Elephants are my absolute favorite animal. There are a number of fascinating facts about elephants that are attractive to me. They mourn their dead. They remember long-lost herd members. They are a highly organized society. They communicate through sounds below the range of human hearing, often “feeling” sounds through the soles of their feet and hearing each other over a mile away.
Elephants are a matriarchal society. Herds are governed by a primary matriarch, usually the oldest and largest female elephant. They raise the young and socialize them, teaching them everything from how to find water to appropriate bounds of behavior. When it comes time to mate, young elephants will create a new herd but maintain close and frequent contact with their birth herds.
Elephants manage and maintain these close ties despite — or perhaps because of — diverse and unique personalities within the group. The Amboseli Trust for Elephants produced a book about the individual characteristics of one tribe, rating each elephant’s traits like confidence and curiosity, deference and respect. The most successful herds demonstrate a balance between teaching respect of the society and encouraging independence.
But the most fascinating behavior to me happens around the birth of a new herd member. Elephants experience pregnancies from about a year and a half to two years. Labor can take days and often happens at night. Elephants may even attempt to interrupt labor if it takes place during the day. Consequently, direct observation of wild elephant births is unusual, and video evidence even rarer. When an elephant goes into labor and her calf’s birth is imminent, the female elephants in the herd gather around the laboring elephant. They encircle her, facing outward, to provide a watch and protection against predators. If a predator approaches, the animals will stamp their feet and throw up mud and dust to disguise the vulnerable female in the center of the group.
After the birth of the calf, the supporting elephants will again kick up dust and dirt, coating the newborn’s delicate skin to protect it from the sun and burying the scent of the birth from predators. They will trumpet and stomp triumphantly, and they will greet the newborn, touching and smelling it with their sensitive trunks. During and immediately after labor, if the new mama is struggling, the other females will press in against her and literally hold her up so she can labor and mother successfully.
Newborn elephants stand and can walk almost immediately after birth, but it’s no easy task. The female herd members once again support the newborn and its mother in their circle of protection. Baby elephants can lean against a wall of immovable strength as they gain their own feet, and there is no shortage of tusks and trunks with which they can pull themselves to standing. This support lasts throughout the years the elephant calf is growing to adulthood, a time during which they are watched over and taught by a group of aunties, grandmothers, cousins, and older sisters.
I don’t think I have to draw too many explicit parallels between female elephants and female humans here; I’m sure you can see for yourself the lessons we can take from our pachyderm pals. But I want to highlight here the element of support. We can anthropomorphize and call it “love” if that feels good (and it does). Thinking about the way elephant mamas support one another and their babies, we can take some important lessons.
First, there’s the way they literally hold up the birthing mama. Imagine if every woman going through something difficult or traumatic understood that they do not have to do this alone. Can you just imagine that kind of peace and rest?! And just suppose they knew, without a doubt, that there was a group of immovable, strong, dedicated women surrounding them and protecting them from predators. How might that look?
To me, it looks like women from all circumstances gathering to protect our rights. It looks like all of us embracing all our rights, whether our own personal rights are in jeopardy or not. That means that even though I’ve never had to worry that anyone would question my presence because of the color of my skin or the place I live, I will fight to protect the women who have been questioned. It means that I will continue to examine and confront my own biases and my social position and dismantle white supremacy, colonialism, and patriarchy. It means that when I see injustice, I will call it out, thoughtfully and with love. But it also means calling people in as Dr. Loretta Ross recommends. That means stepping out from behind the safety and anonymity of a keyboard to have difficult conversations.
But most of all, what this looks like to me is love. It looks like listening to each other, even when that’s all we have to offer. It looks like hearing more than talking, holding hands with my sisters, and standing behind them as they take center stage. It means using my privilege to create a stage and then handing over the microphone. It means being an elephant mama, protecting and celebrating the members of my herd.
I don’t mind awkward — it’s where I live. I say, “I love you.” A lot. And I mean it. Try it — you might be surprised by the beauty and honesty of the reactions you get. I can’t wait for the end of this pandemic and for my days to be filled with (consensual) long, awkward hugs. Can you just feel it?
Today, I challenge you to reach out in love. Text, email, call, send a handwritten note — whatever. But reach out to a woman you admire and tell her so. Be specific. Does she inspire you with her parenting? Is she a creative and courageous chef? Does she have a smile that lights up a room and fills your heart? Tell her so. Go ahead, make it awkward. Do it with no expectation of reciprocity or thanks. Your day will get better if you do, and sometime, when you need it, those elephant mamas will be right there for you, holding you up.