Friday, May 07, 2010

Trunk Calls Soothe Lonely Elephants

The introduction of the smartphone, especially the Apple iPhone, began the mad dash to create applications or apps for everything. Lost? Can’t speak the language? Want to find a good ethnic restaurant? There are apps for all those things. But what if your elephant is sad and lonely? Is there an app for that?

Actually, you don’t need any high tech special applications. A regular cell phone with speakerphone capability will do just fine. That’s what they used to calm and reassure two Bengal elephants that had been given to the Okinawa Zoo in Japan. Once the elephants had been relocated and their trainers, or mahouts, returned to India, the homesick elephants became depressed and hard to control. What to do?

The Japanese handlers made quick calls to the mahouts familiar to Devi and Rahul, the lonely elephants. Sure enough, as soon as they started receiving commands from familiar voices, the elephants perked right up. One of the mahouts even sings folk songs to them, according to the story reported in The Times of India. There’s no mention of the elephants joining in the singing, although they certainly could if they wanted to.

The clever Japanese officials of the Okinawa Zoo also found a way to limit the cost of all those long distance calls to India. No, they didn’t Skype the elephant exhibit. What they did do is record the mahout’s voice over the phone so they can play it back whenever Devi or Rahul need a little boost in spirit.

It seems that elephants are more like us than we thought. They form natural societies in the wild, with the older matriarchs looking after the youngsters and teaching them the lay of the land. Knowing where the water holes are during the dry season is truly a matter of life and death. Elephants rescue other elephants in trouble and grieve the way we do when one of the herd dies.

Do elephants have emotions? You bet they do. They trumpet with delight when they recognize another elephant they haven’t seen in years. They get depressed when left alone. Indian elephants bond with the human mahouts who raise them and, as they story shows, can recognize and respond to their voices even through the decidedly low fidelity connection of a mobile phone.

So how does this apply if you don’t happen to have an elephant in your care? There are others who will also respond with delight to the sound of a loved one they haven’t heard from in awhile. How about your mom? It is Mother’s Day this Sunday... and you do have a phone!

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