We all love elephants, those kindly gentle giants increasingly marooned in a sea of humanity that has barely even tried to properly understand them.

Until now. And it makes for uncomfortable reading.

In Sri Lanka, elephants are one of the foundation stones of our culture, used—and some would say abused—in religious ceremonies, as work-horses, and as star attractions in our tourism industry.

Now, Charles Foster, (pictured right) a renowned British veterinary surgeon, barrister, explorer and animal psychologist, has written a truly thought-provoking must-read piece in The Guardian UK newspaper: If You Were An Elephant.

His basic premise is simple: “If you were an elephant living wild in a western city, you’d be confused and disgusted.” But he goes far beyond that, and looks deeply into what makes an elephant an elephant, and why they are the way they are.

“Even if it swayed with grass instead of being covered in concrete and dog shit, the city would be far, far too small for you. You’d feel the ring roads like a corset. You’d smell succulent fields outside, and be wistful. But you’d make the most of what you had. You’d follow a labyrinth of old roads, relying on the wisdom of long-dead elephants, now passed down to your matriarch.

“You’d have the happiest kind of political system, run by wise old women, appointed for their knowledge of the world and their judgment, uninterested in hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake, and seeking the greatest good for the greatest number.

“When you looked out contemptuously at humans, wondering why they ate obviously contaminated food, opted to be miserable and alone, or wasted energy on pointless aggression and anxiety, it would be your contempt, as opposed to generic elephantine contempt, or reflexive contempt that bypassed your cerebral cortex, or the contempt of your sister.


“We can be cautiously Beatrix-Pottery with elephants. When the temporal glands near their eyes stream in circumstances that, for us, would be emotional, they’re crying.

“When a bereaved elephant mother carries her dead baby round on her tusks, or trails miserably behind the herd for weeks, her head hanging down, she’s grieving. When other elephants sit for hours around the body of a dead elephant, they’re mourning.

“When they cover a dead human, or build a protective wall of sticks around a wounded human, they’re showing an empathic acknowledgment of our shared destiny that we’d do well to learn. These, dear reductionists, are, as you would put it, the most parsimonious hypotheses.”

He concludes: “You’ll be much more properly local than any cockney, New Yorker or Madrileño, though you call Africa your home. You’ll know far more of the city than any geographer, historian, zoologist, botanist, policeman or lover. By trying to become an elephant, you might become a much more thriving human.

“Be careful, though. You’re likely to end up dead because someone wants a couple of your teeth.”

Read the full story here.

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