The Inner Life of Elephants

Experiments & Observations


Myanmar & Detroit


Inner Life of Elephants (a youtube film in 17 segments):  Part 1  . . . part 17




Film Script

(Containing a Summary of Our Research on

Elephant Behavior & Cognition)

(date this document was first placed on the internet:  Nov. 7, 2003)



 Some of our older work at the Detroit Zoo  is summarized in Chapter 7 of the forthcoming Comparative Vertebrate Cognition (Lesley Rogers and Gisela Kaplan, editors).  But since then my wife Donna and I spent more than three months with the wonderful logging elephants of Myanmar, which allowed us to gather a great deal of new information about elephants and to revise my views about their consciousness.  All our data will appear in the scientific literature one of these days.  At the moment, though, an accessible (albeit highly simplified) summary of our findings is available in a two-hour film form.  The narratives (but not the voice-overs), are reproduced below.




Contents (click to get to a particular part of this document):

Preface to this document


Heartfelt thanks to . . .

Introduction to film

Daily Life of Elephants & Oozies

Daily Life of Elephants Oozies (handlers)

Behavioral Observations


 Experiments with Elephants: Human Interest Asides

Pulling Retractable Cords (Bungees)


Bungee Variation on a Bridge


Short Term Memory

Discrimination Tasks

Do Elephants Comprehend their own Actions?

Mirror Tests

Visual Acuity

Comprehending New Situations?

Do Elephants Know that People See?

Are Elephants Conscious?




The Inner Life of Elephants

Experiments & Observations


Myanmar & Detroit

Heartfelt thanks to . . .

Photography:  Donna & Moti Nissani (Tel.: 248.427.1957; E-mail:

Narration:  Donna Nissani

Experiments:  Elephant keepers in Detroit and Myanmar; Bettie McIntire; Donna & Moti Nissani

Script, Experimental Design, Production:  Moti Nissani

Technical Guidance:  Thomas Moeller

Heartfelt thanks to . . . 

·        Detroit Zoological Institute

·        Myanmar Timber Enterprise

·        Myanmar Ministry of Forestry

·        Wayne State University

·        Elaine’s Bagels

·        Bettie McIntire

·        Scott Carter, Michelle Seldon-Koch, Ron Kagan, of the Detroit Zoo

·        Thomas Moeller of Wayne State University

·        Dr. Wan Htun, U Tin Lay, U Kyaw Kyaw, of the Myanmar Timber Enterprise

·        Elephant keepers of Detroit:  Rick Wendt, Erin McEntee, Kim Van Spronsen, Mary Mutty, Patti Rowe

·        Chimpanzee keepers of Detroit: Maria Manuguerra-Crews, Chris O'Donnell, Erin Porth, Jennifer Goode, Kelly Wilson, Marilynn Crowley, Megan Brunelle, Melanie Hiam, Patrick Smyth,

·        Oozies and staff of Kyet Shar, Magu, and Myaing Hay Wun elephant logging camps, Myanmar

·        Wanda and Winky of the Detroit Zoo and their 30+ thick-skinned, hard-working, Burmese cousins.



Narration:  Hello, I’m Donna Nissani.  From November 2002 to March 2003, my husband Moti and I resided in three logging camps in the country of Myanmar (or Burma).

We were living with, loving, and studying elephants.  Before leaving the US, we spent several months socializing and experimenting with Wanda and Winky, the two Asian elephants at the Detroit Zoo.  The video clips you are about to see capture some of our experiences and experiments with these elephants.

In particular, the first part of this film highlights the beauty, daily lives, contributions to sustainable logging, and behavior of elephants.  The second part describes experiments on their vision, short-term memory, problem-solving abilities, and cognition. 


Daily Life of Elephants Oozies (handlers)


Clip:  making soap and brush

Clip:  Elephants bathing at the Kaboung Stream

Clip:  Coming back from the river

Clip:  Climbing an elephant


Narration  Note that working elephants always wear a wooden bell (*Donna: show bell*).  Extremely dangerous or killer elephants, on the other hand, wear an iron bell. 

