What Is It Like to Be an Elephant?

Matt Margini

Why did Harambe become a meme? In a post-election landscape that demands we acknowledge Internet trolling as a practice with world-historical consequences, I find myself returning to this question again and again. At the height of Harambe mania, this past summer, Redditors would continually repost Photoshopped images of him on the cross, hoping that he would pop up in Google searches of “Jesus Christ.” “BUSH DID HARAMBE,” read a protestor’s sign at the Republican National Convention—a protestor who might well have voted for Trump. Why did a western lowland gorilla, shot dead by a worker at the Cincinnati Zoo, become a martyr among people far too ironic and apathetic to have martyrs?

Perhaps the answer is that his story was a tragedy of irony and apathy in the first place. Upheld as a great, Harambe was discarded as a threat. The same institution that had presented him as a mighty—and endangered—soul of the wild destroyed him quickly and summarily. In one moment, his life had value; in the next, it didn’t. The episode demonstrated the fragility of human ethical regard for animal life under the best of circumstances, in a scene almost designed to make Peter Singer’s utilitarian equivalences—if toddlers and apes have similar mental capacities, surely we should in theory value their lives the same—look absurd. Of course, the whole episode was absurd, and of course Internet absurdists, of whom there are far too many, latched onto it.

At the same time, the Harambe incident demonstrated one coherent principle: when nonhuman animals lose political representation, as they inevitably do, it often becomes the task of aesthetic representation to give them a voice. The question that remains is how to amplify that voice without co-opting it. How can we speak for nonhuman animals without silencing them further?

This is the problem taken up by Tania James in her powerful second novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage. Set in and around Kavanar Wildlife Park in southern India, the novel begins after the latest rampage of the Gravedigger, an elephant notorious for burying innocent humans under his giant feet. James tells the story from three perspectives: that of a reluctant teenage poacher who hunts the elephant, that of an American documentarian who follows the poacher, and that of the elephant himself. Only one figure, the documentarian, holds a camera and has an audience. The novel itself takes up the task of giving the other two, the poacher and the elephant, a voice.

But giving the elephant a voice is no easy task. Like Anna Sewell in Black Beauty, James turns to literary techniques that openly call attention to their own artifice. Paragraphs plod in even steps, pachydermally; sentences are terse and punchy, stuffed with vivid sensory detail, mostly devoid of abstractions. Unlike Sewell, however, James does not present the elephant’s experiences in the first person, probably because she faces three problems that Sewell never had to face. The first problem is a scientific establishment hostile to anthropomorphism of any kind. About midway through the novel, the filmmaker recalls a “quippy animal ethologist” upbraiding her colleague for “human-centric assumptions of animal consciousness” and insisting that “a wild animal does not say thanks!”

The second problem is that the Gravedigger is an elephant in the first place. The most charismatic of charismatic megafauna is responsible for a long tradition of representational anxiety and literary handwringing, due in no small part to the idea that it possesses an interiority—a mind, a soul—analogous to ours, but also profoundly unlike ours. Equal yet other, the elephant’s mind vexes Orwell in his essay about shooting one: “He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further.” Other yet equal, the elephant’s mind allows its victims to make bald-faced assumptions about intention in To the Elephant Graveyard (2000), a real-life account of a rampaging bull that seems to have informed James’s novel. “I believe the elephant did this to me deliberately,” says the keeper of the bull, who lost his legs to the Gravedigger-like villain. “He wanted me to live in agony. He wanted me to remember him every day for the rest of my life.”

And here, of course, we get to the third problem: the Gravedigger has done harm. Like Oliver Twist, which famously puts us inside Fagin’s head just before his execution, the novel is both haunted and energized by a desire to represent the inner life of its central villain. Is he a murderer, a machine, or gravely misunderstood? James seems to opt for the third possibility, following him as he witnesses the death of his mother and ostensibly suffers—like all compelling supervillains—a childhood trauma that will draw him to homicidal behavior later in life:


A blast split the silence. The Gravedigger staggered, caught in a carousel of legs and screaming. The man in the tree was pointing a long-snouted gun. Another blast—the tusker bellowed deep and doomed. The Gravedigger whirled in search of his mother, and when at last he caught her scent, he found her roaring in the face of the gunman who aimed into her mouth and shot.


