Why Dumbo tugged your heartstrings

The year is 2014.  The Disney film was released in 1941. That makes the film more than seventy years old. Wow! That is seventy years of people crying over the scene where Dumbo visits his mother in the cell!

However, you probably won’t be too surprised to learn that human hearts have long been touched by elephants.  This is because elephants have been observed to exhibit behaviors much like our own, such as altruism, compassion, cooperation and grief.  They are among the few animals (next to chimpanzees, dolphins and magpies) to perform distinct ‘death rituals’.

When an elephant dies, other members of its species appear to show fascination towards its bones.  Commonly documented behaviors include gently touching the smaller bones with the tip of their trunks as if examining them before stroking the larger bones such as the skull and lifting them to their mouths, and later burying the bones under twigs and branches. Entire herds fall silent in this process.

Cameraman Mark Deeble observed a mother attempting to ‘wake’ her dead calf by lifting it’s body with her trunk, while South African biologist Anthony Hall-Martin witnessed an entire herd stay by the carcass of an elephant for two days.  Multiple incidences have found that elephants remember and return to the places where a family member has died – and this is sometimes extended to deceased elephants not within their herd.  Elephant researcher Joyce Poole claims that elephants exhibit ‘physical’ attributes of grief such as sunken eyes, drooping mouths and an overall change of expression.

But what does this all mean?

Some researchers believe that these behavioral characteristics indicate that elephants feel empathy.  They understand loss and they feel sad for it, even if it’s not an elephant they “knew” – just as we are saddened to hear the losses of others.  However, it is worthwhile to remember that ’empathy’ means being able to understand someone else’s perspective.  And that is something we as humans have constructed, and it should not be so easily assumed that animals feel emotions the same way we do.

So where does that leave us? Square one?

Not really.

Our fascination with elephants and their emotions reflects our own human desire to understand and connect with other living beings that share our world.  Now that surely, is a positive.

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