Next you’ll see the making of an auspicious ring from bristles taken from the end of an elephants tail [Donna: Show ring].  Not shown in the film is the fancier gold-wrapped variation jewelers of Myanmar make

Clip:  Making of an auspicious elephant ring


Our Life in the Woods

Narration:  Most of the people we lived among were Buddhists, yet they enthusiastically celebrated Christmas with us.

Clip:  Christmas party for us

Snapshot: Our Magu hut


Narration:  Here is a typical scene—which more than made up for the malaria I contracted and for any other hardship.

Clip:  Baby and mom visiting our hut


Behavioral Observations

Narration):  How can you tell a happy elephant when you see one?

Clips: Signs of happy elephant 


Narration:  Elephants relish dusting themselves.  Here you’ll see two examples of this:  First, a five-year-old, then a 7-year-old blind elephant.    

Clips: Dusting


Narration:  Elephants are quick and extremely protective of their trunk

Clip:  Elephants are quick, and protective of their trunk


Narration:  To see just how strong elephants are, here is  Sit Aye Nyein, a 7-year-old elephant, winning a Christmas day tug of war against 15 men.

Clip:  Tug of war: elephants are strong


Narration:  The following clips show that at least some elephants  scratch themselves with a stick, which is an example of tool use.  The third scratcher shown here is Shwe Mya, the blind 7-year-old we saw earlier.  Not shown are two other unconventional ways of scratching .  First, both Moti and I saw 22-year-old Khain Maung Gyi matter-of-factly scratching his belly with his erect penis.  Second, Patti Rowe from the Detroit Zoo reports that, upon failing to reach the itchy part of her back with a stick, Winky went over to a wall and, still holding her stick, curled her trunk, pushed its curled portion against the wall, and, with this added leverage, reached an otherwise inaccessible part of her body. 

Clips:  3 scratchers

Narration:  When frustrated, elephants sometime thump the ground with their trunk.

Clip:  thumping (when frustrated)


Narration:  Here, a bigger, older, male (Zaw Oo), is not sure whether he wants to share food with a smaller, younger, female (Shain Shwe Pyi).  The two do not know each other well.  On other occasions, we saw some close friends willingly and companionably share food. 

Clip:  Feeding from same bucket?:


Narration:  Detroit’s older elephant Winky routinely retrieves objects by blowing on them. Similarly, according to Charles Darwin, after several failed attempts to reach a potato with her trunk, another zoo elephant retrieved a potato by blowing it against a wall.

Clip:  Winky blows on object



Narration:  For a very long time, Myanmar logged its teak forests with elephants, thus showing the rest of the world that forests can be logged on a sustainable basis.  That proud tradition is now at risk.  Nonetheless, Myanmar’s forests are often managed in the traditional way— by cutting the logs selectively, with hand saws and elephants, and then floating them downstream to the capital city of Rangoon.  The following clips show some parts of this profitable—and ecologically-sustainable-- logging tradition.  Note, especially, the intricate collaboration between the elephant handlers/loggers (or oozies) and their charges. 

We’ll first see a few demonstrations, kindly carried out especially for us.


Clip:  pushing logs at the killer camp

Clip:  pushing log with ft

Clip:  pushing log with trunk



Clips:  A Morning in the life of Hla Htaik


Narration:  Next we’ll see everyday logging, the way it really works, as well as a construction of temporary bridge, both at a remote camp in the jungle 


Clip:  harnessing

Clip:  making 2 holes for the dragging chain

Clip:  sculpturing to ease dragging

Clip:  begin to drag

Clip:  dragging

Clip:  tandem

Clip:  straining

Clip:  pushing log to creek: MM5a6

Clip:  log falls on water

Clip:  other side

Clip:  more other side, cutting tree for temp bridge, bridge.


Narration:  A couple of days later, the laboriously-constructed bridge (whose beginnings you have just seen) was washed away by unexpected hard winter rain.

