The Elephant and I

Elephant Mirror Test

Elephant Mirror Test

People have believed for a long time that elephants exhibit empathy and altruism and have a long memory. That is, they appear to remember people who treat them well or badly. Certainly a good memory is some kind of sign of intelligence. But what do elephants think about with this great memory?

A group of researchers in 2006 decided to create a test to see if elephants had any sense of self-awareness. They did this by building a large, strong mirror made of plastic framed in steel and placing it in a cage at the Bronx zoo. Three female elephants immediately began examining the mirror and looking to see what was behind it. They also examined the insides of their mouths, studied their ears and showed other signs of self-recognition. One of them also felt his forehead for an X that had been painted there, which is a classic test of self-recognition invented 35 years ago by biologist Gordon R. Gallup, Jr. This is strong evidence that elephants can understand the concept of a reflection and how it can be used, yes like a tool, to examine parts of their body previously inaccessible to them.

This seems to be a pretty basic first step, but I’ve got many more questions. Do they care about how they look or is it just something to do because they are in captivity and bored? Is it possible that they might enjoy having their face painted? If we could let them watch as someone painted their face and then show them how to wash it off, what would they do? Would they keep the makeup on or wash it off? I wonder if they would enjoy watching movies of themselves. Would they fondly remember a happy day from their youth and recognize themselves as they played with their friends? Would it stimulate them to play again? Would they feel sadness seeing movies of lost loved ones or joy at the thought that they could see them again? Would they start looking for their missing loved one or would they understand the temporal difference between past and present? Can they anticipate future events? Can they be taught that a particular action, like the ringing of a bell, is an indicator of some future event that is about to occur? I’m pretty sure this is the case. Are they be smart enough to try and trigger the event by ringing the bell themselves?

Elephants also have very complex social lives. I remember a documentary about how poachers killed all the older males in a particular region for their ivory tusks, leaving the young elephants with no elder male supervision. The adolescent elephants started to act like a bunch of irresponsible teenagers, trampling farmers’ fields and attacking and killing rhinos and other animals. When some older bulls were brought in from another region, they effectively put the young ones in their place. They served as surrogate fathers and stopped the rampaging. Does this mean that older elephants have some concept of morality or have learned the consequences of irresponsible behavior? Do they consider it wrong to kill rhinos and other animals that do not threaten them? Why else would they care what the young bulls did unless they perceived a challenge to their leadership of the herd? Have they learned that people are dangerous and that they will fight back if their territory is invaded?

I’m pretty sure that an elephant would remember someone who did something bad to them and therefore can hold a grudge. But this is probably also the case for many other species. In a TV documentary called The Meerkats, the female leader of the family clearly showed a willingness to hold a grudge for a long time. In one of the episodes, she attacked and expelled one of her female offspring for getting pregnant. Apparently, the leading female is the only one allowed to get pregnant. In episode after episode, it became clear that she would not let her daughter back into the family. When her daughter tried to return or to protect her young from abuse by the others, the leader would viciously attack and expel her again. The daughter apparently was desperate to return to the group, but was shunned by everyone. So, even the lowly Meerkat shows the ability to have individual relationships that may demonstrate emotions such as anger, jealousy, fear, sadness, or remorse.

I think we need to stop asking ourselves which animals have emotions and intelligence and acknowledge that they all probably have some level of both. The real questions are more involved but more difficult to answer. What emotions predominate? What do they understand and remember? How do they communicate and learn? How can we better communicate with and live alongside them?

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