No, elephants don’t think people are ‘cute’ – in the wild they see us as a threat

A viral Facebook post claims elephants see people in much the same way we see puppies – they think we’re cute.

But is there research to back the claim?

“I think we can safely dispel this misconception,” Leith Meyer, director of the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies and associate professor in veterinary pharmacology at the University of Pretoria, told Africa Check.

“When you look at the response of wild elephants to humans they definitely do not see us as cute. Rather they see us as a threat.”

Wild elephants and tame elephants react differently

Meyer explains that in the wild, elephants’ past experiences “have produced an evolutionary hard wiring that causes them to treat us the way that they would other big predators, like lions”.

The idea that elephants find humans “cute” likely comes from trained elephants who have become used to people, and who rely on them for their survival, Meyer says. Elephants in these situations may abnormally alter their behaviour “to ensure that they survive”.

Lynette Hart, an author of a 2017 study looking at elephant-initiated interactions with humans at Knysna Elephant Park in South Africa’s Western Cape province, told Snopes in an earlier fact-check of the claim that tame elephants “preferentially and favourably interact (and initiate these interactions) with humans with whom they have a special relationship”.  

Meyer says it’s difficult to know how tamed and rescued elephants see their human keepers, and while strong bonds can form they “shouldn’t be attributed to human emotions but rather assessed based on how elephants behave and interact with each other”.

Elephant brain activity hasn’t been researched

There has been a lot of research on the parts of the human brain that light up in response to certain thoughts and emotions, using a technology called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). But Meyer says this research isn’t possible in elephants, for a number of reasons:

  • An MRI device large enough for an elephant’s head hasn’t been developed.
  • The elephant would have to be awake for the MRI scan of its brain reactions to be effective, and it would be almost impossible to keep the animal still enough to take the scan. (There has been some success in taking functional MRI scans of dogs’ brains.)
  • Even if a functional MRI scan of an elephant’s brain were possible, there would be no way to know if the activated areas were used for the same functions or emotions, as human and elephant brains work differently.

Humans respond to baby animals as part of ‘nurturing instinct’

Research on cuteness and the parental brain shows that “cuteness” is one of the major ways human babies ensure they get the attention and care they need to survive. Baby-like features trigger a positive response in the parts of our brains linked to emotion and pleasure.

This nurturing instinct could explain our affection for young animals, and even for objects with baby-like features, such as dolls and teddy bears.

History of a meme

Africa Check traced the original of the photo used in the meme to Jan Van Huyssteen, who snapped it in South Africa’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve. The image was most likely taken off an online blog on African elephant insights in 2014. Van Huyssteen said he was not aware that his “image was being abused”.

Credit: Jan Van Huyssteen

The meme hit online image sharing platform Imgur on 9 December 2017. From there, it was shared to Tumblr.

It quickly gained attention when student Julia Hass tweeted: “I just learned that elephants think humans are cute the way humans think puppies are cute (the same part of the brain lights up when they see us) so pack it in, nothing else this pure and good is happening today.”

Entertainment and content-aggregating websites reposted the tweet, passing it off as scientific fact. And the rest is meme history.
– Laura Kapelari (31/01/19)


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