The elephants handlers you see in this film earn $6 a month--and a sack of substandard rice.  Their job is doubly dangerous:  First, working with elephants, day in and day out, is risky.  Second, the handlers (or oozies) are loggers too, and logging is a hazardous occupation in and of itself.  In the next three clips you’ll see that trees and logs fall extremely fast, and that elephant handlers are subject to other hardships, besides illiteracy, poverty, and malaria. 


Clip:  big crash

Clip:  Logs fall fast

Clip:  red ants


Narration:  Unfortunately, one sees at times cruelty and indifference towards elephants and other animals, even among practicing Buddhists.  Oozies once spent their entire lives with a single elephant, but now oozies come and go.  Moreover, to just eat enough, oozies are often forced to overwork their elephants--on the side, for private contractors.  For example, of the thirty+ elephants we worked with, in just three months, two teenaged elephants were compelled to drag heavy logs and consequently suffered possibly irreversible injuries.  Note, for example, the swollen right shoulder of this elephant:


Snapshot, Zaw Oo

Narration:  Here is a living example of unauthorized, destructive, overworking of a sweet young elephant.



Narration:  At age 5, elephants undergo severe training, which, some people believe, breaks their spirit. 

Snapshot:  training a 4yrold


 Experiments with Elephants: Human Interest Asides

Narration:  Here, to begin with, are a few human interest aspects of our experiments. 

We often had a diverse and curious audience

Clip:  :audience

Narration:  Once we got going, we would often carry out several experiments at one time

Clip:  simultaneous experiments

Narration:  In our three months in the jungle, science and tradition happily co-existed.  Here is one example:

Clip:  Science & tradition

Narration:  We observed and interacted with elephants everywhere.  Here we see them walking near our experimental area, then visiting our bamboo home. 

Clip:  : back from bathing, going by our experimental site

Clip:  Baby visits expt'l area

Narration:  Sometimes caution seemed advisable—note the machete in the foreground.  We did, however, try to limit contact with man-killing elephants

Snapshot: science with a machete


Pulling Retractable Cords (Bungees):

Narration:  Elephants can quickly learn to obtain a morsel of food by pulling a rope, but can they figure out how to obtain food when it is tied to a retractable (or bungee) rope?

Clip:  bungee explained

Clip:  Hla Htaik 3rd time

Clip:  Hla Htaik mouth )

Clip:  TDN, 1st time for her:  2ft, mouth


Bungee Variation on a Bridge

Clip:  TKM, bridge

Clip:  MMM wrapping and ft


Narration:  first sight, this coordinated rope-pulling action seems to involve insight.  The elephants, it appears, figure out in their heads that they can only obtain treats by a coordinated, flexible, and versatile action of trunk and foot; trunk and mouth; trunk, mouth and foot.  They sometimes even wrap the rope around their trunk! However, the following footage raises the possibility that they do not rely on insight in solving this task, but on prior experiences or trial-and-error learning.  Note as well how reluctant all of us are to entertain the notion that the elephant does not understand what’s going on!

Clips:  Wanda, bungee variations


Sense of Smell

Narration:  We wanted to gain some understanding of the elephant’s sense of smell.  In one investigation, we found out that an elephant can tell which end of two 3-meter-long (10-ft) tubes contain a bagel and which doesn’t.  By the second session, Winky chose the right tube in 9 out of 10 trials, and Wanda in 20 of 20.  Moreover, in Wanda’s case, at least, we could be sure:  she only tightened her trunk around the tube when the bagel piece was at the far end of that tube, 3 meters away.


Clip:  Long tubes


Narration:  In a second set of experiments, we trained a blind elephant to come to Moti for treats from a variety of distances and from different wind directions.  When she was 40 m, or some 130 feet, downwind from Moti, she was able to find him in 60% of the trials--suggesting again the elephant’s reputation as a super-sniffer is well deserved!

Clips:  Olfaction Trail with a Blind Elephant



Short Term Memory:

Narration:  Elephants have excellent long-term memories, but what about their short-term memories?  Here, we noticed great variations between one elephant and another.  The short-term memory of 10-year-old Aung Chan Thar, our star performer, was indeed remarkable and outshone that of all the others:

Clip:  From pre-Training to 15-sec delay with 4 interruptions


Narration:  We were only able to bring his performance to chance level (50/50) on the last afternoon of our stay in the jungle, by replacing the hammer blows with loud hand-claps close to his trunk.


