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The Issue

What’s Gray and Amazing?

Jumbo seems an unlikely mascot for a university. Not as unlikely as Sammy the Banana Slug (UC Santa Cruz), perhaps, or Artie the Fighting Artichoke (Scottsdale Community College), but not a “safe” choice either, like an eagle or a mustang or a Highlander.

As a source of inspiration for school spirit and athletic prowess, Jumbo is, shall we say, complicated. On the one hand, the creature was a prodigy in his day, billed (erroneously) as the largest elephant in captivity, and credited (if P.T. Barnum is to be believed) with a hero’s death, suffered while rescuing the baby elephant Tom Thumb from an oncoming freight train. On the other hand, few outside of Tufts know the history. Indeed, few people know much about elephants, period. To take Jumbo seriously as a mascot, one must cling to the frayed stories of his strength and valor while tuning out the popular image of elephants as portly, slightly ridiculous versions of ourselves.

But the world of elephants is not all circuses and peanuts. The more one learns about them, in fact, the more admirable the animals appear. Elephants are remarkably smart, for instance. Their brains, which weigh nine to thirteen pounds, are the largest of any land animal. Elephants are tool users: they swat flies with branches, disable electric fences by smashing them with boulders, and wield paintbrushes gracefully enough (with their trunks, of course) to paint recognizable pictures of other elephants. They can be crafty when they need to be. Captive elephants in Burma have been observed stuffing their bells with mud before sneaking into their master’s orchard to steal fruit. They are good mimics—one elephant in Kenya imitates the sound of trucks she hears from her compound. And they are among the few species with enough self-awareness to recognize themselves in the mirror.

In this issue, Dale Peterson, the Tufts lecturer who penned “The Secret Lives of Elephants” (page 22), illuminates the animals’ social side. The article, with photographs by Karl Ammann, is based on the duo’s new book, Elephant Reflections (University of California Press). As Peterson makes clear, elephants are a model of cooperative living. Mothers look after one another’s offspring, giving each mom time off to forage and rest (imagine, universal child care in the veldt). An elephant clan will accommodate disabilities: if one member is lame, the others will slow their pace accordingly. Elephants have even been known to protect sick or injured humans. Their remarkable ability to communicate is another story, one I leave to Peterson to explain. What we see in the end is a magnificent animal, at once sensitive, capable, and strong. The next time you utter the words “Go Jumbos,” you may be grateful that Tufts chose such a sensible mascot.

 
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