By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence
Narrated by: Simon Vance
Anthropomorphizing non-humans is a slippery slope. The brain is an amazing organ that compels humans to understand things beyond understanding. Whether it is belief in a Supreme Being or belief that wild animals think, human brains create stories of belief based on consciousness; i.e. something beyond instinct and conditioning.
Lawrence Anthony, a conservationist, notes his experience with a herd of wild elephants. This herd of elephants will be killed if he is unwilling to accept them at his conservation area in South Africa. The elephant herd has been found unmanageable by other conservationists. The problem has been the herd will not stay within a confined conservation area. The elephants break through whatever barriers are placed in their way.
Anthony tells a story of Africa that reflects on his perception of reality. As is widely reported, native animal species in Africa are becoming extinct. Partly because of the advance of civilization; i.e. because of native customs, the desire of souvenir hunters. and the greed of ivory and horn hunters. Anthony exposes some of these causes in “The Elephant Whisperer”. However, Anthony takes a step too far by suggesting wild animals have cognitive recognition; i.e. a near-human understanding of what is happening in their world.
Though Anthony’s perception of animals is askew, his story brings Africa alive. Anthony’s effort to preserve Africa’s wild life is exemplary. His methods make sense. He scrambles to create an electrical barrier around his conservation area that will contain the largest land based animal in the world. The herd he is given custody of instinctually resists containment even though it offers a haven from human interference with nature.
Anthony overcomes that instinctual resistance by making himself and his employees familiar to the herd. He insists on spending his personal and the staff’s time with the herd so they recognize his and their smell and presence. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the elephants begin to accept his presence and their sanctuary. Anthony interprets this instinctual response as a cognitive rather than operantly conditioned response.
An irony of Anthony’s conclusion of wild animal consciousness is in his white man’s communication with factions of the South African community. Anthony notes his area of South Africa has had no elephants for years. Elephants have been systematically poached and driven out of South Africa by their instinct for survival. Many of the natives in his area have never even seen an elephant. The irony is that Anthony is challenged by African natives for his role in reintroducing elephants to South Africa. The use of land for conservation interferes with tribal interests in raising cattle and goats. Others question conservation’s interference in harvesting animals for food and ivory.
To combat the challenge, Anthony pleads his case for conservation that will enrich the natives without farming or harvesting elephants for their meat and ivory. Anthony uses an interpreter to communicate his message to the natives because he is not fluent in their language. Anthony chooses an interpreter that bridges the myths of Africa with logical reasoning to convince the natives that he is on their side.
Anthony’s pitch is based on human reasoning. That reasoning contrasts with the instinctual way he approaches his adopted elephant herd. As a human speaking to other humans, cognition is logically taken for granted. Humans speaking to non-humans are deluding themselves by believing elephants or other species have equal or superior cognitive abilities.
Evolution fools us all. Maybe the future will change some member of the animal kingdom to create a “Planet of the Apes” but a “Planet of the Elephants” seems a step too far.
Nevertheless, “The Elephant Whisperer” is a fascinating glimpse of Africa. We love our dogs, cats, and other pets. Anthony, and many humans, believe animals think like humans. Many think animals communicate among themselves. However, today, it is evolutionary instinct and conditioning; not cognition, that rules the non-human community.