Do Elephants (and Other Animals) Cry?


Rescuers of a male elephant brutally abused for 50 years in India claim that after the chains and spikes were removed from elephant Raju's legs, tears streamed down its face. But were the tears due to an emotional outburst?

Certain animals may weep out of sorrow, similar to human baby cries, say animal behavior experts. In this case, the tears appear to reflect Raju’s astonishment and relief.

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"The team were astounded to see tears roll down his face during the rescue," Pooja Binepal from Wildlife SOS UK, which transferred the elephant to a sanctuary, told The Independent newspaper. "We knew in our hearts he realized he was being freed."

This isn't the first time an elephant has been seen weeping after a traumatic event. Last year, a newborn elephant calf at Shendiaoshan Wild Animal Nature Reserve in eastern China reportedly cried inconsolably for five hours after being stomped on by his mother that then rejected the little elephant. The calf, named Zhuang-zhuang, was later "adopted" by a keeper, according to the news site Metro.

Elephant tears, as for human ones, often appear linked to feelings of sorrow.

"Some mammals may cry due to loss of contact comfort," animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff explained to Discovery News. (Bekoff wrote about the topic in this blog.)

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"It could be a hard-wired response to not feeling touch," added Bekoff, former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who, with primatologist Jane Goodall, co-founded the organization Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies.

For elephant calves and human infants, crying is probably more out of stress than sorrow, he said. "But stress is an emotion," continued Bekoff, who is author of "Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed."

He pointed out that scientific studies have proven that chicken, mice and rats display empathy -- feeling another's pain -- which is an even more complex phenomenon. For crying, the animal would have to be of a social nature, possess eye anatomy similar to ours, and have brain structure for processing emotions.

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Dogs are among the most social animals, but scientists and owners have yet to report on a depressed dog crying its eyes out.

"However, dogs and other animals certainly can suffer and may recognize suffering in others," said Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University who co-founded the dog analysis tool "Dognition" that any owner can use.

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