Thirty-Three Ways of Looking at an Elephant

A new book offers fascinating views about these magnificent beings.

Posted Oct 19, 2020

Sponchia, Pixabay free download
Source: Sponchia, Pixabay free download

Elephants are fascinating intelligent and emotional beings. In his seminal new book, called Thirty-Three Ways of Looking at an Elephant, award-winning author Dale Peterson offers a collection of "thirty-three essential writings about elephants from across history, with geographical perspectives ranging from Africa and Southeast Asia to Europe and the United States."1 This wide-ranging book is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about these magnificent beings and human-nonhuman relationships in general. Here's what Dale had to say about Thirty-Three Ways of Looking at an Elephant. 

Marc Bekoff: Why did you compile Thirty-Three Ways of Looking at an Elephant?

Dale Peterson: I have always been amazed and fascinated by elephants, at least in the abstract, but starting about 10 years ago I had the opportunity to get to know them up close. 

Trinity University Press, with permission
Source: Trinity University Press, with permission

The opportunity came in the form of a book contract I was given to write the text for a photographic coffee-table style book, and so I traveled with the photographer to see and photograph elephants of all three species: Asian, African savanna, and African forest in Asia and Africa. In Myanmar, we traveled into the mountainous teak forests of the northwest to learn about elephants at work in the logging industry, doing amazing things with massive boles of teak in places where machines couldn't go—and there I saw elephants intimately and close-up. I learned that an elephant's tongue is approximately the size and texture of a softball catcher's mitt. I learned that elephants can climb in perilously steep and high and narrow places, and that when one foot slips and gives way, there are still three feet left. And I learned that when a baby elephant is hungry and wants to nurse, everything else stops. Babies come first. Always. Babies are at the center of elephant society, which is powerfully matriarchal. That direct learning in Asia and then Africa changed my original, intuitive fascination with elephants into something more visceral, something I will call "love." I love elephants. 

But writing the text for that photographic book also required me to know about elephants historically, culturally, scientifically, and ethically, which led me to do the library research. Ultimately, I became familiar with what I believe to be virtually the entire body of essential writing about elephants. 

Given that I love elephants, and given that they are now in danger of disappearing from this planet almost entirely as a result of the unprecedented human population explosion combined with human greed and folly (e.g., the strange taste of our own species for the pretty, pretty teeth of elephants), I felt a great urgency to encapsulate that essential library of elephant knowledge. Thirty-three Way of Looking at an Elephant is the result. 

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

DP: Earning a Ph.D. in English, I like to imagine, helped turn me into someone capable of making reasonable assessments about literature and writing: to distinguish the good from the bad. In encapsulating the essential library of elephant knowledge, I have tried to make judgements that are not only historical, cultural, scientific, and ethical but also, to a degree, literary. In other words, I have looked for passages that can stand alone as writing that engages the reader. My general interest in animals and conservation, and my previous travels in Africa and Asia to find and write about primates, have also provided useful background for this book on elephants. 

MB: Who is your intended audience?

DP: This book is intended for general readers who are interested in elephants. At the same time, its great sweep—across history, geography, and culture; and its review of the basic science and of the variety of human uses and abuses of these animals—should make it essential reading for conservationists, scholars, and scientists. 

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?  

DP: The topics include: 

  • Traditional African folk tales from across the continent
  • Ancient Indian religious lore 
  • Classical European writings, including Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and an account of Alexander the Great's discovery of how elephants can be used in war
  • Medieval European religious mythology 
  • Colonial European hunters' tales
  • North American circus literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • Southeast Asian practical writings on the capture, training, and employment of elephants for logging                            
  • First scientific reports from the field, mid-twentieth century 
  • Later scientific work from the field and in zoos
  • First-hand accounts suggesting elephant intelligence, social complexity, and emotional sensitivity
  • Animal rights and protest writing concerning American circus elephants, Indian tourist elephants; and the ivory trade in Catholic devotional items in the Philippines and the Vatican
  • A novel from Vietnam for young readers; a children's book set in Japan during World War II

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with these amazing beings and some of the same general topics? 

DP: There are plenty of interesting books about elephants out there, and if you would like to find one that includes many great photographs, try my Elephant Reflections, with photographs by Karl Ammann. If you want to know more about elephants, from Aristotle to the present, try Thirty-three Ways of Looking at an Elephant. It is unique. There is no comparable survey of the world's literature on elephants.

MB: What are some of your current projects?

DP: Currently, I am circulating a proposal to write the story of a prosperous American family who left America in the middle of the twentieth century—not long after the dropping of the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending World War II—to find simplicity, peace, and adventure among the "Bushmen" (the Ju/hoansi) in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa. I am also working on a novel. 



1) Dale Peterson is the author or editor of twenty-one books touching a wide variety of subjects, including anthropology, art, computers, conservation, education, literature, natural history, psychiatry, and travel. Animals and nature are his passion, however, and he has traveled extensively in Africa in pursuit of primates, giraffes, and elephants. He also wrote the "definitive" biography of famed primatologist Jane Goodall. A former Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Dale holds a PhD in English Literature and has taught English for many years at Tufts University.