The Elephant: A Sign Of The Times

May 29, 2016

A couple months ago I came across the story of Tyke. For those of you who do not know the story, I will tell what I can. Tyke was taken from the African bush in 1973 most likely when her mother was killed by hunters or poachers. She was then subjected to a ritual of beatings and being restrained and stretched in order that her spirit would be broken and she would comply with the requirements of circus entertainment. After 20 years of living under the control of humans and trying to send the message that she was being pushed too far, she broke free. On August 20, 1994, Tyke escaped into the streets of Honolulu where she was gunned down by police. Some people labeled her as an elephant that went “berserk,” but dig a little deeper into her story and then hopefully you will understand why she did what she did. I understand that people were injured and killed, but my point is that Tyke did not transplant herself from her home in Africa with her mother and family and into the streets of Honolulu. Our actions and attitudes are the root cause. We must be accountable. My heart breaks for what that little girl endured. That is all that I can say about Tyke’s story right now. I wanted to learn more about Tyke after seeing that horrific video of her final moments. I wanted to understand. If you watch the video, look into her eyes…look at her as a precious creature, and you will see an overwhelming amount of sadness. And I am sad for her because it was the only thing she knew about life and this world. No safety, no comfort, no peace, no compassion, no empathy. All those things that are supposed to set us apart. The little that she may have experienced simply was not enough to heal the physical and emotional wounds that were inflicted upon her day after day. What unfolded for me in the following days brought back a memory from my childhood. The one time that I went to a circus. My parents thought that I would enjoy seeing the animals, but life had another plan. When the elephants were brought out, I started screaming, “They’re hurting them! They’re hurting them!” My mother was horrified, most likely because my reaction was unexpected and extreme, and she did not know how to calm me. There were, after all, no visual signs that the elephants were being mistreated. I just knew. It wasn’t until I learned more about Tyke that I knew that I was right at such a young age. So, my connection to elephants is far-reaching, and I have found myself more entwined in their tragedy and that of other wildlife in more than one way. The journey, though, has also led me to those who are doing all they can to keep our elephants and other animals safe. And for them, I am grateful.

What I See

The fallacies of man always fall upon the innocents. When I consider the current treatment
of elephants, it comes down to an issue that has motivated me to write this article. Empathy. The world is losing empathy at an alarming rate, and ultimately the elephants and wildlife of this planet are paying the price. They are, after all, amongst the innocents. The most frightening part is that I see people every day literally fight to not be empathetic. People who actually boast about their actions that show a lack of empathy. I cannot say that it is only a younger generation, because I have seen people my age become immersed in their battle for self-preservation, even when encouraged to show empathy. I have learned that trying to garner empathy from someone who has none is impossible, at least for someone such as me who only understands a life of demonstrating empathy almost to a fault. Yet somehow, those of us who do have empathy must be the agents for change, and the magnitude of our challenge is growing each and every day.

The Need for Self-Preservation

I recently read a meme on Facebook that I found to be insightful, albeit concerning.
“One reason people resist change is because they focus on what they have to give up, instead of what they have to gain.”
Self-preservation is a natural instinct, but as humans, our need for self-preservation seems to be operating on steroids. That is not to say that a true need for self-preservation does not exist in this world. Another story that I read recently talked about the mahouts (elephant handlers) in Thailand. The story suggested that the life of a mahout is not easy, and the job is only taken by those who do not have any other option for income. I basically understood what the writer was saying, but I felt that it was a very myopic perspective, and here’s why. In Africa right now there are several conservation programs that are successfully providing local communities with employment opportunities that are founded upon the value of habitat preservation and wildlife protection — win-win strategies. So rather than justifying a practice that allows for the beating and breaking of elephants, why not advocate for programs that protect this incredible species and provide employment options? Instead of fighting for a destructive mindset, why not devote that energy to making real and positive changes? And if someone wishes to be considerate of those who are employed as mahouts, why not consider the idea that perhaps they themselves do not feel right about taking a baby elephant from its mother, binding it with chains and ropes, jabbing it with a bullhook repeatedly and participating in a ritual of beating the creature while it and its mother screams. Perhaps the justification by the writer is actually doing more harm than good, and really doing very little for giving people a true quality of life versus an income source. I certainly could not bear closing my eyes at night after playing a role in such a horrific experience. Just a thought.

