Friday, November 20, 2009

Elephant Vengeance

A new Not-Yet-Of Troy post is up over on GeekaChicas! A Letter from Helen to Theseus, for your entertainment!  Now, on to the science!

This article is old, but I think striking all the same. There's a theory, apparently, that African Elephants may be seeking revenge against humanity for the murder of their fellows.

The thing is, it's so rare that we attribute these serious emotions to animals. Usually we reserve that sort of thing for chimps and other great apes, alone. Elephants are one of the  exceptions where there has been enough evidence of seemingly bizarre and uncalled for behavior, that we look at them and actually find ourselves wondering if they're driven by emotion more than just instinct. There are plenty of anecdotal stories about elephants in captivity becoming depressed and despondent when one of their "friends" is relocated to another zoo, or elephants in circuses going on rampages against their trainer for the abuse they've been subjected to over a lifetime. A program on the discovery channel even went so far as to suggest that African elephants Grieve for their dead, pausing as they journey on their annual migrations and lingering at places where a member of the herd had died in a previous year.

Personally, I have no trouble believing that animals are experiencing emotions-- and not just the animals who show these behaviors, like elephants that seem so human in nature. Grief. Revenge. Mourning. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence for domestic animals too. My husband's dog, while he was in college, would often mope around his parents' house for days after he returned to school, unwilling to even eat. And the dog was always thrilled to see him when he arrived home after months away. As a child I had a cat that would wait for me to walk home from school, meeting me on the street corner at the appropriate time if she had been let out of the house, or else sitting in the window watching me approach the house. And I distinctly remember once my cat disappearing for three days, but when she finally showed up at our front door again, I was given an overwhelming impression of her own joy to see me again when she didn't even feed herself before jumping all over my lap, demanding I pet her and sit with her.

But in spite of all of this, it took science much longer to jump on board with the emotional animal. Kids everywhere knew that their dogs were happy or sad, loved them or hated their neighbor, but animal behaviorists were being trained not to see it, trained to believe it was a projection of the human emotion onto an animal. The understanding that animals can experience feelings and emotions has only been a relatively recent development, but even now claiming an animal is feeling something like revenge is a radical statement.

I guess it's kind of like the Uncanny Valley. Revenge is something that we think must be unique to us. Not unlike grief. Maybe we want to believe it's something that makes us different, because we want to believe we're so much more advanced, and so much less ruled by instinct. Humanity, for some reason, is determined to set itself apart from the animal kingdom. Determined to prove it. But maybe, just maybe, the only thing that really sets us apart is this drive. And maybe, just maybe, this determination is just a mask for the insecurity and fear that deep down, we aren't that different. That in the end, we're ruled just as much by the same forces of nature that the rest of the earth's inhabitants are.

When I read something about elephants taking revenge for past wrongs, it just reminds me of tribal warfare. Here are these elephants, fighting back for the right to live. To revenge the wrongs done to them by people, the murders of their family members. Kind of intense. Kind of intensely human. And if they can be driven to that. Driven to revenge and demented by grief. What can't they feel? What's more complex than that? What's more HUMAN than that?

See, it seems to me, that revenge and grief are both emotions that can be born and related to love.
Just something to consider, the next time you run into any wildlife...


  1. Interesting! I had never heard of the issue with the elephants. I've never subscribed to the belief that animals don't feel emotion- it's so apparent that they do. They might not have as complex an emotional spectrum as humans, but anyone with a pet can recognize the basics like happiness and sadness.

  2. Yup-- Anyone with a pet does know it! And the writers of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Scientists were just a little bit late to the party. But now they're trying to do right--that's why you have a lot of animal enrichment stuff at Zoos, to keep the animals from becoming bored and depressed.

    But you still have instances where it's not acknowledged, or just only now being investigated-- like with lobsters. There's debate about what they can and can't feel. Does it hurt them to be cooked alive? I mean, that's kind of physical feeling, but are we saying crustaceans don't feel an emotional trauma, too? Where's the line between feeling and unfeeling animals? It's all very difficult. I'm by no means a member of PETA or anything, but it's at least something we should be considering, and should have an awareness of.

  3. "And maybe, just maybe, this determination is just a mask for the insecurity and fear that deep down, we aren't that different."

    That sums it up, Mali. Them scientists can't have it both ways. If we're all made up of the same stuff biologically, and there's no such thing as "spirit", then emotions come from the biology...that we all share.

    Same chemicals, same emotions.

    (And, for those of us who *do* believe in spirit, it's even easier to see the Elephant Gang as their own sentient, emotion-blessed tribe, along with the nation of Wolves, the nation of Redwoods, etc., etc.)

  4. I read in another article (discussed here briefly: ) that there are only 50-100 genes that are unique to humans. That's it. Out of 23,000. I'd love to see what they end up with when they map them out, but I don't think they're going to find anything really special. And I think the disconnect we have from nature as a species does us more harm than good, anyway, but that's probably more a question of self-involvement to the exclusion of nature than anything else.

    But yes. Very succinct. Same chemicals, same emotion. or at least same potential for emotion.

  5. First of all--I love elephants!

    The article is just fascinating. That's so sad--and you're right, something people should have thought of before. Even if they didn't have pets! I keep thinking about those poor lobsters being boiled alive. I don't think I could ever try's just too disturbing.

  6. Sarah-- I don't think I could cook Lobster either. I can't even watch people eat it. I'm okay with it if it's all chopped up and in something, but on the shell is just too alive for me to handle.

    I love Elephants too :) Especially African Elephants! But the relationship between Asian Elephants and the people of India is pretty incredible too.

  7. Oh, I totally agree on the live bit--I have a hard time eating anything that looks like what it was. Just thinking about it...ick! and eek, too!


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