The Moral Lives of Animals

Inside the hearts and minds of other creatures.

The Good Samaritan Elephants

Do elephants feel compassion?


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In June, 2000, Cornell University bioacoustician Katy Payne spent time sitting on an observation platform at a forest clearing in the Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve of the Central African Republic, watching elephants. These magnificent creatures would emerge from the forest to make regular visits to the mineral-rich mud wallows of the clearing.

Once, a young elephant, weakened by malnutrition, collapsed off to one side of a narrow, sandy trail leading into the clearing. Within a few hours, she had died. Payne and some colleagues on the observation platform witnessed the event and used a telescopic videocamera to document the reactions of elephants as they ambled ponderously to and from the clearing, passing (on day one) a dying and then (day two) dead fellow elephant. Altogether during those two days, passing elephants paid 129 visits to the fallen animal, of which 128 showed some identifiable response.

Most of the elephants began by exploring the body and the area around it, but after that initial exploration, what next? About half the visits ended with a response of fearful avoidance: the elephant backing off, sidling or dashing away. Reasonable. The presence of a striken elephant in an area frequented by poachers could mean danger.

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How remarkable, then, was the behavior shown in nearly a third of the visits. Some 15 percent of the total involved protective behavior: the visiting elephant protecting or guarding the fallen animal from others. And in about 18 percent of the cases, the visiting elephant tried to assist or revive the stricken one: attempting to push or lift her upright, using their feet, trunks, or tusks.

Researchers already had developed a good record of these animals, identifying individuals and charting family and social relationships. Using this information, Payne and colleagues found no correlation between how individuals reacted and their relationship to the stricken elephant. Strangers were as likely to try defending or rescuing her as relatives or close acquaintances. This, then, could be a case of spontaneous kindess (or pure altruism): elephants trying to assist a fellow elephant in trouble, without a nepotistic bias or the anticipation of some reciprocated benefit in the future.

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It reminds me of the Good Samaritan parable. To refresh your memory: A man traveling on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho is set upon by robbers, who take everything he has, strip him naked, beat him, and leave him to die. As the victim lies there, dirty, naked, bleeding, helpless, dying, three travelers pass by.

When the first traveler sees the unfortunate victim lying there, he hastily crosses to the other side of the road and continues on his way. The second traveler also quickly moves to the far side of the road and hastens away. These are honorable men, and their behavior seems reasonable. Perhaps they are worried about the presence of thieves. The third person to travel along this road is a Samaritan, a member of that despised sect of apostate Jews who have developed their own version of the Torah. What would a Samaritan know about personal ethics? When this man sees the robbers' unfortunate victim, however, he stops and attends to him. Washes the man's wounds with wine and soothing oils. Wraps them with bandages. Places the man onto the back of his own pack animal and transports him to a nearby inn. The Good Samaritan then pays for the victim's lodging.

This didactic tale provokes us to consider our duty to our neighbor. Our duty is to behave not like the two respectable men but rather to emulate the third one, the Samaritan, who in his actions dramatized one of the central ethical principles of Christian teaching, which is to practice radical kindness: to "love . . . your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10: 27).

People often think of morality as something received-either handed down by a wise deity or inculcated through the workings of culture. But the Good Samaritan story does not suggest that the kind traveler had received a special code of ethics that the other two men had not been exposed to. Instead, it suggests that the Samaritan resisted his own fear in order to follow a second impulse that-in my modern English translation-is called "compassion." All three men may have already possessed these two inclinations or emotional complexes. Two found their compassion overcome by fear. The third overcame his fear in order to respond compassionately.

This parable may provide an explanation for the contrary behaviors exhibited by those elephants who, walking along the Dzanga-Sangha trail, discovered a fellow elephant in trouble. Most of them did the sensible thing, which was to listen to their fear. Some of them did the less sensible thing, which was to respond with compassion.

 

Dale Peterson, Ph.D., has written nearly a dozen books about conservation, natural history, and animal science and scientists.

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