Self-Preservation on Steroids = Isolation

I will admit that there are some people in this world who are just pure evil — those who pursue self-preservation out of greed. But there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in being consumed with self-preservation. In an effort to feed solely on one’s self-preservation, one becomes more isolated. The world can never satisfy the craving for connection, safety and validation. The need to be constantly in the spotlight results in behavior that pushes people away, the very same people who would otherwise give the genuine and sincere attention and validation that is sought. A perfect example of this dynamic is social media. How many of you reading this truly feel more connected to people thanks to social media? Social media is great for staying in touch and sharing life’s little moments, but if you ever feel a competitive inkling as you post or imagine an overwhelming reaction and validation, chances are that you have an unhealthy relationship with social media. And you should probably check your ego.

Empathy and the Elephants

So you might be wondering how an unhealthy relationship with social media is connected to the elephants. Here’s a review of what I (and the world) have seen in recent months:
  • A baby dolphin dies on a beach while people hold it to take selfies
  • A video of an 8-week old puppy being eaten by a boa constrictor is shared on social media
  • Videos of active animal abuse go viral
  • People visiting elephant sanctuaries stand in line to have their moment for a selfie with the rescued animals
  • Someone shares a selfie with a giraffe while grabbing its tongue
  • Blood lions (Google it)
I could probably do a quick search and find millions of other examples, but I needn’t upset myself with the details. Wildlife, pets and domestic animals have become the innocent victims of our constant need to “go viral” at any cost. That demonstrates a lack of empathy. No regard for the well-being of the animals, even in environments where they are meant to feel safe after being rescued from horrific situations.

We Only Believe Science

The debate about global warming is an interesting one to me. Some people are resistant to the necessary changes because science has not concretely (i.e., without a doubt) identified the source. Meanwhile, nature is sending her message. So ultimately, we only believe science. OK…then I will follow the logic that science is the most credible human voice. What does science say about elephant behavior? In the last few years there have been studies about empathy in elephants, and Asian elephants recently joined the list of the world’s empathetic creatures. The research basically came about because scientists sat back and said, “Hmmm….we observe behavior in elephants that mirrors the way humans demonstrate empathy, but can elephants really feel empathy?” Essentially these studies are trying to determine if the outward behaviors of elephants are connected to an inward emotion. And empathy is a sign of intelligence. The challenge is that admitting that elephants (or other animals) have emotions would make them closer to our perception of humans and therefore more on our level. For some, that’s a little too close for comfort because they would have to internalize their actions in a different way. One study measures empathetic behavior as:
  • Coalition forming
  • Offering protection and comfort to others
  • Retrieving and “babysitting” calves
  • Aiding individuals that would otherwise have difficulty moving
  • Removing foreign objects attached to others
  • Diagnosing animacy and goal directedness as well as ability to understand the physical competence, emotional state and intentions of others
All of these behaviors were documented in the elephants. All of these behaviors are demonstrated by empathetic humans. One of the most frightening aspects of human behavior is that we can justify anything. A quote that I read from one of Tyke’s trainers is that they had to subject her to harsh training because she was so rebellious and spirited. Power and control…that’s all it’s about. Power and control for human gain with no regard to the pain and trauma being inflicted…that is a lack of empathy. Worse yet, it is toward an animal that demonstrates empathy — the exact behavior that is being eroded amongst humans. So if we base our empathy score on observable behavior using the same measurements from scientific research, +1 for the elephants and -1 for the humans. Research shows that almost 100 elephants are killed each day by poachers. This year alone there are more elephants being killed than there are new births. Yep, that’s the slippery slope of extinction. Perhaps it is time for us to focus on regaining our own empathy rather than destroying a species that may one day be the only remaining memory of empathy on this planet.

Learn About Organizations That Are Creating Change

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Animal Defenders International



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