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Do Elephants Cry Because Of Sadness?
September 18, 2013
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Do elephants cry because of emotions?

Do elephants cry when they experience sadness? And can humans really know whether an elephant is "sad" in the first place? 

Metro recently reported on the story of an elephant born at a wildlife park in Rong-cheng China who was rejected by his mother. The mother elephant stepped on her son soon after he was born, and then attacked him again when he was returned to her.

The baby elephant reportedly lay under a blanket crying after the rejection, and a worker at the park said "the calf was very upset and he was crying for five hours before he could be consoled." 

Marc Bekoff, a retired biology professor who specializes in animal emotions, weighed in on the story, homing in on the question of whether animals other than humans cry. He cautiously suggests that the elephant may in fact have been crying because of grief: 

In a nutshell, available information supports the view that other animals do cry and weep and that they can be closely associated with various emotions, including (most likely?) sadness and grief that are associated with loss. Of course, crying or weeping may be more hard-wired, in this case the infant elephant responding to a loss of much needed touch or what is also called "contact comfort" offered by his mother.

Not everyone agrees that elephants' tears are related to emotion. Dr. Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, told the New York Times that "emotional tears are a breakthrough in the evolution of humans as a social species," after writing an article suggesting that "emotional tears may be exclusively human." 

And WiseGeek writes that "most scientists agree... that humans are the only animals who produce emotional tears." But they also point out that there are many examples of animals exhibiting apparent grief, including baby elephants, who produce a sad, keening sound when they are separated from their mothers. 

Tears aside, a lot of work has been done on animal emotions. Some research has suggested that rats experience empathy (although a 2012 study out of Oxford questions those results), and chickens have also shown signs of empathy. Dogs,meanwhile, have been observed laughing and experiencing joy, shame, grief and jealousy by some researchers, according to this post from Cesar Millan's website.

So what's the answer? Do elephants cry out of sadness? Bekoff's opinion is that they do, and that humans should be humbled by it.

"As with many other aspects of the cognitive and emotional lives of animals, it turns out that we are not alone, and that human exceptionalism is more a myth than a fact," he writes. "So, I offer that we are not the only animals who cry or weep as an emotional response and look forward to more research on this incredibly interesting and important topic."

Via Discovery


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