Sometimes the behavior of animals makes me ashamed of the behavior of humans. Sure nature is savage. Absolutely. And sure, animals behave with shocking brutality in their instinctive efforts to survive (and often to dominate). But we humans can be equally brutal and grossly dominating; and we have much to learn from animal communities. We need to set aside our condescension toward other species and open our receptors.
Elephants have always struck me as one of the wisest and most spiritual of animals. They have such a complex and highly developed social structure. Perhaps the most important thing that we can learn from them is the value of basing communities on raising our young. Elephant communities are built around nurturing young elephants, raising them to be healthy, strong, and capable. So really, what more is there to say? In my work with communities all over the country, what I have found is that the healthiest communities, those that are safest and that are ranked as the “best places to live,” are the ones that have placed the raising of their children at the heart of community life. These are the communities that have as their mission to raise healthy, happy, safe, intellectually inquisitive children; children supported and capable of fulfilling their potential for being their best selves. In the process, the adult members of the community become their own best selves. Elephants already know this truth that humans seem largely unable to comprehend. (Witness how little money is put into education compared to defense spending.)
Elephant communities are matriarchal. Older female elephants teach younger female elephants how to care for elephant calves and the calves are raised communally by all the mothers. Elephants have the largest brain of any land animal and the cortex of the elephant brain has as many neurons as a human brain. As smart as humans? Probably smarter. Elephants grieve over their dead, exhibit a sense of humor, and, of course, play. They can be taught and they show interest in learning. They create art, use tools, demonstrate altruism and compassion, and they have good memories. They speak to one another in a language that includes vocalizations beyond the range of human audibility and that can carry over great distances.
I was prompted to write today about elephants after reading an amazing elephant story. Conservationist Lawrence Anthony is the author of the book The Elephant Whisperer, which relates his experiences rescuing troubled and troublesome elephants at his Thula Thula Conservation Reserve in South Africa. I confess that I have not yet read his book, but I will be reading it very soon now that I have heard this astounding story of how the elephants, whose lives Anthony saved, came to say goodbye to him when he died in March 2012. There are two herds of wild South African elephants at the vast Thula Thula Reserve, and both of these herds traveled for at least 12 hours to pay their respects to Anthony after he passed away. How did these elephants know that their friend and advocate had died? No one can answer that question. The two herds of elephants (who had been rescued by Anthony years earlier) walked across the Zululand bush until they reached Anthony’s house. These are not tame elephants either. These are wild elephants. These elephants had been dangerous, violent, rogue creatures, who were hunted by the locals only a few years before (and they would have been shot if not for Anthony’s efforts). Anthony “rehabilitated” them so that they could live safely and without causing harm at the reserve. Once the elephants arrived at the Anthony family compound, they remained in the yard for two days to “pay their respects.” They had not “visited” Anthony’s house in nearly two years. It has long been known that elephants mourn their dead (not just other elephants who have died, but people who have died as well). What mystifies and astonishes me is that they knew Anthony had died and that they immediately set out and traveled such a great distance to honor him and offer comfort to his family.
I look forward to reading Anthony’s whole story about his relationship with the elephants in his book when I get my hands on a copy (I’m in line at the library). In the meantime, I am reminded to pay closer attention to the other species with whom I share this earth; and I am reminded that people are not the smartest ones here.
Here is one of the elephant herds arriving at the Anthony family's rural compound to pay respects.