Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

The Elephant Who Tweets

May 28, 2010

The Elephant Who Tweets

In March 2010, an Asian elephant calf was born at Taronga Zoo near Sydney, Australia, under highly unusual conditions. A pregnant female had, about a week prior, gone into on-again, off-again labor. Medical scanning of this elephant indicated that her baby was lodged in a fetal position so poor that birth would probably be impossible. Indeed, the baby no longer stirred, and zoo workers concluded with sorrow that a stillbirth would result.

Two days later, zoo staff arrived at work to find a newborn, laying on the ground and on his side, in the elephant enclosure. Very weak, he needed human help (including vigorous massage) to stand and further help at first to eat, but he pulled through. In honor of this joyful surprise birth, the baby was named Pathi Harn, words that in the Thai language mean ďmiracle.Ē

Pathi Harn now enjoys life by his motherís sideóand a bit of worldwide celebrity as well. In fact, Iím one of Pathi Harnís 1400-plus followers on (he tweets under the name he was given initially at birth, @MisterShuffles).

And as it turns out, Iím not a fan of this elephantís tweeting-- or more accurately, of the human caretakersí decision to beam out tweets in Pathi Harnís name.

Make no mistake, Iím a fan of Pathi Harn himself (even though I do have concerns about housing elephants in zoos). Heís downright adorable, and following along with elephant developmental milestones can be fascinating and fun. Last month came this tweet:

* I tried to suck up water in my trunk & then blow it out in a big spray like my mum does, but I forgot to close my mouth & it all fell out

At that, I laughed. This tweet closely hugs elephant biology, and conveys a sense of the learning that intelligent long-lived mammals may undergo as they live their daily lives.

Other tweets, apparently reaching for whimsy, stray into a mysticism that I believe has no place in animal behavior and conservation:

*Storytime. Mum is telling me about a long time ago when elephants & humans explored the world together. Humans were very hairy then

Pathi Harn, other elephants, and a variety of other sentient creatures surely do have an interior life: of this I have no doubt. Yet it robs animals of their dignity when we humans fashion thoughts and feelings for them (at least outside of literature). Although I often defend the practice of careful anthropomorphism, this brand of tweeting isnít it: rather than emerging from careful observation of the animal itself, it takes us far away from the animal.

Happily, the Taronga Zoo publishes an elephant blog that reports the elephantsí behaviors, including Pathi Harnís, in concise and accurate terms:

elephant blog

This sort of public outreach (complete with other informative links at the same site, relating to elephant behavior and conservation) is welcome. But a tweeting Pathi Harn is an idea that even an elephant should forget.

Agree? Disagree? Please leave a comment.


  1. May 29, 2010 2:41 AM EDT
    I think you might be taking this all a bit too seriously. I follow @MisterShuffles' tweets as entertainment more than anything else. Occasionally I'll check the blog to get a bit more detail on the little fella's progress. I'm not really going to give the matter of 'careful anthropomorphism' much thought at all - mainly because I couldn't care less. But what would I know? I'm the one following an elephant!
    - Paul
  2. May 29, 2010 2:43 AM EDT
    I think it was amazing television the night I sat at home watching Pati Harn come in to the world, and during a busy day logging on to Twitter and being reminded of a bundle of joy such as MisterShuffles is I don't think a bad thing.

    We take life too seriously, and compared to the phony political pages on twitter, I don't have an issue with it and would much more time for a tweet than a lengthy blog.
    - Hayley
  3. May 29, 2010 3:48 AM EDT
    Oh come on Barbara, it's just a bit of fun! Obviously because his birth was such a national thing, being on The Zoo and all, this has come from it. Who cares that sometimes it's a bit silly, I follow @MisterShuffles because it makes me laugh and that's not a bad thing to happen!
    - Mister Shuffles fan - Tassie
  4. May 29, 2010 7:02 AM EDT
    I agree! But--this kind of thing really appeals to people who'd rather "save" cute pandas than, say, rain forest insects. Cuteness sometimes works better than science, alas.
    - Mary Pratt
  5. May 29, 2010 8:46 AM EDT
    Thanks everyone, I did want to hear from people who disagreed as well as agreed! I reminded MisterShuffles this morning - as I tweeted him!!- that I had many nice things to say about him and the Zoo too. I'm not a totally humorless person, you know! But look, while it's wonderful to enjoy a baby elephant and celebrate his life, there's a real issue here: elephants are fascinating creatures as they are, JUST as they are, so can't we have fun and entertainment by appreciating their lives JUST as they are?!
    - Barbara J. King
  6. May 30, 2010 1:30 AM EDT
    Oh, one additional comment...I'd be interested in your thoughts on the phenomena of the tweeting cats, @sockington, @sirmewton and @grabbity.

    - Paul
  7. May 31, 2010 4:17 AM EDT
    For me as a follower of MisterShuffles, the tweets remind me that life IS to be enjoyed and help me to think about the things that are good for my wellbeing (like the enjoyment that is sunshine) rather than the stress of work.

    I think that too often people take things far too seriously, and saying that the light-hearted touch of the tweets are mystical and have no place in conservation is completely overly-cynical and is actually completely against what I believe MisterShuffles promotes.

    Yes, the account is a form of advertising, but if that advertising leads people to be more thoughtful about the plight of animals, makes them think about them more then it's a good thing.

    I think that @MisterShuffles is a win-win situation - it helps the people following by reminding them of the little things in life and it helps the animals because it makes people think about them.
    - Beth
  8. May 31, 2010 10:14 PM EDT
    Gosh does anyone notice that some of the people who are suggesting I'm taking things too seriously are... taking things pretty seriously themselves?! And that's not a bad thing. We all of us care about animals, clearly. I tweeted with Mister Shuffles this weekend and have to say, it was fun. It's clear to me that the difference of opinion is whether the fun of this tweeting will, or won't, lead people to think more meaningfully about elephants and other animals. And on that point, I'm stubborn. (Stubborn, yes; cynical, not so much.)
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.