Are elephants really afraid of mice? If not, why do people think they are?
Elephants are not afraid of mice. They have never been afraid of mice, and probably won’t develop a fear to them in the foreseeable future. But we believe that they do? Where did this myth come from, and why are we so willing to believe it? After all, what business does a large creature like an elephant have to fear from a minuscule mouse?
The popularity of the myth comes from the fact that mice have startled elephants in the past. Our immediate reaction was to paint the comical picture of a lumbering elephant running from a little mouse. The myth is based on anecdotal evidence that disregards the many times that elephants have shown no fear of mice as well as the times they have been startled by other animals. Whether there was one specific event that started the myth we do not know as the origins of the myth have been lost to us. It has been popularized over the years by movies like Dumbo, but has been refuted by several sources, most notably by Myth Busters.
In the past, people thought elephants were afraid of mice because they did not want the mice to crawl up their trunks. We now realize that this idea is as ridiculous as it sounds. Elephants do not worry about things crawling up their nose. Instead, they act upon instinct. It was probably the quick, unidentifiable sound that the mouse was making that caused the elephant to sense danger. Just about all creatures fear this simple thing: the unknown. The elephant is no exception. When the elephant cannot identify the sounds coming it hears, its instincts tell it that there is the possibility of danger, and so it will react accordingly.
So how do we know that elephants are not afraid of mice in particular? A simple experiment will suffice to demonstrate. A random sample of elephants can be taken, and mice can be brought up to the elephants. A not so random sample would probably work just as well, such as that done by the Barnum and Bailey circus to their flock of elephants. The result of the experiment was that the elephants simply ignored the mice. The presence of the rodents had absolutely no effect on the temperament of the elephants.
The lesson we can take from this? Don’t necessarily believe what you are told. It would never make sense for a creature so large to fear a creature so small that causes it no physical threat. On an intuitive level, we are willing to believe this myth because we know human beings are afraid of bugs. But in the animal kingdom, things are much different. Elephants are not as irrational as we are. They fear only what they should indeed fear (i.e. the unknown).