Elephant Minds and a Case for Empathy

Shimon Shuchat
Mar 20, 2017 · 3 min read
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Image for post
two young African forest elephants sniff each other at a forest clearing

Empathy is defined as: “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation.”¹ Elephants seem to have this ability as is apparent in the way they treat family members, as well as strangers, who are injured, sick, or dying.

One important study on elephants’ treatment of other elephants in need of help was conducted in Samburu National Park, Kenya prior to the death of a savannah elephant matriarch named “Eleanor.” Members of Eleanor’s group, as well as unrelated neighboring groups, were tracked and carefully observed for seven days from the time Eleanor experienced a bad fall until after she died².

On October 10, 2003 Eleanor was spotted for the first time after the accident. Her tusks were broken, her legs were injured, and she was dragging her swollen trunk. Soon afterwards, she collapsed. Two minutes later Grace, the matriarch of a neighboring, unrelated group, approached Eleanor as she lay on the ground. Grace sniffed Eleanor’s body and then proceeded to lift her back onto her feet using her tusks. When Eleanor began to collapse again, Grace tried to get her to move by pushing her, but despite her efforts Eleanor fell. Even after Grace’s family group left the area, she stayed with the immobile Eleanor (past nightfall) and continued to gently nudge her with her tusks, all the while appearing very distressed². While similar incidents have been recorded on other occasions, this one remains the best documented case of what appears to be behavior driven by empathy.

In addition to the way elephants treat the sick and injured, people have observed other behaviors that suggest they are capable of experiencing empathy. On six occasions elephant groups from Amboseli were observed caring for unrelated calves who were either orphaned or separated from their mothers³. There were also 28 cases recorded in Amboseli of elephants providing assistance to calves under two years of age. For instance, family members were seen leading calves to less steep parts of riverbanks so they could drink more easily and helping calves get back to their feet when they fell over or into ditches, rivers, and mud wallows³. In addition, elephants have been observed on multiple occasions guarding and physically supporting group members as well as other elephants when they were hit with tranquilizer darts⁴. One male elephant was seen actually pulling a dart out of another elephant’s body and then proceeding to touch the wound with his trunk repeatedly⁵.

These directed, helping behaviors strongly suggest that elephants are capable of experiencing empathy. While these observations are not conclusive, since we cannot get into the minds of elephants, they are certainly intriguing and provide a basis for future research on the subject and more definitive experimental studies.

In this video an unrelated group approaches a sick calf, appearing to express concern. First the matriarch pauses and touches and sniffs the calf. Then her daughter interacts in a surprising way with the youngster. At 0:27 she strokes the calf with her foot and then places her trunk across the calf’s back (a common gesture of reassurance) in what appear to be expressions of empathy. She is then chased away by the calf’s mother.

References:

¹ 2008. ‘Empathy’ .Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

² Douglas-Hamilton, Iain, et al. 2006. “Behavioral reactions of elephants towards a dying and deceased matriarch.” Applied Animal Behavior Science 100: 87–102.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159106001018

³ Byrne, Richard, et al. 2008. “Do elephants show empathy?” Journal of Consciousness Studies 15: 204–225.

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/imp/jcs/2008/00000015/f0020010/art00008

⁴ Harthoorn, Antonie Marinus. 1970. The flying syringe. Ten years of immobilizing wild animals in Africa. Bles, London.

⁵ Douglas-Hamilton, I. 1972. On the ecology and behavior of the African elephant: the elephants of Lake Manyara: D Phil, Oxford University, 268 p.

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