The Emotional Lives of Elephants

Three elephants huddle togetherRaju, an Indian elephant, was taken from his family by poachers 50 years ago. If you’re an animal lover, you might already have seen the images in the video where Raju appears to cry tears of joy after being released to the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre. After years of physical abuse, Raju transitioned from a life in spiked shackles to one with a new family.

Can Elephants Really Cry?

Whether elephants can cry remains a subject of scientific and philosophical debate. There’s no doubt that elephants, like most mammals, can produce tears to clean and protect their eyes, and Raju’s apparent tears in the video make it quite clear that he’s capable of crying. The real question is whether elephants’ tears reflect emotions or are simply an attempt to keep their eyes clean. We can’t ask elephants directly whether their tears are the result of emotions, which makes it nearly impossible to scientifically prove that elephants cry in response to strong emotions. Elephants’ complex emotional lives and rich social bonds, though, suggest that they have the emotional capacity to cry in response to emotional events. 

Complex Emotions among Elephants

An emotion is a subjective experience, making it incredibly difficult to scientifically prove. Elephants live in large social groups, which means they may need complex social skills and strong emotional attachments to maintain group unity. There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that elephants have complex emotional lives, including:

  • Elephants appear to mourn their dead, and may even bury them. Some elephant researchers have seen elephants covering dead kin with leaves and branches. Years after the death of a member of the herd, elephants pause when they walk by the spot where the herd member died. They may spend several minutes investigating the grave.
  • Elephants may experience a form of chronic stress that leads to behavior reminiscent of a severe human mental health issue. In areas where elephant habitats are being destroyed, some elephants—particularly young ones—go on rampages. Elephants kill about 300 people every year in areas of heavy habitat destruction.
  • Elephants display empathy. For example, a park warden saw a herd of elephants slow its pace to match that of a female carrying a dead calf. There have also been reports of elephants trying to save other animals, including one story in which an elephant attempted to save a rhino from drowning in the mud.
  • Elephants seem to remember absent herd members, and when reunited, engage in protracted greeting rituals and displays of apparent joy.
  • Elephants form extremely long-lasting bonds. A mother and her daughter will remain in the same family group for 50 years or longer, helping each other for the duration of their lives.

While it may not be possible to prove that Raju the elephant cried tears of joy, it certainly seems likely that he did. Raju is reportedly adjusting well to his new life at the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, though he is still very wary of humans. On the evening of his arrival, Raju was introduced to Phoolkali, a female elephant who was rescued two years ago after she was found in an abandoned warehouse, and she shared her snack of fruit with Raju.

References:

  1. Dean, S., and Glanfield, E. (2014, July 9). The heart-warming moment Raju the crying elephant found a girlfriend and had his first proper meal in decades after being starved and kept in spiked chains for 50 years. Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2686961/Raju-elephant-cried-held-chains-beaten-abused-fifty-years-meets-adoptive-family-eating-like-king-living-hand-outs.html
  2. Do elephants cry? (n.d.). UCSB ScienceLine. Retrieved from http://scienceline.ucsb.edu/getkey.php?key=1067
  3. Echo: An elephant to remember. (n.d.). Nature. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/unforgettable-elephants/elephant-emotions/4489/
  4. Masson, J. M., & McCarthy, S. (1995). When elephants weep: The emotional lives of animals. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

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  • Cole

    Cole

    July 21st, 2014 at 10:28 AM

    Elephants are so intelligent and very much in touch with their emotions. I think that you can see this in a level like pretty much no other animal when it comes to their families. They want to take care of one another and be aorund others, none of that aloofness for them. I recently heard a story about an elephant being moved to another place after maybe 40 years at the same zoo and she died on the trip, even though nothing was evidently wrong with her. I think that we discount the fact that animals have feelings too just like humans and I wish that there was much more awareness about this in the general population.

  • Shelby h

    Shelby h

    July 22nd, 2014 at 3:24 PM

    Why does there continue to be these questions about whather or not animals can have emotions? I know that my dogs do, they know when I hurt and they try to comfort me. What is that if not feeling emotion? They may not be able to verbalize this but they do know how to show us, but most of the time it comes down to we don’t exactly know how to listen.

  • Carly

    Carly

    July 23rd, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    This makes me cry just thinking about it!
    Can you imagine being taken from your family at a young age and then how you would feel to be released form those captors many years later?
    I may be projecting human emotions onto that of an animal but there is nothing that anyone can say that will make me believe that these creatures do not often have the same feelings that humans can have.
    I believe in this with all my heart and do not understand how anyone could choose to be so cruel to one of Gods creatures.

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