Among the very greatest gifts I have received in my life, being the proud owner of Jesse (or Tiger as I preferred to call him) is at the top of the list. I never really considered myself his owner though; I was more of his disciple. He was a rescue dog-a mutt-that I adopted from the Montreal ASPCA when I was starting my graduate degree at McGill University.
Prior to Tiger, I had never had a dog. I will never forget the moment I brought him home, and the confusion that I was struck with as we left the shelter. How would I get this dog into my car? I realized quickly that though I had spent my life fascinated by language, I had no idea how to communicate with this creature.
I soon learned that the key was listening. I had to tune in to his language, which was of course non-verbal. Tiger was actually a very good communicator-he made it clear when he wanted to go out for a walk, have a treat, or even cuddle. What’s more, I think he could understand me (perhaps even better than I understood myself at times).
Our trips to the dog park became the highlight of my day. I realize that most people go there to give their dogs exercise, but it became just as important a social hour for me, as I made many friends there from all walks of life. The dog park is an equalizer-it’s a place where anyone can come, and as we all stand around watching our dogs socialize, we undoubtedly do the same.
One day at the park, an exceptionally big dog entered the arena. The vibe changed, and all of the other dogs began to question the hierarchy that had been priorly established. The entrance of this new dog changed things, and Tiger seemed nervous. He came over to me, and started to lean his entire body weight into my leg. I had been trying to learn his language, but this was a new move.
“He’s leaning on you. It means he trusts you. He feels safe with you.”, one of the other dog owners explained.
As the years passed, I was fortunate to receive many leans from my beloved Tiger. On occasion, I have also received a few from friend’s dogs, and always felt especially grateful for these signs of trust (even when the dog’s weight was rather challenging to support). I had associated this as part of dog language and behavior, but secretly I sometimes I wished we humans could do the same-just lean into someone without saying a word, at a time when we might want to express our love, or just feel safe.
This week something happened that made me realize maybe dogs aren’t the only ones that use the lean. In India, I believe that I experienced my first elephant lean.
It happened in a small elephant “sanctuary” outside of Jaipur. I went to visit the elephants, something I had been looking forward with so much anticipation. The elephant that we were assigned to was Lakshmi, a 30-year old elephant who was the first to enter the sanctuary. We had a long ride through the jungle on Lakshmi (literally ON her), but even after this incredible experience, I was not fully satisfied. Something was missing. As I unmounted Lakshmi, I realized that what I longed for was to connect with her. Here was this huge creature whom I could touch and look at closely, but I didn’t know if she saw me or if my presence meant anything to her.
In my experience, there are only a few ways that I feel are most effective to communicate. One is eye contact. I stroked Lakshmi’s forehead, and tried to get her to look at me. Her eyes were closed, so I kept stroking her, somehow trying to speak to her telepathically as I use to with Tiger.
And then, to my surprise, she opened her big eyes (by the way, elephants have the most impressive eyelashes I have ever seen!), and looked me straight in the eye for what seemed like a very long time. This was the connection I had been looking for, as there was no mistaking the fact that she now saw me. There were no words exchanged, but something happened. And before I knew it, I got something I never would have expected. That greatest of gifts: the lean.
Let me tell you, receiving an elephant lean is a humbling experience! It’s something I was deeply flattered by, so the last think I wanted to do was waiver, but it was hard not to!
It’s a moment I will never forget. I was so moved, and so grateful, that I decided to try to reciprocate in a way that I hoped would be as surprising to Lakshmi as her lean was to me.
I had heard that elephants love singing, and I figured I may never have another chance to find out for myself. If indeed they did, perhaps this would be a worthy gift back to Lakshmi, who had given me her trust.
I was glad that I did. Indeed, Lakshmi seemed to enjoy my singing, as did the other elephants. They swayed their tails and their trunks to the beat of the Habanera from Carmen, and one elephant even seemed to shift his weight as though he was dancing.
I know that humans don’t actually lean, but I think we can do things that mean the same. Small acts of kindness for instance, which can carry with them the desire to reciprocate. What if we all “leaned” on each other in hopes that we wouldn’t let one another down?