Do Elephants Feel “Human” Emotions?

October 16, 20120 Comments

For years, stories about an elephant’s ability to feel “human emotions” such as love and grief have been circulating. There have been rumors about the mythical elephant graveyards and there have even been stories about elephants actually crying over the loss of an infant. But, it wasn’t until recently, that we got a glimpse of the compassion that elephants can feel for creatures outside of their own species.

The Amazing Elephant Tribute to Lawrence Anthony

The story began many years ago, when a South African man named Lawrence Anthony consented to allow a herd of “rogue” African elephants to take refuge at his game preserve in Thula Thula. These elephants had been targeted for slaughter because of their continued interference with human habitation. In order to save their lives, Anthony, who came to be known as “the Elephant Whisperer” took them in. He worked for years to gain the herds trust and they eventually became a part of his family. As he struggled to develop a bond with the elephants, he came to realize how much they had to teach him about life, loyalty, and freedom.

Over the years, other elephants were sent to live with the Elephant Whisperer; elephants that were considered too dangerous or too troublesome to live elsewhere. For their own safety, Lawrence Anthony let them come. He worked with them, one by one, to earn their trust and help them understand that if they didn’t stay at the preserve, they would be killed by angry citizens.

On March 2, 2012 Lawrence Anthony passed away at the age of 61 of a heart attack at his home in Thula Thula. Within a couple of days, a herd of wild elephants made their way across the many miles of the preserve and emerged out of the bush near Anthony’s home. They had traveled an estimated 12 hours on their own to pay their respects to the man who had saved their lives. The next day another herd arrived, bringing the total to about 20 elephants. They all spent 2 peaceful days and nights near their lost friend’s home and then disappeared back into the brush to resume their lives.
For those who witnessed the elephant’s vigil, there is no doubt in their minds that the elephants had all come to pay their final respects to a man who they had come to respect and love. The question remains, however, how the elephants knew that Lawrence Anthony had passed away.

Through research and observation, scientists have come to believe that elephants do in fact mourn the loss of their loved ones. This should come as no surprise, when you take into account the depths of the bonds that they develop within their clans. When one elephant falls ill, the others will tend to it; when infants are in danger, the entire herd will defend it; and when one of their herd-members dies, herd members will come and go for several days to cry over its body.

Perhaps the bond that the Thula Thula elephants felt for their human friend was so strong, they were somehow able to sense when his spirit departed. We may never know what inspired the elephants to walk the 12 hours to pay their respects, but we can be sure that the emotions that elephants feel are not that far off from our own.

Filed in: AllCurriculumElephant Characteristics

About the Author ()

As a former amusement park elephant trainer turned animal activist, Tracee has a unique perspective into the world of animals in the entertainment industry. She now lives on a farm in Northern California, where, when not writing, she spends her time caring for the many animals she has rescued.

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