Of all the energies that keep the world turning, the maternal bond is among the most powerful. There is no doubt about that. It is pure and strong, committed and enduring, gentle and courageous, protecting and supportive. It is absolutely unique. Being as complex as it is, the bond between mother and infant is influenced by a myriad of factors, both emotional and physical.
Studies show animal welfare results from how the animal perceives its environment and its background. Animals find life quite vivid. They often know who they are and who their friends and foes are. For most mothers, including elephant mothers, the welfare and security of their baby is a priority.
The Neurobiology of Emotion
Researcher Paul MacLean coined the term “amygdala”, the brain’s emotional core, back in 1952. Today, we know that emotions are wired into the limbic system, of which the amygdala is part. Many different species share the structures in this system, which provide a neural substrate for emotions.
Both humans and animals share the ability to experience positive or negative emotions. Among negative emotions, rejection by your mother is arguably one of the most painful to experience. This is exactly what happened to an elephant calf at the Shendiashan Wild Animal Natural Reserve in China back in 2013.
Elephant Calf Rejected by His Mother
Shortly after Zhuang Zhuang was born, his mother rejected him and almost stomped him to death. The staff initially thought it was an accident, and after treating his wounds, the elephant calf was reintroduced to his mother. However, to everyone’s surprise the mother attacked him again. At this point, a decision was made to remove the calf from her once and for all.
“The calf was very upset and he was crying for five hours before he could be consoled. He couldn’t bear to be parted from his mother and it was his mother who was trying to kill him.” (1)
The baby elephant cried real tears, streaming from his reddened eyes. An employee said Zhuang Zhuang was crying because he didn’t want to be removed from his mother. He didn’t understand she was endangering him. Just as with human beings, elephants suffer from acute psychological distress when they are rejected at birth. They need a stable, comforting environment, intimacy, and company.
Award-winning environmental writer Carl Safina explains that animals feel and display empathy, and he routinely sees this in elephants:
“Watching animals my whole life I’ve always been struck by how similar to us they are. I’ve always been touched by their bonds and been impressed—occasionally frightened—by their emotions.
Life is very vivid to animals. In many cases, they know who they are. They know who their friends are and who their rivals are. They have ambitions for higher status. They compete. Their lives follow the arc of a career like ours do.
We both try to stay alive, get food and shelter, and raise some young for the next generation. Animals are no different from us in that regard and I think that their presence here on Earth is tremendously enriching.” (2)
Animals are capable of experiencing the same emotions as humans – grief, happiness, sadness, anger, empathy, curiosity, anxiety, and fear. When elephants lose a loved one, they express grief by circling the body or touching the bones of the dead. This ritual is analogical to our own funerals.
The case of Zhuang Zhuang is extremely rare because family relationships are crucial in elephants. Elephants have a gestation period of 22 months, the longest of all species in the world. Elephant calves are born blind and completely dependent for care. Their mothers are not the only possible care providers. Following birth, other female elephants in the herd can help calves ease into these animals’ matriarchal society.
For now, you’d be happy to know the calf recovered and now leads a happy life thanks to his adopter – the keeper who saved him at the reserve.