Trunk Full of Tales


"The First step in developing true compassion is being able to recognize, to open to, and to acknowledge that pain and sorrow exist. Everywhere, absolutely everywhere, in one way or another, beings are suffering. Some suffering is intense and terrible; some is quiet and small."

Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg

One of the most natural emotions humans feel is grieving.  This process is usually brought on with the death of a loved one.  As humans, we have a natural arrogance to believe that we are the only ones capable of complex thought, as well as the whole gamut of emotional experiences.  Western philosophies have perpetuated this belief that we humans are the only beings capable of superior thinking--e.g. tool use, and the ability to communicate beyond the rudimentary mechanics of daily survival.  These philosophies have been perpetuated through the ages beginning as early as Aristotle and Descartes, right through to present time (please see animal hierarchy)

"As I watched Tonie´s vigil over her dead newborn, I got my first very strong feeling that elephants grieve. I will never forget the expression on her face, her eyes, her mouth, the way she carried her ears, her head, and her body. Every part of her spelled grief" (Joyce Poole P.90)

However, research and observation has proven that elephants are indeed capable of many complex functions of thought and feeling.  There have been many observations of elephants grieving.  In Joyce Poole's Coming of Age with Elephants,  a situation is described where a mother elephant is seen grieving over her stillborn baby for a few days.  This mother physical stature was observed as slumped, appeared to be crying, while trying to revive her baby.  This mother elephant was seen to be in denial which is a common reaction with humans confronting death.  Finally, after some time had elapsed, the mother finally succumbed to the reality that she no longer had a live baby.  She had to move on.

In another anecdote, Poole goes on to illustrate the depth of elephant grieving.  A clan of elephants was moving towards newer territory, when suddenly one of the elephants fell over in.  Soon enough the other elephants noticed that one of their group was in trouble.  Arriving by the elephants side, they realized she was not moving. They attempted to get her up on her feet but to no avail (see a similar account in Africa´s Elephant Kingdom).  As a last resort, the male elephants attempted to mount her in order to arouse her to consciousness.  This was not to be.  The elephant then left the dead body and moved on. The next day, elephants returned to mourn and pay homage to the lost friend, family member, clan member and elephant. These two stories and many more create a good picture of the elephant´s emotional depth. The plain truth is that elephants have a deep need to remember and mourn lost ones. This can even be observed many years since the death of a loved one. Without prior knowledge of an in-depth longitudinal study our observations would be meaningless. But, as observed by Joyce Poole, when an elephant walks past a place that a loved one died he/she will stop dead still; a silent and empty pause that can last several minutes. An elephant pause. I wonder if, like us, they relive experiences shared with the loved when they visit their place of death or resting spot. This is not that implausible given their need to investigate and touch the bones of a dead fellow elephant.

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