A 40-year study at Kenya’s Amboseli National Park reveals that African Elephants have intricate social relationships (with advanced communication) and rich emotional lives not unlike our own. Whether it be a simple greeting (rubbing shoulders, shaking trunks), female flirting (an over-the-shoulder, wide-eyed glance), or a discussion on which route to take (Phyliss Lee, longtime researcher for the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, says, “It’s wonderful to watch and a real process of negotiation.” The Daily Mail, 6/6/11), elephant behavior (including the capacities for cooperation, grief, and empathy) continues to astound even the most seasoned of scientists.
Considered in a vacuum, an elephant flirting is probably not all that important. But each new ethological study should obligate us to reconsider our relationship with animals. The past two or three decades have produced more on the animal mind than the whole of human history prior. In this specific case, how can the exploitation of elephants as circus/zoo entertainers be countenanced any longer? That they are intelligent (and self-aware), sensitive creatures who suffer terribly in the course of their servitude is beyond reasonable debate. This is not to say that only the highest-functioning of species (like cetaceans, pachyderms, primates, and pigs) deserve our compassion, for the only relevant question remains, “Can they suffer?” But we need a starting point.
To patronize Ringling Bros., SeaWorld, and the like is to sentence these wonderful creatures to a lifetime of psychological and emotional abuse. Idle anthropomorphism? Well, facts, as the saying goes, are stubborn things. And they are readily available to all who are willing to receive them. Peering through iron bars, dragging heavy chains, and crying out with each bullhook blow, the noble elephant plaintively asks only this from her captors: autonomy. Let them be. Just let them be.