What we can learn from animals…

Lives of animals are fascinating. There is much we can learn from them. First and foremost we must remember that we are animals too. The big difference between us and other animals is that unlike us they don’t seem to function from notions in their head. Their lives are grounded and they live in the here and now. They don’t seem to have ideologies to aspire and live by. They just live. From this point of view there is an immediacy to their lives. When they are doing something they are doing it with all their being. However, often this is confused with animals not being able to think; that Humans are the only thinking animals. However, this has been proven wrong by a lot of research and writing. Animals need to think all the time. They need to make choices. They need to think like which route to migrate in, which partner to choose, where to build a nest or choose a den, when to hide, when to run, when to stay and fight, whether to challenge a competitor or accommodate, how to function effectively in habitats being made smaller by humans all the time, how to recognise human traps and guns and to avoid them? They are constantly learning and finding ways to survive. In recent times, the most fascinating writing on this subject is by Dr. Carl Safina. Much of this article will be drawn from his book, “Beyond words – What animals feel and think”.

The gentle giant – Elephants

First of all, it is a matriarchal system with a grandmother leading the herd. All the adult females stay in this family group along with babies and adolescents. The male elephants leave the group to live independent lives once they reach young adulthood and only return for brief periods to mate. The bonding between the rest of the group is strong and lifelong. While the bonding between the mother and the child is very strong, the baby elephant has a number of aunts to provide care and affection. The babies are never alone and are constantly stroked, cuddled and taken care of. “Young elephants usually remain within one body length of a family member for the first five years of life”, says a researcher. The baby can suckle milk not just from the mother but also from her aunts. There are a number of play-mates available through their life. Says Carl Safina,”When the baby falls or gets stuck, or is pushed or bullied, young females rush so avidly to a baby’s aid that they often get in the way of its own mother. Experienced mothers often simply let the younger females deal with it.” If a baby falls or feels scared or expresses distress, the mother immediately utters a special vocalisation that helps provide deep reassurance. Friendships between herd members and even between different herds can be really deep and have been recorded to last over 60 years!

There is also an education system being followed by elephants. They travel long distances every year moving in certain fixed corridors. These routes are imprinted in the minds of the entire group. However, in extreme drought years the group relies on the memory of the oldest surviving matriarch to lead them to water sources which may not be known to the group. She will remember a distant source off the normal route which she had gone to during the previous drought. She will remember regions of conflict and avoid them even if succulent fruits are available there, and so on.

A touching feature of elephants often seen during their travel is their mourning of their deceased ones. When they come across the remains of a dead relative or the spot where the elephant died, they will stand together mourning. An elephant researcher in Amboseli national park spoke of the family members of a wonderful matriarch called Tuskless who had died and whose jawbone was lying in the research camp. “When her family members found her jaw bone, they all spent time with it and they all touched it and then they moved on, except one. After others left, one stayed for a long time, stroking the jaw with his trunk, fondling it, turning it. He was the seven year old son of the matriarch. Was he remembering her voice, imagining her scent, hearing her voice, thinking about her touch?” In wildlife film-maker Shekar Dattatri’s film on Nagarhole national park, there is a moving scene where a young elephant succumbs to lack of food in a drought year. The entire herd stays around the dead baby mourning. After a few hours one by one they slowly, sadly move away, drawn by hunger and thirst. But the mother stays three whole days, chasing away crows and other animals which come to feed on the baby. Her sorrow and anguish is so clearly visible. Only after three days unable to stay longer she moves on to join the group.

Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who has half a century’s experience with orphan elephants says, “to understand an elephant one must be ‘anthropomorphic’*, because elephants are emotionally identical to ourselves. They grieve and mourn the loss of a loved one just as deeply as do we, and their capacity for love is humbling”. The story of the elephant is the story of love, care, empathy and the wonderful role of the matriarch.

A fearsome carnivore

In human mythology and culture, and even in stories for children, wolves are represented as fearsome, and evil, bloodthirsty predators. Modern humans know very little about wolves, having obliterated them from most habitats. If there is a memory at all tucked away deep in the recesses of the human mind, it will be of a fearsome creature, ferocious, independent and a fearsome hunter. Wolves are all that and more. An important part of their lives is being social and child care is an important aspect of a wolf’s life. Says Safina, “Pups stay with their parents for several years. Older children help care for the young ones while maturing into young adulthood, creating multigenerational groups. Adults take turns hunting, bringing back food, playing with pups, and enduring mock ambushes and having their tails yanked by some of the world’s most playful, insistent youngsters.” New wolf mothers nurse and guard constantly; they rely on pack members for food. Several members will provide child care, including all the adult sisters of the mother wolf.

Like humans, even in animals there are personalities, be it wolves or elephants. Some are more patient and peace loving while some are more aggressive. The personality of the matriarch, in the elephant herd, decides the quality of life in the herd.

The Orca in its watery world

Carl Safina talks about the lives of killer whales or orcas. Here too researchers have spent decades studying them. It turns out that there isn’t just one species here called Killer whales. There are many sub-species of killer whale, some hunting seals, some feeding on fish and so on.

Here too as with elephants, the basic social unit is a family lead by a senior female matriarch with her children and her daughters’ children. The big difference is that ‘although young male elephants leave their family as they mature, male killer whales stay in their birth family, for their entire life.’ Mother-child bonds remain extremely strong and are lifelong. And in fact in no other known creature do all children – daughters and sons – stay with their mother for the duration of her life. As with elephants, each killer whale family’s elder decision making matriarch has memorized the families survival manual, maintaining knowledge of the region, the routes and island passes, the rivers where salmons concentrate in the season and so on. She is often out in front making evaluative decisions.

In Killer whale societies, grandmothers provide care to their grandchildren by providing them with nourishment and other forms of care. When a mother dies young, the grandmother takes on motherly duties and the elder siblings also take care by chewing on food and giving small portions to the young ones. Killer whales birthing is a community affair. Right after birth, multiple females often help to bring a newborn to the surface for its first breath.

While in Whales and Elephants the bonding is life long, in other animals like tigers and leopards, the relationship between parent and children, lasts only till they reach independence. While the children are with them such species, will do all they can to ensure that their child grows healthy and strong and showers love and affection upon them and once they are ready to move on, they are able to move on and let them lead their own lives. The ability to separate themselves from their children is also a remarkable trait. We, humans, often tend to control our children long after they have reached independent status. While love and affection is always a welcome thing, being monitored and controlled is not.

One of the obvious patterns/themes running across the above examples are the role of the extended family. In case of humans, due to a variety of reasons, circumstantial and willful, we have moved into more and more nuclear families. It has been observed that in many cases, the nuclear family arrangement puts a lot of burden on parents as the children are mostly dependent on parental care with no other back up. We, as humans, might need to put in fresh efforts to understand the old saying that says “it takes a village to bring up a child”.

Above all, the important thing is to recognize how similar to them we are. To recognize that they have families, friendships and bonding and that they love their young ones as we do and suffer when separated from their families. For most humans though, they are ‘mere animals’ who can be treated like they don’t have feelings at all. From animals that we depend on in our lives like cattle to animals in the forest we ill-treat them all uniformly. I sincerely, hope this perception changes before we wipe out all the non-human life on this planet.

* Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology)

Arun is a Naturalist / conservationist involved in turtle conservation for more than 20 years and afforestation for 10 years. Founder/ teacher in Marudam school before which he worked with The School (KFI) , Chennai as a teacher.