It is a special day, the New Year. Ty and Got decided that we should have a celebration with the elephants. We decorated their yards with items from their daily meal, with some extra bananas to spell out Happy New Year in English, although I ponder if the elephants can read English because we are in Thailand. I am at an elephant sanctuary where three aging female elephants live and I have learned, among many other things, that caring for elephants is an enormous amount of work. This afternoon we came down from the hillside where we were cutting sugar cane stalks for their meal. I have become competent at using a machete for this purpose, which is hard physical labor. Now we are waiting for the elephants to return with their handlers. The trio will soon move up the sandy trail that leads to their enclosures where they spend each night. First, we will see their grey heads bob up and down with each step, before the rest of their big bodies come into view above the rise.

Ty and Got work here, Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES), and treat the elephants with a great deal of affection. Of course, the only reason that elephants need humans is that they are not allowed to fend for themselves, as the wild land that could support them is perpetually diminishing. Today we are not thinking about that, the plight that has required elephants everywhere to depend on humans to secure their futures. We are excited to share the New Year with Mae Dok, Mae Kam, and Tong Dee, the three elephants who live there.

The edible decorations are ready for their arrival. It sort of feels like having a birthday party for a dog. Maybe she does not know it is the anniversary of her birth, but she likes the cake and the attention. In fact, multiple people who work with elephants in Asia have told me that elephants are “like dogs” in disposition. They have affable temperaments and seem to feel rewarded by human attention. This might be the worst downfall of elephants.

Dogs have a physical connection with their human companions. They can detect emotional stress. There are also reports of synchronization of dog and dog-parent heartbeats. When I come into the room and sit down next to my dog, I can feel his breathing change, it slows and deepens. I am also sure that when the elephants return today, they will sense our excitement, which has physical tell-tale signs such as heart rate changes or hormone release. In this way, we are the ones like dogs, happy when they come home. Elephants live by hearing, scent, and a palpable sensation of vibration and movement within their surroundings. They can recognize physiologic changes in each other. Can’t they feel it in us?

Elephants don’t see well. Their vision is better for contrasts than color. They also don’t have much binocular overlap; their eyes are set far apart and to the side. Prey, not predator. They don’t see in much detail. If you were standing in front of Mae Kam, she would either have to cock her head and give you a side-eye or lift her head up and point her eyes down in order to see you, neither of which she would do. Her nose is at the end of her trunk. If she wanted to see you in her elephant way, seeing mostly without vision, she might start with her trunk tip in your face. Then, like a dog, she would move to the smelliest parts of you for the best information.

It is hard to quantify sense of smell. What an animal can perceive depends on the distance away, strength of scent, interference from other smells, and other components of the air. Elephant lore describes an animal that can smell food or a snake in the grass from a mile away and that their ability to pick up a scent is 5,000 times more sensitive than a bloodhound.

Mae Kam also has special vibration sensing cells in her trunk tip (and her feet). She could feel the cycle of your breaths and your heartbeat. Could she feel your fear?

For humans, who are so dependent on vision, it is hard to imagine living in a world of sound, scent, and vibration. Things that are salient to human animals may be irrelevant to an elephant. I’ve tried to feel the world around me as an elephant, with nose-in-hand at the end of my arm, actively reaching out to inspect and assess, rather than more passively seeking information with my eyes. I always end up frustrated that I can’t begin to comprehend how they know the world. We can study the anatomy of their physical selves. We can study how they respond to things, but we cannot know how they feel or put sensory information together.

Elephants are important in Thailand as religious and cultural symbols. At the sanctuary, the relationship of elephants and people is much more personal. The elephants here are not symbols of anything. They are individuals, known by their preferences and personalities. In addition to simple affection, caring for the elephants here is a way to honor their time spent in the service of humans. These three females, in their sixth and seventh decades, have spent their lives working in logging and the tourism industry. The economy of Thailand has depended on elephants for physical labor and entertainment for many years.

The elephants here no longer serve or entertain. Guests are not allowed to touch them. The trio of retired elephants is allowed to live out their lives with as much autonomy as possible. Every day as they walk through the forest, they decide where to go and what to eat. Every night they return home, so they don’t get into the neighbor’s fields. It is the best that can be done for them. What would they ask of us if they could?

I was sitting on the bank of the river watching Mae Dok and Mae Kam walk through the water. They had been taking a bath, playing in the river, submerging, blowing bubbles, spraying themselves. Mae Dok lay down on her side with her right foot sticking up and out of the water so that only the soft fleshy part of her foot could be seen. Mae Kam was more active, splashing and swimming. They finally decided to head back; but part of the way to the spot where they could climb out, Mae Kam got other ideas and turned to go the other way, across to the opposite side of the river. Her handler stood on the bank and talked to her in a stern voice, telling her to come back. She stopped and thought about it briefly and then continued towards the opposite bank. He called to her again. After some consideration she gave in and came back to him, no chains or physical force required.

