The crushing toll of captivity on elephants’ emotional lives


Elephants in the wild have rich emotional and social lives.

In our recent research, we found elephants in higher welfare venues were much less likely to display repetitive behaviours that are signs of stress and trauma.

Elephants are considered one of the most empathic species. They are also highly intelligent, can recognise themselves in a mirror, and in the wild have rich and complex social lives involving tens or even hundreds of other elephants.

The majority of elephants held captive in the entertainment industry do not have their physical needs met – let alone their social or emotional ones. This deprivation can lead to serious psychological problems. It’s just more proof that a life in entertainment is no life for a wild animal.

The long-lasting scars of the crush

Elephant trainers rely on deprivation in order to establish dominance over their elephants.

Elephants’ emotional trauma – just as their physical trauma – starts young. Whether bred in captivity or stolen from the wild, they are taken from their mothers when they are just babies.

In the process known as phajaan or ‘the crush’, the young elephants may be restrained, starved and beaten to submission. This physical torture is combined with an emotional one – they are isolated from their natural social groups, and all other elephants. This torture can last from a few days to more than a week before the elephant is ‘broken’ – a short time in the lifespan of an elephant, but one that leaves deep scars.

Recent research has linked these early traumas in a captive elephant’s life – separation from their mother and the crush – to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Repetitive swaying and other movements are signs of the long-lasting effects.

However elephants do not always display their distress clearly, and elephant body language is unlike the body language of domesticated animals we are used to – so it is difficult for an untrained person to notice when something is wrong.

It’s comforting to know that, if elephants do have the chance to interact with other elephants, they can find comfort there. Researchers who watched a group of captive elephants for a year learned that like people, elephants console each other. If one of their own is distressed, they act empathically, comforting them with touch and a specific sound likened to a ‘hush hush’ (Plotnik and de Waal, 2014).

You can help

Elephants don’t have to be kept in such miserable, isolated conditions. Together we can move the travel industry to become elephant friendly, by showing them tourists want to see elephants behaving like elephants, in environments much closer to their wild homes.

In our recent research, we found elephants in these venues were much less likely to display repetitive behaviours that are signs of stress and trauma. It’s no wonder, given they have so much more freedom to roam, play and socialise with other elephants as they would in the wild.

Take the pledge to be an elephant-friendly traveller.