More About Elephants…

Mara at PAWS sanctuaryEverywhere, elephants are in the spotlight: scientists are studying their behaviour, their language, their physiology and their brains; conservationists are attempting to track and protect the remaining elephants in the wild; lawyers are working to redefine their legal status in court; and animal rights activists are fighting to put an end to the use of elephants in entertainment while the global circus industry continues to feature them in its shows.

In the midst of all this, we are not only learning more about elephants, but about ourselves as a species.

Elephant behaviour

Elephants are remarkably close to humans – they are highly intelligent, have extremely close family ties, show empathy and are among the few animals that exhibit self-awareness, something humans do not develop until the age of two.  Elephants are also among the few species that pass the mirror self-recognition (MSR) test meaning they can identify themselves as separate individuals.  This gives them what scientists call a “theory of mind” which is the ability to anticipate the emotions and actions of others.  Scientists continue to gain extraordinary new insights into elephant behaviour.

  • Elephants are one of the few species other than humans that understand pointing, a sign of highly developed social intelligence according to animal behaviourist Richard W. Byrne at St Andrews University.
  • Elephant language can express anger, sympathy, joy, sexual desire, playfulness and many other emotions: National Geographic
  • Elephants are one of the few species that recognize themselves in a mirror giving them a level of self-awareness similar to humans: PNAS
  • Elephants can hear each other’s calls for up to 4 kilometres away.
  • Elephants are highly altruistic and are even known to aid other species including humans in distress: Elephants Forever
  • From love to anger and distress, elephant emotions rival humans: PBS
  • Elephant family values: Elephant families stay together for life. “Being part of an elephant family is all about unity and working together for the greater good,” says Joyce Poole, one of the world’s foremost elephant behaviourists and co-founder of the charity ElephantVoices: Scientific American
  • Elephants grieve for their dead, returning for years to caress the bones of dead relatives:
  • Yes, it’s true: elephants never forget: BBC News, Scientific American
  • Elephants are one of the few species that qualify to be legal persons according to lawyer Steven M. Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project.
  • Did Tyke have PTSD? Scientists say elephants experience post-traumatic stress disorder just like humans: Here & Now, Kerulos, ABC News
  • Elephant massage therapist Elke Riesterer can feel the mood changes in elephants by touch alone: Sydney Morning Herald
  • Find out what we have in common with elephants and our deep and mysterious connection to other species in Elephants on the Edge: What Animals teach us about Humanity by G. A. Bradshaw.
  • The elephant brain contains 257 billion neurons, three times as many as our own.  “When we look in the eyes of an elephant, we should recognize nothing less than an intellectual equal.” (Farris Jabr, Scientific American).
  • Elephants can also get prosthetics – photo gallery on the Guardian

Elephant rebellion – Crime and Punishment

Tyke’s break for freedom was nothing new. In barnyards, zoos, homes and circuses around the world, animals have a long history of rebellion against captivity and abuse. Almost always, they are punished or killed for their transgressions.

  • For the inside story of animals that have consciously stood up to captivity and abuse read Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance by Jason Hribal: Counter Punch, Our Hen House
  • Every year, at least one of the 600 people who work with elephants in the United States is killed… it’s the most dangerous occupation in the nation: LA Times, PETA
  • Tyke was not the first elephant shot to death in Honolulu.  In 1933, Daisy the elephant killed her trainer at the Honolulu Zoo and was gunned down by local police: Honolulu Advertiser
  • In Feb 2002 in Palm City, Florida, Janet the elephant broke loose from her trainers while giving a ride to a group of schoolchildren, smashed barriers and was shot down in a hail of 47 bullets: Video
  • In 1903 in Coney Island, NY, Thomas Edison filmed the public electrocution of Topsy the elephant.  Standing in front of a crowd of 3000 onlookers, she received 6000 volts of electricity so that Edison could demonstrate the dangers of his competitor’s alternating current: Video
  • In 1916 in Erwin, Tennessee, Mary the circus elephant was sentenced to death by hanging for killing her trainer.  Lifted up by a giant crane, she died an agonizing death in front of 3000 spectators.
  • There are about 600 elephants in captivity in the US.  Around the world there are between 15,000 and 20,000 elephants held captive. Elephant Voices

Elephants and the Law

Under the law, all nonhuman animals are property with no more legal rights than a table or a chair.  Now a passionate group of lawyers is attempting to fundamentally redefine the legal status of certain animals to provide them with some of the same basic rights as humans.  They believe that some animals have a level of consciousness that qualifies them for legal personhood.  Elephants are one of them.

  • Lawyer Steven M. Wise makes the compelling case that at least some animals should be legally classified as “persons” in Rattling the Cage: Salon
  • Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation galvanised the global animal rights movement to action.  Read quotes from this seminal book.

The Circus and Entertainment Industry

Today’s global circus industry is a multibillion-dollar business that dates back to ancient Rome when the circus was a building for the exhibition of horse and chariot races and gladiators fighting wild animals.  By the early 19th century, circuses had evolved into travelling carnivals with a ringmaster introducing acrobats, clowns, sword swallowers, fire eaters, magic shows, “freak shows” and animal acts including elephants, lions and tigers.  Today, the freak shows are gone but the animals remain.  Investigations have revealed that most of the animals suffer from medical and psychological problems and are trained through harsh negative reinforcement.

But audience attitudes are changing and the circus industry is having to pay attention. Tyke Elephant Outlaw, soon to be released, goes to the frontline of the battle that began over 20 years ago over the use of elephants for entertainment. Get ready to watch this film and see how Tyke made history.

  • Tyke’s legacy lives on!  Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, recently announced that it is phasing out the use of performing elephants in its shows: NY TimesOpinion
  • Ringling Bros Circus says it will stop using elephants: BBC News 5 March 2015
  • Read about the history of the global circus industry: Wikipedia, PBS, Juggle Now, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Wikipedia
  • The story of Jumbo, a famous African elephant featured in P. T. Barnum’s circus as “the Biggest Elephant in the World” is told in John Sutherland’s book Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation.  Jumbo was killed by an oncoming train in 1885, apparently while trying to save a smaller elephant: The Guardian, Economist
  • Go behind the scenes of the big top.  Read about “The Cruellest Show on Earth” in Mother Jones.
  • Circus undercover agent and lobbyist Steven Kendall worked for Feld Entertainment, owner of America’s largest circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.  While there, he infiltrated animal rights groups across the US and Canada, reporting to Feld’s  security chief Clair E. George who was the former head of covert operations for the CIA.  The story of Kendall’s campaign against animal rights activists and his involvement in the Tyke incident is revealed in his tell-all book, A Tiger Among the Jungle.
  • Elephant paintings are not cute; they are the result of torture and beating: Ears Asia
  • How to train a baby elephant – shackle and hit them until they scream: Video
  • Since the Tyke incident more than 20 counties have banned the use of wild performing animals in circuses and travelling shows.
  • Legendary elephant trainer Buckles Woodcock set up the leading industry blog for circus lovers, many of them outraged by the Ringling Bros. decision to end the use of performing elephants.

Animals in zoos