Discrimination Tasks


Narration:  Up to age thirty or so, young working elephants can learn to preferentially select one object over another--and they do this faster than previously believed.  When given a choice between a white and a black object, young elephants can learn to select either one, but they learn more rapidly to select a white object than a black one (an average of 84 trials for white; 307 for black).  Surprisingly, beyond age 30 or so, elephants seem unable to learn simple discrimination tasks.

  We shall now first witness fragments of two consecutive pre-training sessions.  The two sessions lasted about two hours and ended with complete mastery of the task.

Clips:  Lid Removal, First Day:  Fragments from one Hour of Training.

Clips:  :  Second Day, Same Elephant   

Clips:  :  Third Day, same elephant:  Real discrimination task:  white in her case is the correct choice

Clip:  Another young elephant:


Narration:  Another learning task which some young elephants can master involves discrimination between small and large objects.


Clip:   Zaw Oo, boxes


Narration:  So, some elephants can master simple discrimination tasks.  But they do so gradually, not in an all-or-none manner, suggesting again lack of understanding of the task they eventually come to perform so well.



Do Elephants Comprehend their Actions?

Narration:  Do elephants understand what they are doing, or do they learn to choose one kind of object over another mechanically, as behaviorists like Watson and Skinner believe?  As we have seen, elephants take a long time learning to remove a lid from a bucket.  This is more consistent with the behavioristic model--as are the following clips of 9 different elephants:

Clips:  Grasp lid/bucket relationship

Clips:  Grasp cover/hole relationship?


Reactions to Image of Self in a Mirror

Narration:  Chimpanzees, orangutans, and bottle-nosed dolphins act as if they recognize their own image in the mirror.  With elephants, one study suggests that they do while another suggests that they don’t.  We introduced a slightly different design, in an effort to resolve this controversy.  Wanda and Winky, the Detroit zoo elephants, were habituated to mirror and feathers.  At first they reacted with interest to both, a reaction which subsided with time.  We then stuck a feather on their head, to which they seemed oblivious.  Once they got used to wearing feathers over a period of several days,  we re-introduced the mirror, trying to see whether they would detect the change in their own appearance and try to remove the feather from their forehead.  They did not.   

Do not seem to recognize themselves in mirror:

Clip:  Zoo mirror Critical Segment


Narration:  The clips you’ll see next suggest that elephants can remove a feather from their head, if they happen to touch it.  They can also remove it from the head of another elephant.

Clip:  Control: Can remove own feather if she knows it's there

Clip:  And she can remove Wand's feather


Visual Acuity

Narration:  To answer the question: “Do Elephants Think?,” we had to know:  Just how well do elephants see?”  We began by presenting them with small objects (1 cm or 0.4 inches in diameter), and found that they could detect such objects when these objects were in motion, but not when they were stationary.  Likewise, this young elephant could not distinguish a piece of sugar cane from the rope that surrounded it.

Clip:  Qualitative:  can't see cane


Narration:  We trained a young elephant to come to Moti for treats.  Next, Moti stood perfectly still in an open field, in full daylight, and Tun Thin Thin, the five year old sweetie, stood at varying distances upwind from him.  That is, the wind blew from her direction to his, and we knew already from our earlier work with a blind elephant that an elephant cannot possibly smell a downwind human being from that distance.  Here is how she was pre-trained to come to Moti

Clip:  Pre-training and actual trials 


Narration:  She could only see Moti standing at a distance of up to 30 meters, or 98 ft., suggesting again that elephants do not see well.

We also conducted a series of quantitative visual tests, relying on skills acquired in the earlier discrimination tasks.  First, elephants  were presented with progressively smaller disk pairs.  In some sessions, 4 of 6 elephants could reliably distinguish between white and black disks with an 8-cm (3.2-inch) diameter, but none of the 6 could distinguish disks with a diameter of 6-cm (2.4 inches) or less.  In other words, they can still distinguish objects of roughly this size, but not of this (*show disks).


