Voices for Biodiversity

Touched by an Elephant, Part 3

Part III: Touching Elephants

Returning to the question at hand—why a massage therapist would be interested in researching human-elephant communication? The answer relates to the primacy of touch. Touch is the primal arena of connection and boundary for all organisms. In mammals in particular, relationships are mediated, and strengthened, through physical contact. In fact, touch is vital for healthy psychological development. It isn't only human babies that suffer from a lack of contact—all infant mammals deprived of touch suffer, sometimes with fatal consequence (Montagu, 1971).

Touch can be the elephant in the room in our modern western culture. It's hard to imagine a healthy family without healthy touch. Furthermore, whatever your sexual mores, touch is the basis of most sexuality and intimacy. As such, many of us are quite frightened of touch. We ban it in schools and frown upon it in traditional psychotherapy, because it can mean so much, and yet so many of us don't know how to handle its implications. Even the most touch-averse individuals recognize the value of a firm handshake between partners, a gentle hand on the back in solidarity during troubled times, and the relief of being embraced and held by a trusted loved one.

Even when deprived of growing up in natural elephant culture, the elephants at the sanctuary touched each other constantly. From the exploratory caress of a trunk on first meeting, to the solidarity of full body contact when one of them became distressed, tactile contact played a major role in their relationships.

Elephants may not share our abstract language brain centers (to be fair, they also have brain structures that humans lack), but they do share our capacity, and our need, for touch. Every time I touched an elephant at the sanctuary, I used my years of experience as a bodyworker to sense into her response. It was messy, inexact work—it had to be. But with every moment of contact, I learned a little bit more.

And every time I touched an elephant with intentional sensitivity—letting her know, body-to-body, that I felt and respected her reactions—our relationship grew a little bit stronger.

The aim of massage therapy, as a healing art, is to touch the wounded soul by touching the wounded body. This is so even when we are "only" releasing the tension in muscles gone rigid from navigating this strange modern existence that our bodies have been plunged into (Knaster, 1996). Perhaps the loss of reverence and connection to the wisdom of the body, and our loss of reverence and connection to the elephants, are expressions of the same wound. The need to touch the wounded, to offer comfort and care to the forgotten and disenfranchised—in ourselves and in the natural world—is a call to heal what is broken. For elephants that have known so much abuse at human hands, gentle, conscious touch may indeed offer the beginnings of healing and repair.

As we touch and hold the forgotten, the rejected and the abused, we take another small step toward wholeness, toward a world where nature is not dominated and controlled, but met with humility, listened to and cherished.

Photos courtesy of Jason and Linsey Honaker. 

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Jonathan Whittle-Utter
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Bradshaw, G.A. (2009). Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Knaster, M. (1996). Discovering the Body's Wisdom. New York, NY: Bantam.

Montagu, A. (1971). Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Moss, C. (1998). Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Pool, J. (n.d.). "Elephant Communication." Retrieved July 14, 2015, from http://www.elephantvoices.org/elephant-communication.html.