Lessons in empathy


 

 

 

 

 

Although this may seem off track for me, I was struck by a profound article I read in The New Atlantis on whether elephants have soul. The way elephants behaved with elephants, other animals, and humans was so responsive and heartfelt it actually gave me goosebumps.

These were a few of the sections from the article that made the deepest impression:

“Carol Buckley, co-founder of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a retirement ranch for maltreated veterans of circuses and zoos, describes the arrival of a newcomer to the facility. The fifty-one-year-old Shirley was first introduced to an especially warm resident of long standing named Tarra: “Everyone watched in joy and amazement as Tarra and Shirley intertwined trunks and made ‘purring’ noises at each other. Shirley very deliberately showed Tarra each injury she had sustained at the circus, and Tarra then gently moved her trunk over each injured part.”

What a profound way to bear witness, to let ourself share in another’s pain.

Next is the story of frustration writ large:

Like humans, most traumatized elephants do not become violent, but just absorb their hurts in confusion and sadness and respond to them in other familiar ways. In The Dynasty of Abu (1962), the zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson recounts the story of an elephant named Sadie, who was practicing but failing to learn a circus routine. Finally she gave up and bolted out of the training ring, causing her to be chastised (not cruelly, he stresses) “for her supposed stupidity and for trying to run away.” At this, she dropped to the ground and dumbfounded her trainers by bawling like a human being. “She lay there on her side, the tears streaming down her face and sobs racking her huge body.

If you shoot an animal, you may expect it to make whimpering noises…. That any animal, and especially one weighing 3 tons, should lie down and sob her heart out in pure emotional frustration is something else again. It almost looks as if, despite all that we like to believe, we humans are not the only creatures that possess what we call emotions and higher feelings.”

Reading about Sadie makes me appreciate how poignant our inner struggle for mastery is, no matter our age—or species. Finally, I loved this section on how elephants pay respect to the dead:

Elephants are the only other known creatures that—whatever it may mean to them—purposively commemorate their dead, in a way Joyce Poole calls “eerie and deeply moving”: “It is their silence that is most unsettling. The only sound is the slow blowing of air out of their trunks as they investigate their dead companion. It’s as if even the birds have stopped singing.” Using their trunks and sensitive hind feet, the ones they use for waking up their babies, “they touch the body ever so gently, circling, hovering above, touching again, as if by doing so they are obtaining information that we, with our more limited senses, can never understand. Their movements are in slow motion, and then, in silence, they may cover the dead with leaves and branches. After burying the body in brush and dirt, family members may stay silently with it for over a day; or if a body is found unattended by elephants not related to it, they may pause and stand by for some time. They do this with any dead elephant, recently deceased or long departed with only the skeleton remaining.”

How long do we give our own loved ones the respect of silence, of pause, of standing by and watching over? Amazing how we can learn to be more deeply ourselves through what we consider “different” or “other.”