Elephants mourn. Dogs love. Why do we deny the feelings of other species?
Scientists are discovering more and more about the internal lives of animals. But what does this mean for the way humans behave?
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 stay-behind 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.