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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Aftermath of Acute and Chronic Trauma in Elephants

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

It’s emotionally difficult to comprehend that elephants may soon be extinct secondary to ivory poaching and land-management conflict. To see elephants be tortured to perform for circuses and festivals is unconscionable. Zoos and elephant “entertainment” are about people and money, not about the welfare of the intelligent pachyderm.  The aftermath of human greed and abhorrent treatment of elephants leaves scars on these sentient majestic creatures; post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Elephants and humans share parallel neurobiology. We both have large prefrontal cortexes that guide us through complex cognitions, we are emotional creatures and share consciousness. As with humans, elephants suffer when they experience traumatic events.   

As a doctor of mental health counseling, education, and supervision I have treated PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) for many years in community mental health, hospitals, residential, and private practice settings. Below, you will find the criteria to diagnose PTSD in humans. I have eliminated the criteria that are human based, such as recurring nightmares, as scientists cannot discern an elephant dream. But there is a consensus among them that the human based criteria can be applied cross-species.  In doing so, elephants exposed to trauma still met the one or more criteria in clusters A-D, below. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is defined by The Diagnostic Statistical of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) as:

Criterion A: stressor-adults, adolescents and children 6+, ONE or >

The person was exposed to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, as follows:

  • Direct exposure or witnessing, in person

The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in the following way(s):

  • Intense or prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders

  • Marked physiologic reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli

Their Wild Spirits are Broken Until Submission (Gods in Shackles still shot)

One does not need to be a mental health clinician to recognize that as humans gun down, poison, and slaughter elephants for ivory their family has survived this atrocity and witnessed death in person. When infants are taken from families for entertainment purposes it is markedly a threat of death or serious injury. As with humans, secure attachment with the mom is vital for healthy psychosocial development. (Of course, in humans, this applies to the father also but to date science at present is generating research in infant-father bonding) Separating an infant from the mother, thus weaning it off her breast milk, having the infant subjected to torture, deprivation, isolation, and constraint of movement is most certainly chronic physiological distress.

When elephants are in psychological discomfort they often suck on the tip of their trunks or they will sway back and forth (self-soothing) from one side to another, evidencing marked physiologic distress. 

Criterion B: intrusion symptoms, ONE or > after trauma event 

The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in the following way(s):

  • Intense or prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders

  • Marked physiologic reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli

Intense and prolonged distress is evidenced in many ways. To name a few, when an infant elephant is born in a zoo, the zookeepers must remove the newborn, as infanticide that involves mothers killing the baby, is very high in captivity. As of 2009, scientists in Amboseli,

Kenya recorded 1500 births in the wild without one incidence of infanticide. The mothers have never learned from the matriarch and other female relatives in a herd of how to become a mother. Another example, often bull elephants in the imprisonment of captivity psychologically and physically can’t withstand the incessant torture and lash out against a mahout often resulting in serious injury or death of the mahout. Often, the elephant is killed too. Naturally, anger is often a secondary symptom of PTSD.  

Marked physiologic reactivity is evidenced in the story of Tyke, a performing elephant in the 1990’s in Honolulu at a circus couldn’t take it anymore and continually crushed her trainer during a performance. A needless tragedy in that the trainer died and Tyke, shortly thereafter, was shot with over 100 bullets.  

Captive Elephants suffer silently (Gods in Shackles still shot)

Criterion C: avoidance, ONE or BOTH

  • Persistent effortful avoidance of distressing trauma-related stimuli after the event: Trauma-related thoughts or feelings

  • Trauma-related external reminders (e.g., people, places, conversations, activities, objects, or situations).

In a research study at two elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, 53 elephants were measured for PTSD symptomatology. For trauma-related thoughts and feelings, the researchers found 43% had an inability to discern and communicate social cues, 42% had an unrealistic assumption of danger. About trauma-related external reminders a distrust of humans, avoidance of other elephants 38% and displayed distress vocalizations and/or violent response to trauma related stimulus 34%. 

       Criterion D: negative alterations in cognitions and mood, after event, TWO or >

  • Feeling alienated from others (e.g., detachment or estrangement).

  • Constricted affect: a persistent inability to experience positive emotions.

Detachment and estrangement were seen in the 2012 study of 53 elephants in a sanctuary in Thailand. Of the 53 studied, 38% presented with avoidance of other elephants and (detachment or estrangement) and 53% presented with intense social anxiety and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces for elephants).

Elephants are Born to Roam Wild, Not Stand Shackled (Gods in Shackles film still shot)

Turning Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder into Post-Traumatic Growth:

What can one do to help stop the repugnant treatment of elephants? Educate yourself on at VFAES.ORG. Once educated spread the word and say no to all elephant entertainment. Consider donating to cruelty-free sanctuaries. Every autumn, major cities around the world hold a March for Elephants and Rhinos where you can learn a great deal on how to get involved in saving these species. 

Numerous scientific studies in humans and animals have demonstrated that with proper treatment PTSD symptomatology can attenuate. One major key in lessening trauma lies with the mahout and in cruelty-free sanctuaries. The mahout takes the main stage of reiterating a calming presence thus underscoring the intrinsic psychic need of safety; secure attachment.

Over time, a mahout is a person devoid of danger and cross-species bonding can occur.  In a study from 2009, a mahout with intrinsic desire toward prosocial interactions, a positive attitude, and calming presence was key to alleviating many symptoms of trauma. Sanctuaries facilitate an absence of danger, free will to roam, an ability to make independent decisions, and opportunity to engage psychosocially with other elephants.

My deepest wish is to have elephants live freely with the absence of human cruelty in all its forms. Until then, we must be indefatigable in educating the public, donations, and supporting sanctuaries. You can donate to support the work of VFAES by clicking on VFAES.ORG

Leslie Kane Lakatos (Ph.D.) is a Psychologist, with a Doctorate in Mental Health Counselling

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