A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

A Huge Window to Our Souls

Elephants show us the best and the worst of ourselves

Annie plays in her sandpit at her new sanctuary home

By Michael Mountain

Annie is just launching into her childhood – the one she never had as a baby.

She’s digging holes in the sand and seeing how far she can push her trunk into them, nuzzling up to tree branches, even dancing around, which is quite a feat for a 57-year-old with arthritis.

Only a few weeks ago, Annie was wearing shackles and being beaten with a pitchfork at a circus in the U.K.

Elephants have been in the news all this week. At the same time that Annie was being rescued from the circus and taken to a sanctuary, we were also being subjected to a home video of billionaire Bob Parsons gleefully bragging about his macho prowess as he sat on the lifeless body of a “dangerous bull” elephant he’d just dispatched with a high-powered rifle. (In fact, the “dangerous bull” appears to have been a young, helpless female. Couldn’t Mr. Parsons even tell the difference? Maybe he should look in the mirror.)

Elephants are the largest of all land animals. With their big brains come strong emotions. They love, they grieve, they get angry and stressed, and they like to enjoy themselves. Just like us.

As a counterweight to this obscenity, the amazing Dame Daphne Sheldrick has been in the United States helping to promote the new Imax 3-D movie Born to be Wild that premieres this weekend and features her work with orphan elephants. Sheldrick is the founder of the Elephant Orphanage in Kenya, and the animals she takes in are the very kind who are made orphans by the likes of people like Parsons.

“They’re very human,” Sheldrick said on the Diane Rehm show on Tuesday. “One has to understand that at any age, an elephant duplicates a human of exactly the same age. So they’re infants for the first five years of life . . . and then they’re juveniles until they reach puberty between 10 and 12. They’re not grown until they’re 20.”

The youngsters need constant companionship and lots of tender loving care. That includes sleeping with them at night, playing football and other games with them, and being around them all the time. “The little girls are very, very emotionally distraught, having lost their elephant family,” Sheldrick said. “So those are more difficult to actually turn around.”

Elephants are the largest of all land animals. With their big brains come strong emotions. They love, they grieve, they get angry and stressed, and they like to enjoy themselves. This also puts them among the most emotionally and mentally vulnerable of all animals. Just like us.

It may come as a surprise to many of us to learn that the children of elephants are like our own children in so many ways. But all big-brained mammals – most of all whales, dolphins, elephants and large primates – have similar emotional needs and dependencies. We humans are no different. We’re large primates with big brains, but instead of simply accepting our emotional ups and downs, we seem to feel the need to rise above them by gaining superiority over our cousins in the wild.

It doesn’t take a great psychologist to know that when Bob Parsons waves his gun and grins over a dead elephant, he’s desperately trying to make up for a serious sense of inadequacy. And the truth is, there’s a little bit of Bob Parsons in most of us.

Happily, most of us are able to tap into the empathic side of our nature, too. (And that’s another thing we share with the elephants.) So more and more of us are coming together to help orphan elephants and those who, like Annie, have ended up living a miserable existence in circuses and zoos. More and more, the worst of these operations are being shut down, and the elephants are being taken to safety and given a new life.

Along with Sheldrick, another of their champions is Bob Barker, the former host of The Price is Right. At age 87, Barker devotes all his time and energy to the protection of animals. This weekend, he’ll be in Toronto for an international symposium about elephants. Several members of the board of the Toronto Zoo are considering bringing an end to the elephant exhibit and sending the animals to sanctuaries where the climate and general conditions would be much better for them. And in a related plan, Zoocheck Canada, which is organizing the symposium, has laid out a proposal for a pioneering new interactive exhibit that will give young people a far richer experience of the life of an elephant than simply staring at live animals in a concrete enclosure.

To see people like Sheldrick, who’s in her seventies, and Barker, who’s in his eighties, contrasted with Parsons and the people who so horribly abused Annie is to see the best and the worst of our own species. Which of these examples will be taken up as role models by a generation of people who are inheriting a world in which there may soon be very few elephants left?