When a baby elephant dies, it’s mother has been known to lift it with its trunk and place it in an area where they can cover it with ground debris like twigs, sticks, and dirt. Other female members of the herd will help in covering the calf and the rest of the herd will join the mother while paying homage. It’s one of the beautiful rituals of the death in the animal kingdom. Research both in the wild and in elephant sanctuaries have documented that in some instances the mother has been known to stand watch and grieve for days.
In Jodi Piccult’s book “Leaving Time”, the storyline incorporates death and dying on both the human side, as well as in the animal kingdom – specifically elephants. Piccult is one of my favorite author’s because her books revolve around controversial topics, often times they revolve around current events in our world today such as teenage suicide pacts, school shootings and organ harvesting. “Leaving Time” particularly resonated with me as it parallels my expertise – end of life issues that revolve around people and pets. While the storyline is fictitious, it’s also incredibly educational about elephant cognition (how their brain and memory works).
One of the underlying themes premise, is that when an animal, specifically pachyderms (elephants) incurs a loss, they have their own set of rituals and grieve just like in the human world. If the majority of us we were asked to share our knowledge about elephants, one might say that they are the largest living land animal, that they are trainable as they were in the circus for many years and that in foreign countries they’re being poached just for their ivory tusks, therefore one day they could become extinct.
What most us don’t know is that:
- Their lifespan is between 50-70 years in the wild
- The oldest living female is the matriarch of the pack/herd
- All calves or baby elephants are mothered by all females in the herd
What makes an elephant so unique compared to other animals of the wild is that their brains are very complex. In fact, they are so multifaceted that they are capable of remembering, learning, experiencing and most importantly communicating. Sight and smell are also a key component for elephants. Researchers who study at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., have countless documented stories about an elephant’s ability to recall and react.
In an article titled “Do elephants really have steel-trap memories?” from James Ritchie which was featured in the Scientific American, he paraphrased a documented report by Carol Buckley a former CEO of the Elephant Sanctuary and founder of Elephant Aid International, shown below:
In 1999 resident elephant Jenny became anxious and could hardly be contained when introduced to newcomer Shirley, an Asian elephant. As the animals checked one another out with their trunks, Shirley, too, became animated and the two seemingly old friends had what appeared to be an emotional reunion. “There was this euphoria,” sanctuary founder Buckley says. “Shirley started bellowing, and then Jenny did, too. Both trunks were checking out each other’s scars. I’ve never experienced anything that intense without it being aggression.”
Turns out the two elephants had briefly crossed paths years earlier. Buckley knew that Jenny had performed with the traveling Carson & Barnes Circus, before coming to the sanctuary in 1999, but she knew little about Shirley’s background. She did a little digging, only to discover that Shirley had been in the circus with Jenny for a few months—23 years earlier.
In Piccult’s books she shares two discoveries from researchers about the behaviors of elephants in a herd when they encounter remains of a deceased elephant. Excerpt from “Leaving Time” by Jodi Piccult, released October 14, 2014.
Elephants have elaborate rituals of grief, much like humans. If an elephant comes across the bones of another elephant, it will be quiet and reverential. The tail and ears will droop. They will pick up the bones and roll them beneath their hind feet. They only do this with elephant bones, not the bones of other animals. They will return to the spot of a herd member’s passing and pay respects for years to come. They will often cover an elephant who dies with branches and dirt. They’ve been known to break into research camps to steal a bone a scientist is working with, and to return it to the spot of that elephant’s demise. But the loveliest story of grief I learned came from the Elephant Sanctuary. An elephant named Sissy survived the 1981 Gainesville flood and was brought, traumatized, to the Sanctuary. She took to carrying a tire around, like a pacifier. After a while, she befriended another elephant there named Tina. When Tina died, Sissy stayed at her grave for a day. Then, she lay her tire down on her best friend’s grave, like a wreath, and left – almost as if she knew that Tina was the one who needed comfort, now.
If the above doesn’t drive the fact home that animals have the capability to feel, think and remember I don’t know what will. If you are looking for a good read, you need not look any further. The storyline is wonderful and it’s easy to read.
Help make a difference by donating to a charitable contribution to Elephant Aid International.