The emotional complexity of elephants and their similarity to humans

Elephants are one of the smartest animals on earth. They live in family groups known as herds, and are fiercely loyal to each other. They follow a matriarch, an older female elephant who is the head of the family. Elephants can live for as long as humans, and maintain strong family bonds. Only death and capture can separate them. Therefore, elephant herds resemble human families, and they grieve their dead family like we do.


Unlike other animals, elephants show an interest in the bodies of their dead. Human grief is acted out through unusual movements and noises. Elephants similarly do this with their dead. They scream over family member’s bodies, or rock back and forth for hours next to them. Sometimes they also often pull their dead up with their trunks to try and help them stand.

Elephants also often bury their dead. They cover them with branches and debris, and sometimes create a shallow grave with their trunks. Herds have also been shown to move family member’s bones to hidden spots. This desire to lay their dead to rest is similar to human funerals. It suggests a care for their dead. This care in turn suggests a kind of love.

Elephants can also recognise the skeletons of family members due to their brilliant memory. A scientist once witnessed a young wild elephant she had been following approach three skulls. He ignored two, but stayed with the third for a long time. This skull was from an elephant that he had formed a strong bond with. The scientist concluded that the elephant recognised his dead friend, and was grieving for them.


When a baby dies in a human family, the whole family grieves. It is particularly difficult for the mother who gave birth to the child, as their bond is especially strong. This bond is the same for elephant mothers. Many animals will leave behind weak young to die, but elephant mothers almost never do.

When a calf dies, the mother will show her grief through her actions. She will try to help the baby, but once she realises her child is dead her ears will droop. Her eyes will be sunken and she will scream. A mother will often stay by the body for many days. This cannot be due to anything other than pain at her loss. The fact that she feels this loss suggests she loved her baby in a similar way to a human mother.

Other members of the herd will also grieve over the baby’s body. Female relatives such as aunts will touch the baby’s body with their trunks. Mourning by the whole herd shows these family bonds that are so similar to human ties. Elephant herds will return to sites where babies and family members have died for many years. They will remain for days, mourning their loss. This strong memory demonstrates the powerful grief that elephants can show.


Like a child cries for its parents, calves produce tears in being separated from their mothers. A newborn calf was seen to cry for five hours after being taken from a mother who tried to kill him. This weeping is most likely due to sadness, as well as the loss of ‘contact comfort’. Contact comfort is the comfort that a baby gains from touching their mother.

Just like a human baby, a calf grieves for their missing mother. This tells us about the emotions of elephants and the kind of love that they are capable of.


We cannot know for certain what emotions elephants feel, just like we cannot know what other people feel and think. However, elephants’ actions show the external grief that we see in humans. By showing grief, they are feeling grief, as there are no biological advantages to it. If they feel sadness at their loss, elephants must feel a form of love that is similar to human bonds.

Elephants are one of the world’s most poached animals. They are illegally killed for their impressive tusks, and for sport. These tusks are sold as ivory, a material used in traditional medicine and furniture. In seeing elephants display emotion similar to ours, we have to ask ourselves whether it is morally acceptable to kill an animal that can feel love.



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