Clips:  Steps A-E


Narration:  At the next step, when the diameter is lower (8 cm), she can no longer choose the correct lid.

Clip:  Step F8: failed

Narration:  Elephants can also distinguish a big box from a small one only when the difference exceeds 250-400 square centimeters (or 39 to 62 square inches). 

Clip:  Boxes


Narration:  With both disks and boxes, to make sure that the elephants failed this task because they could not see—and not because of fatigue or insufficient interest--a failure was followed by a discrimination task with a larger pair of boxes (or disks). 

Clip:  Control after failure


Narration:  So, compared to people, elephants are visually impaired.  However, that should not be taken to mean that sight does not play an important role in their lives.  An zoo elephant, for instance, sees well enough to follow visual commands.

Clip:  Visual commands_


Narration:  blind elephant can function, but she compensates for her lack of vision by touching the ground repeatedly with her trunk, just like a blind person walking with a white cane.

Clip:  “White” cane


Narration:  In contrast, a seeing elephant seems capable of moving faster and of keeping her trunk farther from the ground.

Clip:  How a seeing elephant walks (0:07)


Narration:  Likewise, compare the performance of a blind elephant (first clip) and a seeing one (second clip) in a similar task:

Clip:  blind elephant groping

Clip:  while seeing elephant doesn't (0:43)


Comprehending New Situations?

Narration:  The strongest evidence we have that elephants understand anything at all comes from a series of experiments at the Detroit Zoo.  First, elephants were presented, singly, with a tube in which a morsel of food was inserted.  Both elephants retrieved the food immediately either by sucking or blowing.  They showed no preference for either sucking or blowing.

Clip:  Zoo Wanda little tube


Narration:  , Right after, they could only obtain a treat from a tube by suction, they almost instantly switched to suction, suggesting that they understood the nature of the situation without resorting to trial and error (or that they, unknown to us, played such games before!).  We then created a situation where only blowing yielded a delectable morsel, immediately followed by a situation where only suction would yield that morsel.  Again the switch from the one to the other was instant:

Clip:  A contraption where only blowing is rewarded, and, right after:

Clip:  competition


Narration:  We first interpreted this remarkable performance as evidence of thinking--of working out things in their minds without the benefit of trial and error.  But subsequent experiments in the jungle placed this interpretation in doubt.  Two Burmese elephants were unable to retrieve food from a tube by either sucking or blowing, raising the possibility that Wanda and Winky had been trained to suck and blow before we set eyes on them.  This negative conclusion is supported by the following competitive situation, where the two elephants do not seem to grasp what’s going on:

Clip:  6-inch tube competition (not grasping)


Narration:  They will learn, but right now, it seems, they don't get it.



Do Elephants Know that People See?

Narration:  Here we followed the ingenious experimental protocol of Daniel Povinelli and his colleagues.  We conducted our experiments with some 16 elephants, and introduced a few modifications to the original design.

To begin with, and following numerous trials of begging from a person holding a bucket, when given a choice between a large object and a human being, elephants always beg from a human being. 

Likewise, after lifting a lid off a bucket to get food hundreds of times, if given a choice between a lid and a person, an elephant always begs from a person.  Elephants almost always prefer a man to a scarecrow, they prefer a man who is not shielded by a bamboo screen to a man who is shielded from the waist up, and they prefer man facing them to a man who has his back turned to them.  In other instances, where the difference between the two men is not as sharp, the performance of 16 elephants in three different locations averaged 69% (19% higher than controls, and 18% higher than chance).  These results are not as clearly behavioristic as Povinelli’s and, depending perhaps on one’s ideology, can be interpreted as either supporting or refuting Povinelli’s pessimistic view of animal mentality.  For our part, we tentatively accept Povinelli’s conclusion, even though our elephants (and our chimpanzees) performed much better than his chimpanzees (54%).  Our rationale for this is simple.  One can easily ascribe 70% correct choices to trial-and-error learning, but one is hard put explaining why an elephant who understands that people see fails to act on that knowledge in 30% of the cases. 

