When my son was a child and my husband was out of town, one of our favorite things to do was to sit in the bed together early and watch what he called “nature flicks.” We enjoyed the Trials of Life series, National Geographic animal specials and all things such as might be found these days on Animal Planet.
I love seeing into the social habits and ways of animals. Often I see parallels to our own lives or hints at how we humans might could manage a little better than we do if only we’d take cues from our non-human brethren. I thought about this aspect of nature study the other day when I saw a documentary on elephants.
In one scene a zoo elephant was being prepared for the delivery of her first calf. This was one tame elephant—they are so huge that they’d better be tamed. Her keepers were loving and attentive. They had trained her to submit to restraints, fearing that her domestic life away from the herd setting that nature had intended, had not prepared her well for delivery and motherhood. They were taking no chances for the baby. She was tied with heavy ropes at each leg, with enough room that she could comfortably move about some but also with several keepers at each rope’s other end, ready to restrain her further if needed. They simply did not know how she would react when her baby came.
The birth, itself, was amazing—as all births are. Mama was standing when she delivered, and that baby dropped right out onto the concrete floor of the elephant’s stall. The keepers were quick to pull the baby to the side and Mama did, indeed, look worrisome to me. She was clearly agitated/excited, straining to get to her infant but the keepers were concerned about this little 250 pounder being crushed accidentally. They worked hard to clean the baby and get him to his feet steadily so that he could be released into his mother’s care after Mama had settled down somewhat. All went well, and baby was standing and suckling within twenty minutes, Mama clearly enjoying her little one.
As the drama was unfolding, the narrator explained that this was not so far from what happens in the wild. In the wild, elephants live in matriarchal groups—no grown-up males allowed. Females in estrus go off for breeding and return to their herd of female relatives to wait two years for the birth of their calves. When these wild births occur, they are big events. All the aunts and sisters of the expected gather round. When the baby arrives, he/she is surrounded by loving females, who all use their trunks to explore the new baby and help him to his feet and to his mother.
The keepers, according to the narrator, were merely fulfilling the same role as the herd would play in the wild. They were a trusted, loving circle for this mother elephant, and they took care of the steadying of the new life and the introduction of baby to mother, just as her herd members would have done on the African savannah.
These babies are central to the herd’s life. The mothers, aunts, sisters of these little ones are all about their care and safety and giving them loving caresses with trunks. Babies are watched by all with loving eyes. When a baby elephant is in trouble, that is the concern of each and every one of the adults. When one is orphaned, other elephants will nurse the little one. Babies are taken care of.
I began to be fascinated again by lessons to be learned by us. Here are some of the quotes from my online elephant research which I found to be so pertinent to the conduct of our own lives:
Successful leaders (matriarchs) earn respect through their wisdom, confidence and connections with other elephants. They need to care for the needs of their herd, and be compassionate to their own herd as well as the members of other herds.
The matriarch is instrumental in teaching her daughters how to care for their own young. Once they start to bear babies, their sisters will assist in childcare. This provides training for them, preparing them for their own first calves. Elephant mothers are attentive to the needs of their young. Babies are born with almost no instinctive patterns, nearly everything they do has been taught to them by their mothers and aunts. What they get taught will vary according to the matriarch and her herd – different groups face different dangers and bear different responsibilities. The matriarch will determine what it important for that specific herd and mothers teach the young ones accordingly.
These female herds form deep attachments. As the herd grows, it can split into multiples, each going their own way but greeting each other with joy and excitement when their paths cross later, such as at the watering holes. These “women” elephants are all about relationship from birth to death.
Grown males are no where to be found in this herd. As the male offspring mature (usually about age 14), they leave the herd to live a solitary life or to join male “pods,” coming to the females only to mate. They have nothing to do with this marvelous matriarchal system of raising young. Nope, they are used solely to produce these much-loved babies and to continue the existence of these marvelous creatures…
And it cannot be left without saying that these bachelor groups are the ones that cause trouble. Wikipedia says:
The males spend much more time than the females fighting for dominance with each other.
During this season, known as musth, a bull will fight with almost any other male it encounters, and it will spend most of its time hovering around the female herds, trying to find a receptive mate.
Apparently “musth” is caused by excessive testosterone levels at that season, creating aggression. It may be where the “rogue elephant” term comes from.
So, we have this peaceful, loving orderly society of lady elephants who choose their leadership for “wisdom and compassion.” This is juxtaposed against the males who gain their leadership among peers by fighting and live just-for-me lives, “hovering” around the ladies looking for sex. Hmmm. Hmmmm. Overthinking kicks in.
Oh, yeah, my mind goes right to the human race with this.
Yes, I know, there are exceptions, good and devoted men who are not this shallow—what I’m talking about here is a frequent observation everyone in my office has made at some time or another. When women “move on” to other relationships, normally their babies go with them, incorporated into a new “blended” family. These women (yes, there are exceptions) do not abandon the young who are so central to their lives.
Not so for the male who separates from his family—those original children will fade in importance in favor of children he has with his new one or, in some cases, even the new stepchildren. He often decries even paying child support, saying [I am so sick of hearing this], “If she would only spend it on the kids…” like she’s not “spending it on the kids” every time she pays the light bill.
You have no idea how many men I see in my business who “move on” because of sex, largely abandoning meaningful relationship with their young so as to satisfy their own desires. All the while these children are nurtured by their mothers and aunts and grandmothers; our equivalent of the matriarchal elephant herd.
And, this elephant society structure dovetails nicely with advice I give to all my divorcing women clients: “Keep your girlfriends close…” It is important advice that I wish all women would heed whether they have great marriages or not. (another post…)
But the elephants seem to have recognized and incorporated into their society a gender difference. They have come to see that males have an important role to play—and they relegate those males to that role! I love it. Could it be that they have hit upon this scheme because they have an ability that we human women seem to lack? Such as: “Elephants never forget…” C
But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you… Job 12:7, 8