It is worth noting that making images as well as tools depends on not only sufficient mental abstraction, but more practically , or some kind of hand-like appendage, such as a trunk, something that allows for a special kind of active engagement with environs. In fact, given their prehensile facility, elephants can be trained to make representational paintings — of flowers, balloons, and elephants, mainly — just as they can be trained to perform many other sophisticated tricks. (Given their intense boredom in captivity, where almost activity can be appealing, it is not only a crowd-pleaser but seemingly fun for the elephants, whose work is then sold to fund their care and other conservation efforts, otherwise known as win-win-win.) Some elephants, however, make art of their own accord — mostly, as it appears, abstract, but some bordering on representational. Ruby, who spent almost her entire life at the Phoenix Zoo and was given paints for recreation after her keepers observed her always doodling in the sand, would commonly select paint colors that matched events around her, such as visitors’ shirts outside her cage or the red, yellow, and white of a fire truck that had pulled up with flashing lights earlier in the day.
“Charlie and Vernon were both magicians for magicians,” says Robert Lund, the founder of the American Museum of Magic, in Marshall, Michigan. “Only magicians truly appreciated what Charlie was doing. Charlie knew more about why you do it this way instead of that way than anyone I’ve ever met in my life, including Ricky Jay. If there were a hundred ways of doing an effect—a card trick or sawing a lady in half—Charlie went through all hundred and analyzed each one, looking for the most natural way of doing it, the approach that would be the most palatable and acceptable to an audience.”
Agee imagined subsequent scenes based on real events in American elephantine history, beginning with Old Bet, the centerpiece of an exotic traveling menagerie, who was reportedly shot by a Maine farmer in 1816, believing her to be the unholy behemoth of old. A later scene concerns another circus elephant, Mary, who was lynched in Tennessee in 1916 following an altercation with a brutal keeper — an event that, although Agee never made his movie of it, has been dramatized for the stage three times: Mark Medoff’s (1989), George Brant’s (2007), and Caleb Lewis’s (2009). As a proxy for more traditional, less newsworthy lynchings, this ill-starred elephant seems to be the nonpareil. All these accounts, in their way, are trying to say something of the clash between what turn out to be two inverse evils: the bigoted, airtight provincialism of the town proper, and the gaudy, sordid disassociation of traveling circus life — that is, being someone entirely because you are from somewhere, or being from nowhere at all. Mary happened to be so unfortunate as to drop into this unneighborly maw.
During this admonition, and blessing, the oldest elephant sadly leaves the assembly, and walks away to the great, secret, elephant cemetery, and dies there.
At the beginning, elephants converge from all over Africa, towards a disembodied voice, the voice of God, which addresses them roughly as follows: “My children: you know that you are my chosen people. You know that — to you alone — I have given my secret: I do not regard myself as omnipotent. I gave that up when I gave to Man the Will to love me or to hate me, or merely to disregard me. So I can promise you nothing. What little I can tell you is neither encouraging nor discouraging. Your kind is used already for work, and the men who use you are neither markedly improved nor disimproved by contact with you. Nor have you ever been improved nor disimproved in that process. But now, a new age begins. Soon, now, you will be taken to be looked upon, to be regarded as strange and as wonderful and — forgive me, my dear ones — as funny. As I said, I am not omnipotent; I can’t even prophesy: I ask only this: be your own good selves, always faithfully, always in knowledge of my love and regard, and through so being, you may convert those heathen, those barbarians, where all else has failed.”
Evidently it is not uncommon for those who spend their time out monitoring or at least mingling with wildlife to witness occurrences that go beyond conventional assumptions about what animals can know or do. When “elephant whisperer” Lawrence Anthony died in 2012, the two herds of traumatized rogue elephants crossed the vast South African game reserve where they lived, apparently to pay their last respects. The elephants had not been anywhere near the house for a year and a half prior, , and the trek across the park could take a day, but within hours of his death they all showed up.
Meanwhile, Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, originally an insect biologist, got involved when the Namibian government hired her to attack the perennial problem of keeping elephants from raiding crops. Fences, ditches, sirens, and border rows of chili peppers had all failed to protect local farmers’ livelihoods or were impracticable to maintain. O’Connell-Rodwell’s solution was to isolate a particular elephant alarm call out of a recording of layered vocalizations and rig it up to play back when they came too close. The reaction was astonishing: with none of the customary deliberation or signaling from a leader, they instantly flapped out their ears and whooshed away.
Many of the drawings — collected in titled after that first etching, cowritten by Gucwa and reporter James Ehmann — actually do somewhat resemble corporeal entities: a butterfly, a bird, a person. This is likely happenstance, though; by and large the drawings are much more emotionally than rationally expressive. Be that as it may, clearly there was something in Siri’s inner life she felt compelled to bring forth. The question of what to make of it is a revealing example of the cryptic expanse between the intent of the artist and the significance to viewers.
onas’s second example, image-making, is a capability which “displays a total, rather than a gradual, divergence from the animal’s.” The activity is biologically useless, he notes, and requires sufficient mental abstraction to distinguish between reality and representation — that is, between the sensations of the present moment that all animals experience and the form of something else in memory or the imagination. Image-making is the transference of this metaphysical idea onto a physical substrate; even for a portrait or some other picture modeled on something real and present, the copy is distinct from the original but linked to it by a nonmaterial concept.
Unpacking this remarkable exchange yields several items of note. First, there is the dynamic presence of the unknown in daily life. Second, there is the question of what to do about it. Because it is unknown does not mean that it is necessarily unknowable — nor that it isn’t. The choice to tell about it represents a hopeful effort that it might be understood, though not a presumptive one: there is no undue effort to explain, to impose some kind of theory on it, but an openness to whatever it might reveal. But finally, on the optimistic side of understanding, there is a reminder of the awesome significance of language in the urging to . What could be more crucial in the search for truth than this ability to translate individual experience into common comprehensibility? You just tell what happened, and someone else will hear it.
On one count, elephants fail the tool test, for they do not make artifacts they then reuse (and obviously have not developed the kind of technology that has completely unleveled the odds in our efforts to hunt or trap or train them or encroach upon their habitat). However, between them and their environment, such as sticks to scratch between their toes and remove bugs from other areas, or twisted clumps of grass like Q-tips to clean inside their ears or whisks to swat at flies. As J. H. Williams recounts in (1950), work elephants in Asia collared with bells have been known to plug up the bells with mud so that they can go and steal bananas in the middle of the night unnoticed — a purposeful modification of someone else’s tool. Elephants dig holes for water, cover them with plugs of bark and grass, and return later to their secret stash. Elephants learn by trial and error what sorts of materials do and do not shock them in their efforts to break through electric fences — and in at least one recorded instance (described in Lawrence Anthony’s ), followed the buzzing of the fence all the way around to its origin, the generator, which, having been stomped to smithereens, allowed them to untwine the fence and go their merry way.