Elephants, research tells us, are very social and intelligent, insightful, self-aware,[1] capable of a range of emotions, compassionate, and able to use tools and create art. In the wild, they live in extended matriarchal groups with complex networks of individual relationships.[2] When members of their herd die, they grieve and engage in mourning rituals. In fact, dozens of elephants arrived at the home of Lawrence Anthony, the late “elephant whisperer,” to mourn his death and stood in respectful silence for 48 hours before returning home.[3]

They have complex social systems that value the ability to create harmony and problem-solving skills in their leaders over the more traditional traits of aggression and physical dominance.[4] Next to humans, elephants undergo the longest period of learning when young—around 10 years—with mothers teaching their young how to feed themselves, create and use tools, and behave appropriately in the complex, intensely matrilineal society.

While elephants might appear handicapped from a human perspective, they deploy their trunk like an arm in order to use tools and produce abstract art; and they can radically change their behavior to cope with a new challenge. Highly altruistic, they actively aid each other and other species in distress and are predisposed to cooperate if treated with respect.

The intelligence and social culture of elephants is not open to dispute, but still zoos and other “owners” keep single elephants chained to stakes in concrete yards separated forever from their family herd, a practice that would be loudly condemned if perpetuated on humans. In addition, elephants at tourist venues are often subject to cruel training from a young age, controlled with fear and pain so that they’ll perform and take people on their backs.

[1] P. Aldhous, “Elephants See Themselves in the Mirror,” New Scientist (30 Oct 2006).

[2] L. Gruen, “The Moral Status of Animals,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. E. N. Zalta (2012).

[3] R. Kerby, “Wild Elephants Gather Inexplicably, Mourn Death of ‘Elephant Whisperer’,” Beliefnet (2012).

[4]Elephant Personalities Revealed by Scientists,” The Telegraph (19 November 2012); P.C. Lee & C.J. Moss, “Wild Female African Elephants (Loxodonta Africana) Exhibit Personality Traits of Leadership and Social Integration,” Journal of Comparative Psychology 126, no. 3 (August 2012): 224-232.