Mae Kam is the cheeky one, often pushing her boundaries. One day I was eating near the river when she was nearby. I was mindful of her presence but paying more attention to my lunch when I became aware that she was moving directly towards me at a pace I hadn’t expected. I got up and moved away quickly. Mae Kam’s handler spoke to her in his well-practiced, firm tone. She stopped, but I got the impression both that she found it quite funny and that it wasn’t her first time giving someone the bum’s rush.

Aner is a gentle man who has been caring for elephants since he was young. He told me that Mae Kam was mother to two bull calves. One was stillborn and the other was bitten by a snake and died when he was little. No wonder she is grumpy. The mother-child attachment is a fundamental part of elephant life, with near-total dependence of child on mom for the first couple of years. Even bulls who will someday forge out on their own stay with their mothers until the teenage years. That connection is about much more than access to milk or protection. It is about teaching and nurturing.

The Thai people use a phrase in English, “same, same, but different.” It is a playful phrase based on a Thai expression for saying that two things are similar, which I think is an apt description of the inner lives of humans and elephants. People who spend their lives with elephants argue that they possess an emotional repertoire very similar to humans. By action, they clearly experience joy, fear, grief, love, impatience, and frustration.

Elephants have long been known to grieve for their companions, elephant or otherwise. Behavior around the death of a loved one, elephant or human, looks similar. As an elephant dies, others may linger with her. They may back up to her body and gently touch it with the vibration sensors in their feet—probably feeling for signs of life. The loss can be devastating; elephants grieve obviously and deeply. In fact, when elephants experience a separation or loss of a friend or family member, they may suddenly die.

There is a rare condition in humans called Takotsubo syndrome which is a weakening or stunning of the muscles of the heart. It occurs after an event of extreme stress, such as a death of a loved one. In severe cases, it can be fatal. When elephants die after a loss, it may be that they are experiencing something like this, indicating their very real capacity for anguish, or at least emotional shock, when one of those changes occurs. Elephant keepers refer to this as dying from a broken heart.

When elephants die of a broken heart, what conclusions can we make about what they feel? Author Eric Scigliano wrote that elephants “resemble (perhaps even surpass) us on the depth of their familial attachments and affective communications.” Can an animal really love more deeply than we do? And if an animal has an understanding of death, must it have a sense of self?

Elephants’ seeming understanding of death can be disturbing for people who argue for an ontological distinction between human and more-than-human. Or it isn’t disturbing at all; they simply dismiss it as meaningless anthropomorphism. My fear of anthropomorphism is not that we are going to give animals credit for abilities that they do not possess but that by emphasizing human-like qualities we fail to appreciate who they truly are. Animals do not need to be like us to be worthy of existence. For this reason, I have to think twice about comparing the inner lives of humans and elephants. But the similarities seem to help people find meaning in what we observe in animals. There is a same, but different, reason I avoid writing about the importance of animals for maintaining the ecosystems that sustain human life. The importance of animals is not about us: what they can teach us about ourselves or what they do to keep our planet livable should not be their source of value. They have inherent value as living beings. The variety of life on this earth is what makes it a place worth living.

To claim objectivity, science has traditionally erred on the side of seeing animals as simplistic, but this started to change when Jane Goodall named chimpanzees in the forests of Gombe. Over the last few decades, the emotional lives of animals have become legitimate scientific inquiry. Edward Wilson wrote of biophilia, the natural connection of humans and other species. He claimed that our sense of wonder grows exponentially: the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery. Wilson believed that answers to problems of ethics in ecology are in exploration and study of the natural world. “To the degree that we come to understand other organisms, we will place a greater value on them, and on ourselves,” the more we know about animals, the less likely we are to treat them as “disposable.”

As science has changed from characterizing animals as simplistic organisms without thought or emotion to acknowledging them as sentient beings with consciousness and volition, they have indeed grown in mystery. We can begin to appreciate animals’ emotional lives as their own. We are allowed to marvel at the individual character of elephants and at their remarkable, mysterious existence. Instead of seeing them as entertainers or abstract symbols of the sacred, we can acknowledge that they are simply elephants, amazing and real.




Scigliano, E. (2002). Love, War, and Circuses: The Age-Old Relationship between Elephants and Humans. Bloomsbury, London.

Wilson, E.O. (1986). Biophilia. Harvard University Press.