Magazine, website & books written by teens since 1989

Massive Beasts Like Us

Custom User Avatar
More by this author
The similarities between elephant and human behavior has been a curiosity to scientists worldwide. These huge beasts are not so different from us. Elephants express profound thought and deeper thinking. They are generally social creatures that grow up in a network of familial relationships. Calves constantly stay by their mother's side until age eight; afterwards, young males live with the older bulls of the herd until they can return as mature adults, while females are taught how to become caregivers for future generations. Their grieving process is also identical to our own. Elephants often mourn the death of a loved one for years, returning to the grave and gently caressing the body with their trunks. Their devotion to their family is just as powerful as the friendships between humans. In order to prevent future elephant attacks, people must first understand the similarities between elephants and themselves.

Because deaths are felt so deeply in elephants, memories of people harming or killing other herd members are not forgotten. Due to the Uganda-Tanzania War in Africa, poaching elephant ivory increased during the 1970's and continued, despite government restrictions. However, ethologists like Eve Abe did not see this as simple poaching; they saw it as a “mass destruction.” Elephants that have witnessed a traumatic event, such as the murder of a matriarch, are more likely to become impulsively violent and attack humans. Many aggressive elephants do not act without reason; they are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). At a young age, humans invade their life, kill their parents, and ultimately destroy their peaceful environment. More and more calves live neglected lives without a mother figure, and have to become a parent early for the survival of the herd. Humans that had a difficult childhood or early family life also suffer from irritability, aggression, and sometimes even physical ailments. Young elephants have been known to have “nightmares,” waking up suddenly and screaming or trumpeting their trunks. These are clearly signs of stress, as males grow up to be increasingly hostile to humans and target certain villages where traumatic experiences had occurred.

The elephants' bellicose behavior should not be new or surprising; aggression is a common symptom of PTSD. By looking into ourselves, we can understand the elephants' strange behavior, and begin repairing the generations of damage people have caused. Gay Bradshaw, Director the Kerulos Center and co-founder of the International Association of Animal Trauma Recovery, has studied trans-species communication and psychology. Bradshaw and her colleagues agree that elephants and humans are neurologically similar. An M.R.I. scan of the elephant brain shows the same hippocampus and the same sophisticated limbic system as humans. The elephants' increasing aggression is no more surprising than an Iraq war veteran lashing out at an innocent when some event triggers his fight response. When people have experienced severe mental agony, they often commit acts of violence as emotional stress release. Bradshaw postulates that elephant attacks on African villages and communities are the logical emotional response for the abuse people have levied against them. It is possible the elephants are avenging the years of human poaching, human destructing, and human taking of elephant land. Despite the decades of damage done to elephant culture and elephant herds, there is still hope for rebuilding a peaceful relationship between people and animals.

At the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, abused elephants are treated with psychotherapy and are cared for in a safe, comfortable environment. The Elephant Sanctuary is one of the rehabilitation centers that use human therapy methods to heal brutalized and distressed elephants. Many are saved from lives of isolation and torture in circuses and amusement parks. They are given treatments similar to humans suffering from PTSD. The goal is to gain trust and confidence in life and the beings around them again. In order to function in society, humans need to trust others and accept the trauma that has occurred. Like humans, elephants also want a sense of protection and safety. When these animals arrive at the Sanctuary, they are managed with a passive-control and non-dominance system. People are not allowed to dominate over elephants or use negative tools, such an electrical shock stick. A mutual respect is established between humans and elephants. The caregivers do not withhold any necessities or deprive the animals of any resources. With more space and freedom, elephants can spend time and relate with one another, thus acquiring a sense of security. They respond positively to psychotherapy, and eventually become a healthy, self-serving herd.

Although many see elephants as massive, violent, and simple-minded animals, their social structure is not unlike many human societies. A matriarch commands the general herd, and helps raise calves into mature adults. The strong bonds in a family are as powerful as the friendships within a herd. They are able to empathize past simple survival instincts, and their behavior may have been like the behavior of primitive humans. Humans and elephants have been on parallel paths. However, if people continue practicing ignorance over the harsh treatment of these creatures, then collision will become inevitable. Cruel treatment of elephants still goes on, but by understanding the similarities between us, it can be stopped.

Allimadi, Milton. BSN. Black Star News, 1 Jan 2009. Web. 15 August 2010.
Bekoff, Mark. “Do Animals Have Emotions?” The Bark. n.p. n.d. Web 8 August 2010., 2006. Web. 15 August 2010.
Siebert, Charles. “An Elephant Crackup.” The New York Times. 8 Oct. 2006: 10. Print.

Join the Discussion

This article has 25 comments. Post your own now!

mrwife said...
Sept. 27, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Even though we consider ourselves the most sentient beings on Earth, and even in this star system, but humans were (and arguably still are) pretty narrow-minded. 

Inter-species communication would be so cool... 

palmsleaf replied...
Sept. 27, 2010 at 9:59 pm
thank you! i think it'd be interesting, too.
broskay said...
Sept. 27, 2010 at 9:25 pm
awesome article! never knew about this about elephants til i read this :D 
atomic fart bunny said...
Sept. 27, 2010 at 9:17 pm
wow this is really interesting. thank you for informing us about these awesome creatures
lolyo said...
Sept. 27, 2010 at 5:41 pm
Ive heard of charles siebert tho.
lolyo said...
Sept. 27, 2010 at 5:40 pm
I feel the same way about elephants. But i never saw that article in the NYTimes.
Site Feedback