ele­phants ac­tu­ally have su­per­hu­man senses, so life for ele­phants is likely su­per­hu­manly vivid. Their hear­ing is far bet­ter than ours, and while we hear their peal­ing trum­pet­ing, they com­mu­ni­cate largely with sounds too low for hu­mans to de­tect. Of­ten when you are near ele­phants you can feel vi­bra­tions in your chest from their loud rum­bling calls that you can­not hear. Us­ing spe­cial sen­sory re­cep­tors in their feet – un­like any­thing we pos­sess – they can de­tect these rum­bles from many miles away. This is prob­a­bly why ele­phants of­ten seem to know when dis­tant ele­phants are be­ing killed, and why they have been spot­ted run­ning up­hill be­fore hu­mans when a tsunami is on its way.

Ele­phants are most touch­ing with the care they de­vote to their young and sib­lings. Sev­eral years ago in Kenya’s Am­boseli na­tional park, Dr Vicki Fishlock and I watched ele­phant fam­i­lies on their daily com­mute. Some of the ele­phants bathed in a spring-fed pool, but when they emerged shiny and wet, one stay­be­hind adult had not yet en­tered the wa­ter. Her baby was hes­i­tant. The mother was pa­tient, tap­ping the wa­ter with her trunk as if to in­di­cate her in­ten­tion. We watched the pa­tient mother en­ter the wa­ter with her baby. The baby got along­side, wrap­ping her trunk around her mother’s right tusk for sup­port. Soon the wa­ter floated the baby, and the mother, with her own trunk, guided her child to the far­ther shore.

Mothers and aun­ties help new­borns stand; ba­bies spend their first sev­eral years within two paces of their mother; fam­ily mem­bers rush to help any baby who tan­gles in tall grass, or trips, or an­nounces need of help. (Ba­bies some­times ex­ploit their power for get­ting at­ten­tion; in hu­mans we call this be­ing spoilt.) Ele­phant mothers and daugh­ters stay to­gether longer than any land an­i­mal – of­ten 40 to 60 years. Ele­phants know and keep track of hun­dreds of in­di­vid­u­als and dozens of fam­i­lies. Some fam­i­lies are par­tic­u­larly good friends and of­ten visit and spend time to­gether. If un­fa­mil­iar ele­phants show up, they im­me­di­ately no­tice. They know who they are, whom they are with, who their en­e­mies are, and where they are. They don’t just ex­ist – they have lives.

Break­ing these ex­tra­or­di­nary care-bonds trig­gers in­tense emo­tional suf­fer­ing for ele­phants, ex­plains Cyn­thia Moss, who has stud­ied ele­phants for more than 40 years. Dr Gay Brad­shaw, in Ele­phants on the Edge, ar­gues per­sua­sively that ele­phants’ brain chem­istry makes them ex­pe­ri­ence post-trau­matic stress iden­ti­cally to hu­mans. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who has half a cen­tury’s ex­pe­ri­ence with trau­ma­tised or­phans, told me mat­ter of factly: “An ele­phant can die of grief.” She has seen it.

The fact is that ele­phants are acutely con­scious. The neu­ro­sci­en­tist Christof Koch de­fines con­scious­ness sim­ply as “the thing that feels like some­thing”. When we are given to­tal anaes­the­sia, or are “knocked un­con­scious”, we lose the ex­pe­ri­ence of all sen­sory in­put. We cease to feel, hear, see. Re­gain­ing con­scious­ness sim­ply means we again ex­pe­ri­ence our sen­sory in­put, quite as if our senses had been un­plugged from our brain and then re­con­nected.

Why do we deny and ig­nore the feel­ings of other species against ev­ery­thing science and our own senses show us? Two rea­sons: our favourite story is that hu­mans are ab­so­lutely unique and spe­cial in ev­ery way. Ac­knowl­edg­ing that other an­i­mals have men­tal and emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences spoils our con­ceit. The other rea­son: deny­ing that other an­i­mals feel al­lows us to do to them what­ever we want.

In 1789, Jeremy Ben­tham pointed out that only one ques­tion about what we do to an­i­mals re­ally mat­ters. “The ques­tion is not, can they rea­son?; nor, can they talk?; but, can they suf­fer?” Charles Dar­win wryly noted: “An­i­mals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to con­sider our equal.” He hated hu­man slav­ery, too.

I have seen free-liv­ing ele­phants show most of the virtues and none of the avarice that we show to one another. Their ma­jor self-gov­ern­ing prin­ci­ple is not just live and let live, but live and help live. They live in bet­ter res­o­nance with them­selves and their world. I came away changed.

Carl Sa­fina’s most re­cent book is Be­yond Words; What An­i­mals Think and Feel. A MacArthur fel­low, he holds the En­dowed Chair for Na­ture and Hu­man­ity at Stony Brook Univer­sity and is the founder of the not-for-profit Sa­fina Cen­ter.

Our favourite story is that hu­mans are ab­so­lutely unique and spe­cial in ev­ery way.

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