Jacinta: Yes, it's a photo to ponder over. We're moving away from the old strictures against anthropomorphizing in ethology it seems, simply because we're coming across so much more evidence of actions and interactions, in the more complex of other species, that we once imagined only ourselves to be capable of.
Canto: Well let me talk of the elephant documentary, while it's fresh in my mind. In two separate places in Africa, elephants were behaving with unwonted aggression - in national parks in Kenya and in South Africa. In Kenya they were attacking and killing the cattle of the Masai, whereas in South Africa, it was the endangered rhinos. Elephants are herbivores, and these attacks seemed on the surface to lack rhyme or reason. It took years to get to the bottom of it all, but when they did, the findings about elephant behaviour proved revelatory.
Jacinta: I know they’re highly intelligent animals.Canto: Highly emotional, too, and highly social. This is the key. The ‘bad’ behaviour of the elephants was all about social disruption and trauma. To take the Kenyan situation first, it was found that the elephants doing the killing were females, who had suffered at the hands of the Masai in the past. The Masai had been moved off their land some years before, to make way for the park. Out of resentment, and to highlight their plight, the Masai had attacked and killed a number of baby elephants. In the South African situation, on the other hand, the rhino killers were young bull elephants who had come into musth earlier than usual.
Jacinta: Musth? What’s that?
Canto: Musth is an incompletely understood phase, usually occurring in winter, in which bull elephants secrete a thick substance called temporin from their temporal ducts on each side of the head. During this phase, their testosterone levels can be as much as 60 times higher than normal, and they’re very aggressive, to humans, to other elephants, everyone. The point here is that bull elephants normally only enter the musth phase when they’re quite mature, but these South African bulls were an exception. The final diagnosis was that these ‘teenagers’ were traumatized. In the late seventies, as babies, they’d been transported to the South African park from elsewhere, because in those days only very young elephants could be transported, they didn’t have the technology to ship larger ones. But not only were the baby elephants thus separated from parents and families, in fact their parents were mostly exterminated before their eyes in an elephant cull. They had no role models, and of course they were never treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jacinta: So what did they do then, treat them?
Canto: They brought in older elephants [this was in the early nineties, when transportation technology had improved] who effectively bonded with the younger ones and calmed them down. I don’t know how or if they solved the Kenyan situation.
Jacinta: Revenge killings. That must’ve been a controversial finding.
Canto: Well, possibly not so much of a surprise among these who’ve worked closely with elephants. The old saying that an elephant never forgets must’ve been based on observation. I mean they must have behaved in ways that showed they remembered, and were affected by, events in the past. It makes you feel real empathy with their suffering. You know the two must powerfully affecting moments in the doco for me were these. First, a baby elephant was described as trumpeting in its sleep. It was having a nightmare. Elephants generally only trumpet when there is danger about – it’s a kind of high-adrenalin response. What’s more, baby elephants never trumpet. It’s an adult thing. The second was footage showing an elephant gently and respectfully touching with its trunk the skull of one of its dead fellows. The doco reported extensive evidence of this behaviour as regular and almost ritualized, a behaviour very rare amongst other mammals.
Jacinta: So we seem to be coming to a new anthropomorphism, as we recognize the depth of mourning of chimps and elephants, an anthropomorphism based on a deeper understanding, rather than the old sentimentality.
Canto: Well, I wouldn’t dismiss the old sentimentality too off-handedly. I read Ernest Thompson Seton’s Biography of a Grizzly as a lad, and I was an emotional wreck afterwards. It affected me more than any other book of my childhood, by far, and though it probably was sentimental in parts, it taught me a lot about animals, and especially about respect for them. It would be a good starting point for any budding ethologist. But the new understanding works both ways – it teaches us not only how like us they are, but how like them we are. That we too are mammals, and our social behaviour and morality are no less mammalian than those of many other creatures. It’s exciting and moving and vaguely humbling.