Do Elephants Mourn?


Even the most vocal critic of American schooling must concede the following: our nation’s youngsters emerge with a deep, useless appreciation of elephants. Take any kindergartener and ask him, in a leading way and with lots of nodding, “Aren’t elephants very intelligent animals?” He will surely agree with you. This may not seem impressive, but keep in mind that the other noteworthy thing about kindergarteners is that they enjoy playing with mud.


And so, by graduation, every good American knows that elephants are sensitive creatures who mourn their dead. Things that Americans do not know include math, science, and politics. Everyone has a pretty good handle on the elephant factoid, though. In a hypothetical scenario where an alien race threatens to decimate us unless we can regale them with an interesting piece of trivia about elephants, I think we would be OK.


But is it true? Do elephants grieve for other elephants? In a fortunate and surprising twist, which is a good kind of twist with which to impress a reader, I was recently in a position to witness, simultaneously, some elephants mourning an elephant, and some humans mourning a human. I won’t get into the story of how I came to be in such a position, but needless to say it is composed of a series of lies. Here, unaltered, are the observations I recorded:


5 minutes—

-Humans: A female relative of the deceased is reading a stirring eulogy. Many of the others are crying, perhaps due to sadness.


-Elephants: The elephants are standing around.


1 hour—

-Humans: Everyone is hugging each other. A man tells a witty anecdote about the deceased—apparently, he was constantly losing his glasses. Everyone laughs a little too hard.


-Elephants: The elephants are standing around. One of them eats some grass.


2 hours—

-Humans: Someone announces that this is not a mourning of so-and-so’s death, but rather a celebration of his life. This is a signal that everyone can now move to the buffet line.


-Elephants: The son of the deceased discovers the pleasure of rubbing one’s body against a tree.


Conclusion? Well, before I offer my own opinion, let me first repeat a cliché: “everyone grieves in their own way.” This saying is attributed to a man named Boris Greeley, who grieved by making fart noises with his mouth. Everyone else in history has grieved by crying.


Now, do elephants mourn? I tread carefully here because many people, particularly elephant scientists with degrees in elephant science, have strong opinions about this. And, I should add, elephants have a lot to be proud of no matter what. They are very big, for example, and they eat 300-600 pounds of food every day, which is a kind of moral victory if you have a grudge against food for some reason. Nevertheless, my research suggests that elephants do not actually mourn their dead. “But that’s just your personal opinion!” you will protest, annoyingly. Granted. Therefore, I propose a postulate: If you can produce dung while it’s happening, it’s not mourning.