Attachment Disorders; Correlations in Humans and Elephants

Neuroscience purports that elephants and humans share very similar brain capacity; we share cognition, emotions, and consciousness. This is evidenced by the elephant herd surrounding the mother with trumpeting, joy, and rumbles when a new baby arrives. When elephants recognize a different family herd in passing, one will hear the same cacophony of jubilant commotion. We know elephants grieve the loss of other elephants for years, visiting or even going out of their way to caress bones of the fallen. Moreover, elephants are much like us in that they are playful, ingenious, can be naughty, and work collaboratively for survival. 

A baby elephant grieving the loss of her mother

We now know that elephants who are subjected to torture, confinement, and the horrific witnessing of death of family members secondary to poaching have a high propensity to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. This disorder, once only studied in humans, is now being studied cross-species. I strongly suspect that elephants are highly susceptible to suffering from attachment disorders as well.

To first understand attachment disorders in humans, one must first understand secure attachment. Only about 55% of children will transcend into young adulthood with a secure attachment style. Secure attachment starts in infancy and early childhood. In an ideal world, if a child becomes scared, distraught, hungry, or needing a diaper change, a caregiver is keenly in tune with the needs of the child. The child’s needs are met, the child will self- regulate from upset to a comfort zone.  When caregivers pick up on these cues of distress in a consistent manner, it teaches the child that the caregiver has a deep perception into how the child is feeling.  This secure attachment continues through adolescence.  With secure attachment figures a child or adolescent knows he can go to the parents or a trusted person, and self-regulate the emotions of a problem he may be trying to solve.  He has been taught to self-soothe. When an infant or young child does not have a secure attachment with caregivers because the caregiver is not finely attuned to picking up emotional cues from the child, there is a propensity for that child to have an attachment disorder into adulthood.

It is important to note that if someone does show the following symptomatology it does not necessarily mean they have an attachment disorder. Some of the symptoms of attachment disorders in infants or young children include: severe colic, feeding difficulties, inability to gain weight, detached behavior, doesn’t want to be comforted, defiant behavior, hesitancy in social situations or disinhibited behavior in social situations. In adults, symptoms may vary: one may avoid intimacy and close emotional relationships, may have control issues and be demanding, or may show lack of empathy or remorse in situations where societal norms may mandate such emotions as appropriate. Attachment disorders start in infancy.

We know that intact elephant families have very doting mothers, aunts, sisters, brothers and a matriarch to teach a baby how to grow up with secure attachment. The calf learns to discern from different vocal commands from the herd about what is dangerous, when it’s time to stop grazing and to continue moving, and even when it’s time to sleep. Older family members of a calves’ herd teach the young calf to recognize the difference between danger and safety, and even how to self soothe (trunk sucking in unsure conditions). The matriarchal system of raising elephants to be knowledgeable, to discern friend from foe, to lead to drinking water in times of draught is an example of the ultimate definition of secure attachment.

When calves are separated from their family units it’s an atrocity. What can we do? We must never stop fighting for the freedom of elephants. No elephants should be used in human entertainment, poached for ivory, used in the logging industry, or forced to give rides. Please spread the word by educating the public to not buy ivory, not go to circuses, never to ride an elephants. Keep marching, keep signing petitions, and keep educating the public. Please give generously to


Dr. Leslie Kane is a psychotherapist and researcher near Denver, Colorado. She is a proud Advisory Board Member of Voice for Asian Elephant Society.


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