Expert Voices

Do Elephants Weep as an Emotional Response? (Op-Ed)

Asian elephant calf
(Image credit: DNP-Government of Thailand/WCS Thailand Program.)

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This essay is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

A recent newspaper article called "Elephant tears: Newborn weeps after being parted from mother who tried to kill him" reports about a newborn male elephant who "cried for five hours without stopping after he was rejected by his mother."

This story immediately made me think of the book When Elephants Weep (Delta, 1996), which helped to open the door to people taking the emotional lives of animals more seriously than they previously had.

I've been studying various aspects of animal behavior and animal emotions for more than four decades, and have published numerous books and essays about these areas of inquiry, so the story about the weeping elephant resulted in my receiving a number of emails and also in doing an interview with Discovery News.

My approach to, and take on, this story, is fairly straightforward. I did a Google search for topics including "Do/can elephants weep?", "Do/can elephants cry?", "Do/can animals weep?", and "Do/can animals cry?" and found some very interesting answers that ranged all over the place from "Sure they do" to "Probably they do", to "No, they don't" I also looked for various positions on whether or not crying/weeping were associated with various emotions as they are in human animals.

In a nutshell, available information supports the view that other animals do cry and weep and that they can be closely associated with various emotions, including, perhaps most likely, sadness and grief that are associated with loss. Of course, crying or weeping may be more hard-wired, in the recent case with the infant elephant responding to a loss of much-needed touch or what is also called "contact comfort" offered by his mother.

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One worker quoted in the above article noted, "The calf was very upset and he was crying for five hours before he could be consoled." Humans did try to calm him down but their touch is not the same as another elephant's, and of course there could also be visual and olfactory components associated with the potpourri of contact comfort.

So, while scientists are not 100-percent certain, solid scientific research supports the view that elephants and other nonhuman animals weep as part of an emotional response. Rather than dismissing this possibility as merely storytelling, we need to study it in more detail. After all, "the plural of anecdote is data" and stories and citizen science can and should motivate rigorous scientific research. And, let's not forget that many "surprises" have been discovered in the emotional lives of animals, including laughing rats and dogs and empathic chickens, mice and rats — all published in outstanding peer-reviewed professional journals.

At one website called "Do elephants cry?" I found the following quote: "However, we do not know what emotions elephants feel, if any, in the same manner that we do not necessarily know for sure what emotions other people feel. This is simply because we cannot measure emotions, we can only experience them. As a result, science cannot say whether elephants experience emotions, whether other people experience emotions, or what these emotions are like. This is because science requires that we be able to measure something in order to draw any conclusions about it."

I couldn't find the date this answer was posted but it surely does not reflect current or even recent ideas about the study of human and nonhuman emotions. For example, you can read excellent examples of recent work in such books as "Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans" (Atria Books, 2013) and "Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures" (Crown, 2013)

As with many other aspects of the cognitive and emotional lives of animals, it turns out that we are not alone, and that human exceptionalism is more a myth than a fact. So, I offer that we are not the only animals who cry or weep as an emotional response, though I look forward to more research on this topic.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "'The Smile of a Dolphin,' Banned in Texas." This article was adapted from "Do Elephants Weep as an Emotional Response?" in Psychology Today. More of the author's essays are available in "Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed." The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.