On this Mother’s Day morning, I’ve been thinking about all of th gifts in my life, in particular the family that I was blessed to grow up within and the unwavering support from both of my parents. We are a species that are long-lived, intelligent, social, and family oriented; a mother’s love is paramount in our nurturing.
Elephants are no different, with the exception that I would argue that they are more intelligent, more social, their families are profoundly more vital to their development and their emotional fortitude is infinitely more diverse and acute. This is not just lip service to promote elephants; their understanding of life and of each other in a way that humans can only strive for frequently humbles us.
Consider the natural order of elephant family, females living within their family for their entire lives, surrounded by the unwavering love of their sisters, aunts, moms and daughters. Males feel this same love as they mature for up to the first 15 formidable years of their lives. A mother’s love for her child is just as vital to the development of an elephant’s emotional development as it is with humans.
This family dynamic, and the role of nurturing with emotional development is well documented, it has been studied and scientifically accepted for years, yet elephants are still stolen from their families at infancy. Considering that the vast majority of elephants in captivity, over 80%, are wild caught, most were crated and sent off to live in solitude or with one other infant, most less than 3 years old, isolated from the love of their mothers, aunts and sisters. Their formidable years were spent on chains performing on circus or in a sterile enclosure at a zoo with little stimuli and virtually no emotional support. It is clear to see the dramatic effect this has on their lives and development, they don’t have proper social skills, some aren’t comfortable being nurtured or nurturing, for others physical touch causes them to freeze with fear or pull away to protect themselves.
As humans, you would think that we would learn from this, take captive breeding as an example. You would think that we would create scenarios where calves could live with their mothers for life if they were a female and until puberty for a male, but still even today calves are being taken away at 2 and 3 years old being sent to other zoos, some with incredibly dysfunctional herds or being sent out on the road to travel with performing circuses. The question remains when will humans learn, when will we start to do what is right for the animals not what has the greatest impact on our wallets.
The impact of our actions goes well beyond those that were captured and taken away from their families, what about the mothers, those that watched their calves hauled away tethered and screaming. I’ve always wondered if they feel like they failed in protecting their families and how has this changed these individuals and their herds. We know based on recent studies that poaching is having a potentially devastating effect on social function of herds, with older elephants being poached, younger, less knowledgeable elephants are leading the herds. Right now, we don’t know where their inexperience will lead, but we do know that this has to end, for their society and their future. Humans are impacting the world around us in ways that we are still ignorant to, it is not just the lives of those killed or those taken away that are impacted, we’re fragmenting and causing a destructive evolution of who elephants truly are.
We owe it to all of them to change our ways, to honor and protect all species and to do what we can to support those that grew up without their moms, to give them an opportunity to feel unconditional love, to feel what it means to be trusted and to learn to trust, providing the space to heal and learn to nurture and to be nurtured. We know that sanctuary can never replace what was taken away from them so many years ago, we can’t recreate their childhood but we can provide the space and compassion to help them heal and experience a taste of what their lives should have been. And we can create opportunities to positively impact the future of wild herds, by not supporting with the use of captive elephants in tourism and entertainment, not purchasing ivory and choosing to share the message for a compassionate future where we respect the lives of other species as much as we do our own.
On this Mother’s Day, as we reflect on all that we’ve been given out of life, we also look for ways to give back, to pass on the love and kindness that we’ve been showered with and vow to do what we can to give those that we as a collective of humans have sacrificed, a second chance to live and love.
Mom, thank you for showing me how to love and be loved.