When I was a girl, I fantasized about traveling to Africa. It started with Sunday matinees of old Tarzan movies. He was dreamy, no matter what actor was playing him, though I was partial to Johnny Weissmuller and Ron Ely. Africa was not just exotic, it was lush and seemed to hold promises for hopes I hadn’t dreamed yet. I didn’t want to be Jane or anything, she was too girly and I was too brusque to imagine myself as her.* And the animals were enchanting! The interplay between man and beast absolutely fascinated me. Cheeta (the chimpanzee) was clever and hilarious, but Tantor (the elephant) was magnificent and larger than life. I was immediately captivated by pachyderms and consumed articles and images in National Geographic magazine (my dad had a subscription) and on television.

Of course the animals in Tarzan were well-trained, highly supervised “actors,” and as I grew up I realized my imagining of elephants was skewed by the seemingly seamless relationship between Tarzan and Tantor. I told myself elephants didn’t really like people. They didn’t really protect people. And they didn’t really want to be our friends. Because that’s how you should think of wild creatures – as wild, unpredictable, and unmarked by man.

But experience tells a different story about elephants, a story that reads a lot like Tarzan and Tantor, where man and beast can share a bond and can be friends. The most recent example of this is the story of conservationalist Lawrence Anthony (aka the “Elephant Whisperer”) and his passing.**

Lawrence Anthony and Nana

Mr. Anthony owned the Thula Thula game reserve in South Africa (warning: this link opens with sound) and in 1999 was asked to take in a herd of wild elephants from a neighboring game reserve. These elephants were “troublesome” because the matriarch was an “amazing escape artist” who kept breaking her pack out of the reserve and leading them into the wild.*** Mr. Anthony, having long been an advocate for African wildlife, adopted the herd given their alternate fate was extermination. The elephants’ 600 mile journey to Thula Thula was marred with tragedy when two of the elephants were shot and killed while herding the pack into transport. These deaths further traumatized the already stressed herd and upon their arrival, the matriarch, Nana, lead the herd in another escape. When they were finally wrangled out of the reach of eager hunters and back onto the safety of the reserve, Mr. Anthony pleaded with Nana not to escape again.

“Suddenly, the absurdity of the situation struck me. Here I was in pitch darkness, talking to a wild female elephant with a baby, the most dangerous possible combination, as if we were having a friendly chat. She took another step forward. I could see her tense up again, preparing to snap the electric wire and be out, the rest of the herd smashing after her in a flash. Then something happened between Nana and me, some tiny spark of recognition, flaring for the briefest of moments. Then it was gone. Nana turned and melted into the bush. The rest of the herd followed. I couldn’t explain what had happened between us, but it gave me the first glimmer-of hope since the elephants had first thundered into my life.” – Quoted in UK Daily Mail

Elephants approaching the Anthony home

And in that moment, Mr. Anthony began forging a bond with Nana and her herd that would last the rest of his life, and likely the rest of theirs. Lawrence Anthony died of a heart attack on March 2nd of this year. His death was, presumably, sudden and unexpected given the cause. Yet somehow, Nana and her herd knew their friend had died. They traveled what must have been 12 hours non-stop from deep in the reserve to the Anthony family home where they stayed for two nights. Nana’s pack wasn’t alone. Another herd of elephants adopted by Thula Thula also made the journey at the same time and stayed at the house for the same period.****

I think this is extraordinary. And incredibly moving. And thought provoking.

This story reminded me of my fascination with the African wild and made me realize my “grown up” view of elephants was lacking. Tarzan and Tantor may have been complete fiction, but their relationship was not complete fantasy.

I heard about Mr. Anthony’s story a while ago and ever since then I’ve been asking myself, “Is there frith in the animal kingdom?” I mean, the way elephants treat their kith and kin is not so different from humans. They certainly help and protect each other. They are capable of complex emotion and express those emotions using sight, sound, touch, and deeds. Is the pachyderm instinct to help and protect each other akin to the human need for a social contract?

Then I started wondering, “Is there wyrd in the animal kingdom?” Elephants don’t limit their deeds to family and friends. There are other stories of elephants reaching out to people to protect them or help them with no prior association. There are accounts of elephants helping other animals, too. Is the pachyderm instinct for altruism akin to the human need to contribute to the greater good?

I also asked myself, “Do elephants practice ancestor veneration?” You may have heard about the (apparent) myth of the elephant’s graveyard, a place where elephants go to die. What is not myth is that elephants have funerary rituals. They have been observed standing vigil with their dying until they pass and then they burying them with whatever they can find, dirt, leaves or branches. They also recognize the remains of their ancestors (the bones of other elephants).

“They show a keen interest in the bones of their own kind (even unrelated elephants that have died long ago). They are often seen gently investigating the bones with their trunks and feet while remaining very quiet. Sometimes elephants that are completely unrelated to the deceased will still visit their graves.” – from Wikipedia entry on Elephant Cognition

I know I am anthropomorphizing elephants by asking these questions, but this is easy to do when faced with a species so like my own in so many ways. And I haven’t even broached the topic of maternal instinct in elephants.

What do you think Realm? Do you think elephants (or other animals) demonstrate a tie to frith, wyrd or ancestor veneration?



* I suppose “was” is not really applicable in this context. I am still fairly brusque. =)

** For a more thorough treatment of this story, read Rob Kerby’s article on Belief.net.

*** This is not an unique event among elephants. They have the cognitive capacity for problem solving and have been observed escaping shackles, helping others escape, and even employing a lookout to ensure their getaway is successful.

**** I found it interesting that no major media covered this story of the herds visiting the Anthony home. The New York Times published a wonderful obituary for Mr. Anthony and mentioned this event at the very end. Psychology Today published a piece on it, too. But the Oracle didn’t show me anything on MSNBC or ABC News or the Huffington Post.

+ Featured image, one of the elephant herds walking to the Anthony home, provided to Belief.net article courtesy of the Anthony family.