Surely you remember the Dolphin Era of the late 20th century. Starting in the 1950s, the neuroscientist Dr. John Lilly started “talking” to dolphins. Just a few years later, the US Navy established a secret Marine Mammal Program, right around the time — 1964 — that “Flipper” debuted on TV. Dolphins were so smart, they were going to carry out political assassinations in the 1973 George C. Scott movie, “Day of the Dolphin.”
Smart, lovable, and (generally) friendly, dolphins reveled in their status of Man’s Second Best Friend.
Hear me out: Elephants are the new dolphins. They’ve been to war; they “talk”; can a popular TV series be far behind?
I first heard the elephant whisper from Caitrin Nichol’s engrossing essay, “Do Elephants Have Souls?” published last year in New Atlantis magazine. Of course elephants have souls, and a lot more. They seem to have language, possibly communicating with their feet. They honor their dead, nurse their wounded, and, famously, elephants weep. Captive elephants, Darwin wrote, “lay motionless on the ground, with no other indication of suffering than the tears which suffused their eyes and flowed incessantly.”
Like dolphins and higher primates, elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, and, of course, they never forget. Nichol recounts a story from Tarquin Hall’s “The Elephant Graveyard,” in which an elephant encounters a well-remembered, brutal keeper, sacked by the animal’s owner for abusing his charge. The elephant attacks his former tormentor, and tramples the owner for good measure.
“I believe the elephant did this to me deliberately,” the legless owner says. “He wanted me to live in agony. He wanted me to remember him every day for the rest of my life. And so I have done for the past 10 years.”
Elephants have moods, as the psychiatrist Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, co-author of “When Elephants Weep,” discovered when a protective mother charged him in the wild. “Accounts by those who work with elephants, for example,” Masson reports, “make it clear that one ignores an elephant’s ‘mood’ at one’s peril.”
My former Globe colleague Vicki Croke recently published “Elephant Company,” the story of the astonishing “elephant wallah” (trainer), James Howard (Billy) Russell, known as “Elephant Bill.” Russell treated his lumbering — literally; they were harvesting teak — elephants so well in pre-World War II Burma that the animals went to war for him when Japan invaded the country in 1942.
“They built hundreds of bridges for us,” British Field Marshal William Slim later wrote, “they helped to build and launch more ships for us than Helen ever did for Greece. Without them, our retreat from Burma would have been even more arduous and our advance to liberation slower and more difficult.”
Russell, who built “schools” and “hospitals” for his gargantuan charges, won the Order of the British Empire for Elephant Company’s dangerous work behind enemy lines. When his admirers marveled at his ability to teach and train elephants, Russell insisted the pedagogy ran the other way.
“Russell discovered in elephants the virtues he would work to develop in himself,” Croke writes; “courage, loyalty, the ability to trust (and the good sense to know when to be distrustful), fairness, patience, diligence, kindness, and humor . . . The great animals, he decided, had become his religion. In a way, he proudly told one writer, he had even become one.”
Tuesday was World Elephant Day, alas not a very auspicious celebration for the animal that John Donne called “nature’s great masterpiece.” Asian elephants, which once roamed across Iran, India, China, and present-day Indonesia, have seen their habitat and population radically reduced. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the remaining 40,000 elephas maximus to be an endangered species.
IUCN views the African elephant population, which grows modestly each year, as vulnerable to ivory poaching, meat slaughter, and loss of habitat. Several million elephants roamed Africa less than a century ago. Now there are about 400,000. “Ironically, it has been the elephant’s misfortune that people find it wonderful,” essayist Nichol writes. “The outlook for elephants today is grim.”
Some dolphins are endangered, too. This is no way to treat our second, third, or fourth best friends. It’s enough to make a human cry.Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.