Like other passages throughout the novel, this moment observes the Gravedigger more than it enters him, allowing the objective—a precise but explosive account of things that happen around him, and his responses to them—to replace the subjective. This isn’t Black Beauty, even if it feels a little like Disney. Nor is it Orwell, standing across an abyss with the fateful gun in his hand. Instead, it is a form of sympathy that feels a little like ethology. The narrator stands at a middle distance. She imagines what he feels, but always attends first to what he does.  Somehow, her third-person detachment from the elephant ends up feeling like an extremely intimate and responsible—that is, responsive—form of closeness. What if giving voice to the voiceless meant listening to them, before pretending to know what they would say?

That, at least, seems to be one of the main questions in What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?, a new collection by the Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret that offers a compendium of smart animals and dense humans. She calls it an “abecedary,” and indeed it looks a lot like one: divided into 26 micro-essays, one for each letter of the alphabet, the collection mimics a genre in which many of us first encounter animals as children. Instead of “A is for Aardvark,” we get “A is for Artists,” a micro-essay about animals that paint; instead of “G is for Gnu,” we get “G for Genius,” a chapter that asks, “With whom would extraterrestrials want to negotiate”—humans or cows? The tone and the structural conceit are entertainingly irreverent. But they’re also in keeping with the book’s lesson. Despret wants us to encounter animals anew, as though for the first time, freshly shorn of the premises and assumptions that make them look duller and more mechanistic than they really are. It takes a coarse sponge to get the crud off.

“For a long time, it has been difficult for animals not to be stupid,” Despret writes—not because they are stupid, but because the history of behavioral science across the 20th century is a history of making them look stupid. In almost every chapter, she tells a story about an experimental procedure, a scientific doctrine, or a philosophical position that rigs the game in favor of human superiority. In “E for Exhibitionists,” for instance, she asks if the self-evident measure of self-consciousness should really be whether an animal can recognize itself in a mirror: shouldn’t we take into account that some animals are simply less interested in mirrors than we are?

<i>Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla)</i>. Photograph by Heather Paul / Flickr

A few themes emerge from Despret’s playful, systematic prodding. One is that intelligence—even cognition—is always a moving target. As soon as one species crosses over the “cognitive Rubicon” and into the kingdom of the human, a new mountain rises in the distance, impossible to scale. In most situations, though, the animal stays exactly where it’s told to stay in the Great Chain of Being, because the experiment is designed to keep it there.

Despret, a trained ethologist herself, comes off as a charismatic renegade, setting off cherry bombs under the chairs of stuffy, lab-coated pedants. Many of her anecdotes turn the tables on scientists, transforming them into the “reactive” or “mechanical” ones in the equation, driven mindlessly to torture their charges and prove them dumb. She is not alone, however, in her championing of an inductive rather than deductive—bottom-up rather than top-down—approach to animal cognition. “Know Thy Animal” is the first commandment of studying animal behavior according to Frans de Waal, a noted primatologist whose new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, resonates strikingly with Despret’s collection (and not just because both have titles in the form of a self-deprecating question).

Like Despret, de Waal spends most of his time recounting failures of the experimental imagination across the 20th century—especially behaviorism, with its famous dictum that the mind of an animal ought to be treated as a “black box,” an inscrutable processing unit. Both de Waal and Despret would probably agree with the raw logic of Thomas Nagel’s argument, in the influential essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” that we can never really know what it feels like to be an evolutionarily distant creature, like a bat, from the inside. At the same time, both strive to temper the implied isolationism of that assertion with qualifications. Maybe we can’t know what it’s like to be a bat. But we can ask what matters to a bat, and come up with more questions from there.

What if giving voice to the voiceless meant listening to them, before pretending to know what they would say?    

How exactly are you supposed to know thy animal without anthropomorphizing its feelings and mental states? For de Waal, the answer is simple: keep anthropomorphizing. He insists that we should assume cognitive homologies between ourselves and close evolutionary relatives. Anything less he calls “anthropodenial,” an “a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animallike traits in us.” It was Darwin himself, after all, who argued that the differences between humans and other animals in virtually every area are only differences in degree, not kind.

Despret, by contrast, prefers divergences over similarities, complications over simplifications. She prefers what she calls “versions”: translations of animal behaviors that do not compare them against a “real” human standard, but ask instead why the animal might have reason to do things differently. Not much happens if we ask if the elephant is “really” painting, or if the chimpanzee is “really” mourning. Quite a lot is asked of us if we wonder whether “chimpanzees experience a version of mourning” that we do not share.

