Tag Archives: elephants

An Elephant’s 100 Percent

When I walked out of that dissertation defense, still a little unsure whether I’d passed or not, I thought my testing days were over. My early memories of struggling with exams—I wrote that a sphere was a kind of weapon on one vocabulary test I recall—made me anxious for an end of the process. Hadn’t I proved myself time and time and time again? People are funny that way. We’re suspicious of those who pass. Are they really as smart as that, or have they learned to game the system? (Admittedly, with what’s going on in Washington these days doubts about intelligence have definitely earned their keep.) Tests, however, have become less common these days, at least in the fearful exam room context. Now we’re giving them to animals.

It has long been clear to me that animals are quite intelligent. When that mouse, cat, squirrel, or robin pauses in front of you, looks you in the eye, then decides its course of action, it’s clearly thinking. Of course, some animals are more on the GOP scale of intelligence, such as deer that bolt out in front of cars, while others—ironically including elephants—show up 45 in tests we assign. An article in The Independent describes how elephants are far smarter than we’ve given them credit for being. Jealousy, perhaps, makes the elephant’s own party withdraw protections from endangered species. We’ve got to be sure nobody shows us up. At least not while we’re on camera.

Animals have greater thinking abilities than we’ve been willing to admit. For being so highly evolved, we’re an awfully petty species. We don’t want to share our great accomplishments with others. We’ll call the amazing architecture of the bowerbird “instinct” rather than admit they can build homes better than many in the Appalachians can. We’ll kick over anthills rather than face the fact that a hive mind is a terrible thing to waste. We’ve known for decades, if not more, that all life is interconnected. Because we’ve got opposable thumbs and reasonable cranial capacity, we’re the best thing this planet could hope to evolve, so we tell ourselves. What has made us so insecure? Why do we find the prospect of animal intelligence so frightening? It’s terribly hard to give up the role of being lord and master, I guess. Or if we were to switch it to a classroom analogy, we always want to be the teacher, never the student. But after walking out of that dissertation defense twenty-five years ago I learned that the testing had only begun.

Elephants and Snakes

I try to be a good son. As good as you can when living a few hundred miles from home. I call my Mom every week and when the mood’s right, we reminisce. During a recent conversation I was recollecting my first trip to Washington, DC. My grandmother, who lived with us, had been born there and wanted to see it again before she died. I don’t remember much about the trip. I would have been maybe 5 or 6, possibly 7. The Washington Monument I remember because I was terrified of heights and didn’t want to go up. The sharpest memory, however, involves the motel.

We didn’t have much money and very, very rarely stayed at motels. In fact, this is the only time I remember it happening before I went to college. It was one of those cheap places where you park right outside the door to your room. In the morning, bright and sunny as only childhood mornings can be, I remember racing around the oval, gravel drive with my brothers. We had our favorite stuffed animals with us. Mine, ironically, was an elephant. I remember that elephant well. I remember running with him under my arm and laughing and having one of the most carefree moments of my entire life. Now I think of elephants in Washington, DC and the magic is gone. We never had much money when I was growing up, but my other favorite stuffed animal was a long, black snake. It was as long as I was tall and I loved the fact that snake and my name began with the same letter. I loved him so much that his eyes came off and my mother sewed large purple buttons in their place. At that time I had no concept of how apt the symbolism might be.

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The snake and the elephant are two of the most feared creatures on land. (There is a bit of symbolism here, so please don’t be too literal.) In the biblical world the serpent can stand for good but more often it represents temptation, danger, and treachery. I loved that snake as much as I feared its real-life counterparts. And now I find myself headed to DC again. I’ll shortly be on the train to join the Women’s March, my first official protest. I don’t know that I’ll have internet access the next couple of days (I hear Washington’s a swamp) so I may not post again until the work week starts. This time I’m not taking either elephant or snake. They exist already in abundance in our nation’s capital.