The Longform Guide to Elephants

Six great (and often sad) stories about pachyderms

 Elephants are pictured in Addo National Park on February 9, 2013 in Addo, South Africa.

Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

They “speak” through their feet, bury their dead and some can even draw — perhaps more than any other creature, elephants have captivated our sense of wonder and fostered curiosity about our own relationship to the animal world. Here are six stories on the great pachyderms.


The Day They Hanged an Elephant in East Tennessee
Joan Vannorsdall Schroeder • Blue Ridge Country • May 1997

In 1916, a down-on-its-luck traveling circus hung its star elephant. The crime? Murder.

“Rumor and exaggeration swarmed about Mary like flies. She was worth a small fortune: $20,000, Charlie Sparks claimed. She was dangerous, having killed two men, or was it eight, or 18?


“She was Charlie Sparks’ favorite, his cash cow, his claim to circus fame. She was the leader of his small band of elephants, an exotic crowd-pleaser, an unpredictable giant.”

An Elephant Crackup?
Charles Siebert • New York Times • October 2006

The similarities between the reactions of elephants and humans to childhood trauma.

“As a result of such social upheaval, calves are now being born to and raised by ever younger and inexperienced mothers. Young orphaned elephants, meanwhile, that have witnessed the death of a parent at the hands of poachers are coming of age in the absence of the support system that defines traditional elephant life. ‘The loss of elephant elders,’ Bradshaw told me, ‘and the traumatic experience of witnessing the massacres of their family, impairs normal brain and behavior development in young elephants.’


“What Bradshaw and her colleagues describe would seem to be an extreme form of anthropocentric conjecture if the evidence that they’ve compiled from various elephant researchers, even on the strictly observational level, weren’t so compelling. The elephants of decimated herds, especially orphans who’ve watched the death of their parents and elders from poaching and culling, exhibit behavior typically associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related disorders in humans: abnormal startle response, unpredictable asocial behavior, inattentive mothering and hyperaggression. Studies of the various assaults on the rhinos in South Africa, meanwhile, have determined that the perpetrators were in all cases adolescent males that had witnessed their families being shot down in cullings. It was common for these elephants to have been tethered to the bodies of their dead and dying relatives until they could be rounded up for translocation to, as Bradshaw and Schore describe them, ‘locales lacking traditional social hierarchy of older bulls and intact natal family structures.’”


Shooting an Elephant
George Orwell • New Writing • May 1936

An imperialism, doubt, and a day in colonial Burma.

“And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.”


Elephant Tug of War: The Story of the Toronto Zoo Transfer
Amy Dempsey • Toronto Star • January 2013

Is it ever OK for zoos to display elephants? And, if not, what should keepers do with them?


“The zoo was left with only three aging elephants—the minimum number recommended for the highly social creatures under zoo industry standards—and a game-changing dilemma. Management would have to decide whether to invest tens of millions of dollars into expanding the elephant exhibit, or find a new home for Iringa, Thika and Toka.

“Since the early days of the animals-on-display business, when the prospect of a zoo without an elephant was unimaginable, a majority of the world’s leading pachyderm experts and a growing number of industry professionals have come to believe most zoos do not meet the biological needs of elephants, particularly in colder climates where they are forced to remain in small, indoor spaces for weeks at a time.”


Do Elephants Have Souls?
Caitrin Nicol • New Atlantis • Winter/Spring 2013

Nearly everything you could want to know about elephants, plus the metaphysical questions the animals raise about our own consciousness.

“Even supposing that the elephants were our equals in intelligence, their life differs from ours so fundamentally that trying to infer their perspective from our own experience is bound to miss the mark in many ways. For one thing, as a rule elephants have poor vision—but their sense of smell is exquisite, revealing a whole olfactory landscape that we are contentedly closed off to. Also, they do not fall romantically in love (that we know of; that their behavior indicates). Think how many other aspects of our lives are profoundly influenced by good sight and deep eros, and ask yourself what might loom equally large in an elephant’s world that we ourselves would have very little grasp of. And of course there are a variety of other differences—where they live, how they live, the fact that from birth to death a female (unless something has gone wrong) will never be alone and after a certain point a male mostly will. How might these things shape a psyche?”


The Joys and Dangers of Exploring Africa on the Back of an Elephant
Paul Theroux • Smithsonian • April 2013

Riding rescued elephants through a wildlife park.

“We set out in a long and straggling file, heading across the swamp water, looking for animals. The mahout seated on the elephant’s neck talked much of the time to the elephant, urging it onward, cautioning it, mildly scolding it when—as frequently happened—the elephant took a hunger-determined detour from the route and, tearing at bunches of palm leaves, decided to eat a whole tree. We were aimed in a general direction, a long file of elephants, great and small, some of them with humans on their backs, and we saw impala and zebra and wart hogs, and a profusion of birds; but the strongest impression I had of this outing was of a herd of elephants, idly grazing.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.