Do Elephants Think?: And Why it Matters

Elephants stroke and lay brush on a dead friend
Elephants stroke and lay brush on a dead friend

I stopped eating meat on Thanksgiving Day, 1996.  I wish I had done it earlier.  I did it for ethical reasons, not health issues.  It’s always struck me that vertebrate animals have consciousness and, as sentient creatures, feel pain.  I’ve been around them enough to know they feature personalities from somber to gregarious, suspicious to fawning.  Despite what you hear about sheep, I had one that was quite the bully.  I’m not censuring those who eat meat. It’s simply a personal decision I made born of compassion, though eventually I might have arrived at the same decision for the sake of the earth, or even for better health.

I love all animals, though most of my life I’ve been a dog person.  I just lost my Bichon buddy several weeks ago after twelve years and though I know time softens grief, he’ll always be somewhere in my thoughts and, certainly, every Bichon  I come across will rekindle memories of my faithful, gentle friend.

In a wider scope, there are undomesticated animals that utterly fascinate me, particularly for their remarkable intelligence, emotion and sensitivity; for instance, apes, whales, dolphins, and elephants.  We know that elephants can weep, mourn for their dead, have long memories, and practice a complex social life.

If elephants have consciousness, and other animals as well, shouldn’t it change how we treat them? Our dilemma stems from our walling ourselves off from them, since anthropomorphizing them, or using words projecting human parity like “love,” “sorrow,” and “regret,” brings them disturbingly close and imposes guilt.  Accordingly, the Canadian government dubs that nation’s annual seal pup clubbing via neutral words like “cull,” “harvest'” or “management plan.”  It’s been said many times that vegetarianism would prosper were we to consider that what we eat may once have possessed a face.

Of course there are those who regard ameliorative efforts to change the lot of animals from prey and product to fellow creatures and companions as an attack on humanity’s rightful role to primacy and a romp in sensitivity.  After all, they’re “simply” animals and we’ve been eating them from prerecorded history, though it begs the question and may point to our ecological follies in substituting anthropocentrism for a rational alternative underscored by climate change.

In an extended, informative analysis, “Do Elephants Have Souls?,” published in The New Atlantis (Winter/Spring 2013), ” managing editor Caitrin Nicol prodigiously uncovers evidence that elephants indeed think with all its implications.

Elephants are among those few animals (dolphins, the great apes, magpies, and man) who recognize themselves in a mirror.

While they may not have refined tools like we do, they’ll employ grass to clean their ears; can dig ponds, subsequently camouflage them with bark and grass.

Nicol tells us that domesticated Asian elephants are known to plug their bells with mud to slip past their human sentries at night and fetch banana treats.

As I mentioned earlier, elephants often bury their dead.  Coming across skeletons, they’ll  hold a vigil.  They’ve been known to react to humans wearing ivory bracelets.

The latter is fundamental to why they’re disappearing so rapidly.  We like them for the wrong reasons.  Sadly, they’re being poached in record numbers from guarded sanctuaries like those in Kenya and South Africa, not just for ivory anymore, but to raise money for terrorists to buy arms.  Recently there have been instances of hundreds of elephants killed in one go.  Even more hideously comes the recent discovery in Zimbabwe’s largest national reserve of cyanide poisoned water resources that take out not only elephants, inflicting lingering, agonizing death, but cause the demise of a vast number of other animals.  Man’s satiety for cruelty breaks the heart.

One thing we can do is to stir the consciences of the Chinese and Vietnamese, who enjoy a large trade in ivory trinkets.  But in our business as usual world of dulled sensitivity and engrained cultural mores, this isn’t likely to happen, though every day we delay contributes further to sealing their doom.

We also need to undertake rewarding villagers who protect the herds with not only money, but daily staples.  Poverty  is so universal in Africa that a relatively few coins at the bottom level makes for an enticing motive nearly impossible to break.  One pair of tusks can easily command  $15,000 on the high end market.

Currently, an estimated 25,000 elephants are poached every year.  At this rate, these glorious, intelligent creatures will vanish into memory within a decade.  Just two centuries ago, twenty-six million elephants roamed Africa’s savannas.  That number has dropped some 98%, says Nicol.

As I see it, it’s not only poaching that threatens, but exploding population as well, with seven children per family now the average in sub-Sahara Africa.  Roaming creatures with gargantuan appetites, elephants are likely to be increasingly viewed as competitors for grazing land that could be used for cattle and farming.

On the plight of animals in general, Nicol movingly quotes the naturalist Henry Beston who in Outermost House (1928) wrote, “We need another and a wiser and perhaps  a more mystical concept of animals….In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.” 

As is, we are witnessing an undiminished tragedy of huge proportion affecting not only elephants but other sentient creatures like whales, sharks, and rhinos that, unstopped, ultimately impoverishes all of us and lasts forever.



Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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