As human beings, we have in the past had an infamously difficult time empathizing with animals. This is particularly true in Western culture. But, as we learn more about the animals we share the planet with, we further our understanding of their emotional intelligence and begin to see that they experience the same emotions as we do from joy through to despair.
One baby elephant called Zhang Zhuang, in the Shendiaoshan Wild Animal Natural Reserve, China, has shown the world the depth of emotion that these intelligent animals can have when he cried after his mother rejected him.
Zhang Zhuang’s story
The birth of an elephant in captivity is a rare occurrence and is a major event for the zoo or reserve responsible. In the case of Zhang Zhuang, the celebrations were cut short when his mother seemed to accidentally trample on him, and he had to be recovered from the enclosure. Assuming that the mother had just made a mistake, Zhang Zhuang was treated for minor injuries and then released back into the paddock with his mother.
What the keepers saw next was utterly terrifying. As Zhang Zhuang stood near his mother, she began intentionally trying to trample on him, in an apparent attempt to kill him. The keepers quickly acted to remove him from his mother but in spite of their best efforts to comfort him the little elephant was completely distraught.
It was at this point when he was lying down outside of the enclosure that Zhang Zhuang began to cry, and he didn’t stop for five hours. The rejection by his mother appeared to have broken his heart and the comforting touch of the keeper’s hands was no substitute for his mother’s.
Can animals cry?
Whether animals cry has been a subject of fierce debate in the scientific community for some years. Physically most mammals have the capacity to produce tears to keep their eyes hydrated. However, it is whether they do so as an emotional response in the way that human beings do that is the hot topic.
Elephants are widely considered as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet and, alongside apes, have been observed to respond to situations on a similar emotional plane to human beings. Even the father of modern biological thought, Charles Darwin, saw the emotional intelligence of elephants over 100 years ago. In his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he wrote about an elephant he had spent time watching; ‘when overpowered and made fast, his grief was most affecting; his violence sank to utter prostration, and he lay on the ground, uttering choking cries, with tears trickling down his cheeks.’
Darwin’s observation is more anecdotal than serious scientific research. However, Marc Bekoff believes that the body of evidence increasingly shows that some intelligent animals do produce tears as an emotional response. Bekoff writes, ‘available information supports the view that other animals do cry and weep and that they can be closely associated with various emotions, including, perhaps most likely, sadness and grief that are associated with loss.’
Zhang Zhuang Now
It has been three years since Zhang Zhuang was rejected by his mother and shed those painful tears that reopened the debate about an animal’s ability to experience emotional pain. His difficult start to life also opened up the discussion about the mental effects of captivity on perceptive animals like elephants, due to his mother’s unnatural behavior.
Thankfully, after the tears had rolled away he quickly bonded with one of the keepers who has raised him to be a happy and healthy little elephant. His story ends happily, and his ability to move on from a heartbreaking start can serve as an example to all of us, especially if we finally begin to accept that animals think and feel just like us.