Anyway, here are fragments of the actual experiments.  We first had to teach them how to beg, which in most cases involved a simple reinforcement of an already existing habit:

Clip:  Learning to beg:


Narration:  Next, an example of our session #9: 

Clip:  S#9, fan, spacers unconscious controls


Narration:  We may note in passing that the performance of our elephants in this task (69% correct) was roughly equal to that of our chimpanzees (67%).  This means that both species, in about 30% of the trials, begged from a person who could not see them.  Here is just one brief example from Beauty, our star performer at the Detroit Zoo.  Note that she is facing a person who can see her begging gesture, and goes out of her way to beg from a person who cannot see her at all!

Clip:  Chimpanzee Beauty--Buckets


Are Elephants Conscious?

Narration:  We went to the Detroit Zoo and the jungles of Burma because we love elephants and were curious about them.  We were fortunate enough to gather some new information about their vision, olfaction, short-term memory, learning abilities, and behavior.   But we failed to come up with an unequivocal answer to the question which was uppermost in our minds and which constitutes in our view the fundamental question of both animal behavior and comparative psychology.  That is: Are Animals Conscious?  Is our Leela conscious?


Narration:  Are elephants, for instance, to paraphrase Collin Allen, big zombies walking about without any awareness, or are they, as Joyce Poole believes after decades of closely observing them in the wild, nearly as aware as human beings are?  Can they think or solve problems in their head?  Do they understand anything?  Are they aware of their own selves and of the selves of others?  Are they capable of empathy, compassion, or deliberate cruelty?  Once resolved, the answer to these questions will forever alter our view of elephants, and perhaps also our conception of all other animals, ourselves included.

 When Moti and I started our adventures with elephants, we took their consciousness for granted and hoped to come up with unequivocal experimental evidence in its favor.  Instead, although the meager evidence we have gathered so far is only suggestive and circumstantial, and although it does not rule out consciousness, to Moti, this evidence appears more consistent with the odd view that elephants do not think.  I, on the other hand, feel that there is enough anecdotal and field evidence to support the view that elephants are conscious.


In a few years, we hope, we shall have a more definite answer.  For now, we just want to end this film by saying that we were profoundly touched by our brief sojourn with elephants, and that we shall be forever grateful to the people and institutions who made this sojourn possible. 


Thank you too for joining us!


Acknowledgments & Credits


Myanmar Timber Enterprise

Myanmar Department of Forestry

Detroit Zoological Institute

Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Wayne State University

Dr. Wan Htun, U Tin Lay, U Kyaw Kyaw, U Than Htaik, U Tin Maung

Thomas Moeller

Scott Carter, Michelle Seldon-Koch, Ron Kagan

Elephant keepers, Detroit Zoo:  Rick Wendt, Erin McEntee, Kim Van Spronsen, Mary Mutty, Patti Rowe

Chimpanzee keepers of Detroit: Maria Manuguerra-Crews, Chris O'Donnell, Erin Porth, Jennifer Goode, Kelly Wilson, Marilynn Crowley, Megan Brunelle, Melanie Hiam, Patrick Smyth

Elaine’s Bagels

Bettie McIntire, Maria Manuguerra-Crews, Mike Losey


Elephants:  Aung Chan Thar, Aye Dwe Maung, Aye Khin Oo, Dawn Phyu, Hla Htaik, Khain Maung Gyi, Ma Thin Shwe, Moe Maw Lay, Moe May Myit, Moe Mia Kyi, Moe Moe Aye, Ngwe Moe Nyo, Pan Kyi Yin, Shain Shwe Pyi, Shu Phyo Maung, Shwe Mya, Shwe Win Phyu, Sit Aye Nyein, Thaung Tun Aung, Thit Daung Ma, Thit Daung Ni, Thit Hnyin Si, Thit Kyi May, Thit Sein Lay, Tin Maung Kyaw, Tun Aye Moe, Tun Thin Thin, Wanda, Winky, Zaw Oo  


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