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Is it Ethically Right to Keep Elephants in Solitary Confinement?

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

In recent years science has begun to acknowledge and accept that elephants feel emotions, with many scientists questioning the ethics surrounding captivity of an intelligent animal. In fact, neuroscience offers profound insights on the similarities between human and elephant emotions. Furthermore, the structure and functioning of the elephant brain reveals how solitary confinement and brutal training impacts their psychology and biology.

To begin, elephants are sentient beings. They can perceive and respond to physical sensations such as sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. To be aware of perceptions and feelings is sentiency. So, what makes humans and elephants alike in these perceptions?

The answer lies in the makeup, shape, and size of the brains. An elephant brain weighs about 11 pounds, the largest of any land mammal, with a total of 300 billion neurons. The elephant neocortex - responsible for sensory information - has hundreds of thousands of neurons just like in human brain.

This suggests convergent evolution --- a process whereby organisms not closely related evolve similar traits independently in order to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches. A poignant example to understand convergent evolution is that many African elephants are now being born without tusks, an adaptation to protect them from being slaughtered for ivory.

Also developed through convergent evolution are spindle neurons, associated with fast information processing. They play a key role in molding social behavior and intelligence. For instance, much like humans, elephants share deep social bond in family herds. Much like humans, female elephants have the tendency to nurture and are highly likely to stay in a family group for a lifetime. Spindle neurons also play a key role in learning, playing, and growing up together, all of which help them thrive together in the wild.

It may help to understand the multiple folds in mammalian brain. Brain folds are the bumpy curves seen on the outside of the brain. They are linked to higher intelligence that fosters behaviors such as foraging, keeping their young safe by placing them in the middle of the herd safe from predators, and altruistic acts. Earlier this year a video of a whale protecting a scientist from a tiger shark made the BBC headlines. We’ve also heard of elephants protecting the body of their mahout.

Only highly evolved mammals have the ability to display such noble acts. And that’s because mammals such as elephants, humans, cats, dogs, dolphins, and monkeys have multiple folds. In fact, elephant brains have even more convolutions (brain folds) than the human brain. And scientists argue that that they are nobler and empathetic than humans.

Brain sizes of various animals

Here’s another key fact that demonstrates why humans and elephants feel emotional pain. Just like humans, elephants also suffer from PTSD. The hippocampus in the limbic system of elephant brain supports emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term-memory and olfaction/smell. The elephant hippocampus is much larger than that of any human, primate, or cetacean (whales, dolphins, porpoises) and has more folds. Given that they possess such an elaborate limbic system, it is believed that elephants receive flashbacks from past suffering that trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A highly evolved brain is also attributed to survival behaviors. Humans and elephants alike, must learn to create survival tools as they grow up. Usually, babies are born with a small sized brain, which grows to a fully devolved brain by the time they reach adulthood. Humans are born with 28% of their adult brain, and elephants are born with 35% of their adult brains. This indicates that humans have more learning to do than elephants. It also suggests that behavior is not just instinctual but must be learnt throughout the lifespan. For example, elephant baby bulls start learning to test their dominance with other baby bulls at a very young age, a trait that lasts a lifetime.

Lastly, the cerebrum temporal lobes of an elephant are much larger than that of human temporal lobes. The cerebrum temporal lobes are responsible for storage of memory. Perhaps this is why matriarchs can remember routes to distant underground water sources during life-threatening times of draught.

There are many more aspects of elephant behavior and brain that remain a mystery. But given that there are so many similarities between humans and elephant, especially highly evolved brains, is it ethical to capture them from the wild, rip them apart from their families and keep them in solitary confinement? What would be the consequences of treating humans in the same manner as captive elephants? Don’t you think elephants deserve to be treated like humans?

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