It’s hard to imagine contemporary behavioral science accommodating “translation” in Despret’s sense, given that it’s about seeking a proliferation of possibilities rather than one single explanation. But she, too, returns to Darwin for answers, as a literary model as well as a scientific one. Darwin compiles anecdotes, listens to amateurs, and treats folk knowledge as expertise, rather than condemning it as hearsay. He works from the bottom up, asking us what animal behaviors ask us to consider. He looks always for something pleasing, new, and strange. In Darwin’s writing, Despret finds a blueprint from which to build her own cabinet of curiosities—a form that challenges the structural certitudes of taxonomy but still retains the wild, playful spirit of the bestiary. To Despret, the biggest problem with the way we represent animals, a problem relentlessly compounded by behaviorism, is our tendency to universalize their experiences. Despret fights against that tendency with her heterogeneous form. She suggests that an ethos of receptive, inductive curiosity—Bruno Latour, in his introduction, calls it “additive empiricism”—can make the minds of animals come alive.



But the question that remains is whether inductive curiosity is enough to make the minds of animals matter, in a contemporary world where it’s never been more ethically convenient to reduce them to machines. In The Animal Claim, Tobias Menely also returns to an antique discourse long since discarded by the arbiters of intellectual seriousness. But he zooms past Darwin, finding refuge in the 18th century rather than in the 19th: in the discourse of Enlightenment sensibility, where he recovers a fully-formed model for how we might recognize the political and ethical “claims” of nonhuman creatures—so long as we’re willing to embrace sentimentalism.

It’s easy to think of the Enlightenment as opposed to sentimentality because its thinkers prioritized reason. And yet, as Menely persuasively points out, almost everyone involved in the Enlightenment—Hobbes, Hume, Burke, Rousseau, even Pope—subscribed to an ethical philosophy that prioritized strong, passionate feeling and took the “cry of nature” as its focal point. In the discourse of sensibility, the “creaturely voice” is central. It has absolute priority. Ethics and politics begin with an obligation to respond to it. Symbolic language, far from being opposed to it, is founded in it and derived from it. The same goes for identity. In works such as Rousseau’s Emile, to be human—to be anything—is to be moved to sympathy or pity by animal cries of pain.

<i>Indian elephant, Bandipur National Park, Karnataka, India</i>. Photograph by Navaneeth KN / Flickr

Contemporary animal advocates haven’t exactly missed sensibility in their searches for historical precedents. In different ways, the animal philosophers Peter Singer and Jacques Derrida both build on an old line from the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham that spells out the position clearly: “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” Menely reminds us, however, that Bentham was not arguing that we should extend our circle of moral consideration to animals because they lack reason or words. Rather, like other philosophers of sensibility, he believed that we owe them consideration because they have a capacity to express their feelings, just as much as we do. It’s easy to think of sensibility as an approach to animal suffering that falsely projects human experience onto other creatures, working from the top down. Menely’s analysis reframes it as an inductive philosophy that works from the bottom up, attending first to the signs of suffering they generate—and especially to those signs they generate in common with the human. To ignore those signs would be just another form of “anthropodenial.”

No amount of passion in Menely’s own writing can restore sensibility to the place of intellectual primacy it once occupied. We are too steeped in rights-based models of ethical, political, and legal obligation—themselves inherited, ironically, from the Enlightenment’s liberal secularism—that imagine a reciprocating human on the other side. But that doesn’t stop Menely from making the case for 18th-century poets like James Thomson and William Cowper, who attempt to use poetry as a form of animal advocacy (literally: “speaking for”) by modeling the ethical centrality of an “attentiveness to creaturely life.” In Thomson, the human itself is cultured—developed, brought into being—by sustained “attention to natural signs.” Poetry is about bringing forward those signs that tend to escape our view, those cries that tend to escape our hearing.

Menely recasts the Enlightenment as an era in search of a poetics of attentiveness. Despret and de Waal demonstrate how important it is to search for that poetics now: to find a way of representing nonhuman animals that is responsive to what they do rather than presumptuous about what they are. I can’t help but think of the cry of the Gravedigger’s mother: “The tusker bellowed deep and doomed.” What if that cry of pain were regarded not as a conundrum but as a basic, inarguable fact? What if translating that cry meant taking it seriously, on its own terms? What if writing that cry meant amplifying it, rather than letting the worlds of other animals be consumed by vacuous, piercing silence?