Elephant Lessons 6/14/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Elephants are amazing. Have you ever seen videos (or been blessed enough to experience it firsthand) of baby elephants playing with humans? They are SO sweet, and far more intelligent than many people think. They have developed their own burial ground and seem to seek it when instinctively when their time is near and have a sort of ritual with the tusks of elephant skeletal remains that is strongly reminiscent of mourning. Parent elephants are extremely protective of their babies, helping them if they get stuck, and amazing videos have been captured of them even risking their own lives to save their offspring. Recent brain activity scans seem to indicate that elephants think about the same thing about us as we think of them, namely, they tend to think that we are “cute”. I mean, seriously, how cool is that?

In return, we tend to treat them with great cruelty. This is not really about that; I’ll get to the point of the blog soon enough, but I would be negligent in my post if I failed to mention how humans have treated elephants in return for their friendship with us. They have been hunted to near extinction for nothing but their tusks, an ironic twist of irony since no doubt their tusks were supposed to protect them. They have been used for physical labor, with stories of elephants injected with heroin to increase rate of work and how long before rest periods they need. The irony here is that, when deemed too old to continue working, those involved in this practice simply stop injecting them leading to withdraw symptoms. These elephants going through withdraw are known to become violent and highly destructive.

In this nation, elephants are brought in for zoos and circuses. We’re getting better, but in zoos the trainers used to rely on pain (a cattle prod as I understand it) to teach them tricks. Apparently, this practice has been banned and humane methods are used in elephant training. I truly hope elephants are no longer being captured and brought into the country, but I don’t really begrudge keeping elephants that were either born into captivity or that have been away from their home for too long. I’m guessing that these elephants, if returned to their native land, would be as helpless without their human keepers as we would be if we were to be suddenly transported to another continent that has no grocery stores and forced to forage for ourselves.

Have you seen elephants in a circus, held in place with a rope on its hind leg? Have you ever looked at one of these gentle giants and think to yourself that with a relatively minor tug of its incredible strength it could easily free itself? You would be right. The elephant has more than enough strength to either break the rope or pull out the peg in the ground, depending on which one gives first. And yet, the elephant won’t do it. The elephant, instead, stands, gently swaying, waiting for its humans to come with the next task, treat, meal or bath.

This is a learned behavior. Just like humans, in their youth, elephants have but a fraction of the strength they will eventually wield. These young elephants are held in place with a rope, you guessed it, on its rear leg. As babies, these elephants, as human children will do, test their boundaries. They’ll pull on the ropes, struggling to free themselves. I’m assuming they don’t physically harm themselves in the attempt, but they do learn the futility of the effort. As adults, elephants do not test these ropes because they’ve learned their lesson, as babies, that it is an exercise of futility. They legs and feet are very sensitive, much like our feet, which is how they can “step” on trainer’s heads without crushing them like grapes. They feel the head on their pads and let up. When tied as adult elephants, you’ll see them periodically walk and pull gently on the rope. This reminds them that the are indeed restrained with that rope and remember there is no use in challenging it.

I know that I carry this rope tied to my ankle as well. Lessons, and self-doubt left over from childhood hold me to my behaviors, and my own self-doubts. I know this is probably one of my most irritating flaws, and I’ve no doubt that my friends can become quite irate at my stubborn insistence of low self-worth. I learned as a child that I have no real value, that my opinion means nothing and that I will amount to nothing, and those lessons I carry with me today. They weigh me down and keep me from wanting to try. It’s nothing more than sheer will that has allowed me to accomplish what I have, will that has been tattered and bruised and not nearly as effective as it has been.

I guess we all have these proverbial ropes around our ankles. The secret is to find them. Just as it must be difficult for an elephant to see its own ropes because of the shape of its body, it’s equally difficult for us to see our ropes as well. But seeing them is just the start. Once identified, we must learn that they only hold power over us if we believe it has such.

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