August 13, 2015
Katy Payne —
In the Presence of Elephants and Whales

We were made and set here, the writer Annie Dillard once wrote, "to give voice to our astonishments." Katy Payne is a renowned acoustic biologist with a Quaker sensibility. And she’s found her astonishment in listening to two of the world’s most exotic creatures. She has decoded the language of elephants and was among the first scientists to discover that whales are composers of song.

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is a visiting fellow with the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. She was part of the research team that produced the original recording Songs of the Humpback Whale. Her book is Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants.

Pertinent Posts

With an unexpected, unfolding kinship with her horse, a yoga instructor finds a path to revealing — and healing — old wounds. An arresting essay on the wondrous beauty of relationship.

SoundSeen (our multimedia stories)

"Life in the Dzanga Clearing"

Researchers at the Elephant Listening Project assembled a dozen of their favorite images taken during their time in central Africa. See what Katy Payne describes as "Grand Central Station for elephants."

Selected Audio

Communication in the Wild: Recordings from Katy Payne's Research

Listen to the magical music of the humpback whales and hear Katy Payne's recordings of elephants in the Dzanga forest clearing from 2002.

About the Image

Elephants cool off at the Dzanga forest clearing.

Photo by Melissa Groo

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I have always loved animals and as an adult have collected my own herd of 6 cats and 1 horse. But the incident that struck me most occurred while observing a gorilla in an exhibit at Disney's animal park. The enclosure was open and you could see various individuals across the well hidden moat as you walked along the path, but in one area a was a glass wall you could look through. It must have been feeding time because a big silverback male came over carrying his 'cookies' and leafy greens. He sat down in front of the window facing us and watched what I call "The Human Show". As he munched on his lunch he watched the antics of the humans through the glass, the noisy bouncy children, the movement of people in and out of the area. As I was watching him he looked directly into my eyes and I felt a connection with him, his intelligence. It brought home to me that to be human isn't so different from some of our neighbors on this planet. I knew that animals had their own thoughts and feelings, but this was clear recognition of being from an animal so similar to me but so unfamiliar. I felt honored to have shared a moment in his life. I wonder if anyone else noticed the mind behind his eyes?

Yes. I was walking down the street near USC in Los Angeles and saw a group of dogs pulling a "sled" on roller skate wheels, with an Alaskan indeginous person leading the pack for a car commercial. The dogs had thick white coats and almond-shaped, wide-spaced, small and slanted eyes, I remember them as blue/grey. I felt blessed to see them, the dogs, the driver and as I passed close to them on the side walk there was yelping and one looked straight into my eyes, and saw me, the "mind behind his eyes". I felt he saw me with all of his great past of ancestor wolves, the heritage of the wild, the wisdom of his heart of service and he knew me. And I was blessed there on the sunny-warm, busy street in L.A., students mostly from Asia pedaling by to class, and me on my way to a dental appt. Cassandra

Kendra, thank you for putting that connectedness in words and sharing with so many people. I get it and have experienced those same responses to other animals. It appears to me that most people deny that Homo Sapiens is a genus under the order Primates, class Mammalia, Kingdom Animalia. This is no secret since 1758 and is today the scientific consensus of Animalia classification. In the 1980's I was involved with arranging an interview with Peter Drucker [see Druckerinstitute.com] in which he was asked by Wang Laboratories what pitfalls might lie ahead for the growing computer company. His reply, "Becoming arrogant like IBM" a company beginning to decline. Whenever I see people ignoring or denying that they are animals I am reminded of Drucker's response. The problematic arrogance of humans lies in ignorance of our place in the total scheme of things. People like you energize and accelerate the march of humankind toward a more civilized world. Those who do not get the basis of our roots retard that march...and have trouble with the kind of introspection that can illuminate their own short lives. I realize that "civilized" is a relative term; nonetheless, that is the direction in which Homo Sapiens has been headed. The question is how to accelerate and enjoy the voyage.

I had the same experience at a zoo.The gorilla was sitting right up against the glass on the other side of the glass wall and looked right into my eyes and we just looked at each other and I felt a connection to it.I felt its sadness and its awareness of my awareness of him/her[I don't know] as a "person". It was very moving and very strange and indelible an experience.

It's a wonderful show, and thank you. I am concerned that you misnamed the Quakers, though. We are the Religious Society of Friends. That first word is very important. I hope I'm not the first to mention it.

Thanks so much,
Jody Kinney

I once owned a rabbit. She was a hand-me-down gift from my inlaws who could no longer keep her, and I had just moved into my own apartment while I was in college. They figured I might want some company. So I named her Anna for 'prayer' because she was the friend that I needed at that time in my life. We became very close, as close as a person can become to a rabbit, but that relationship took much time to earn.
Anna was a norwegian dwarf rabbit which is a breed that is peticularly skiddish. All rabbits are very fearful. You have to earn their trust. Rabbits are prey animals and so every instinct draws them to take cover. I learned that I could not be loud with my pots in the kitchen when I was cooking and that sudden movements through the house would put her on edge. Gently gently, our relationship grew. She came to let me hold her, which was quite an accomplishment. She let me rub her nose and even closed her eyes when I caressed her cheeks. Her love was so precious to me because I knew that it was not given freely; it was given at the price of her instinctual guard that she let down for us. She came to know her name and was able to hop around my living room feeling safe in her surrounding. She made me remember what it took to make a friend,what it meant to become familiar, and how precious it was for one person to open themselves up to another. Anna reminded me what it meant to be afraid and vulnerable. I saw myself and the people around me in her meekness and in her hesitant heart when our relationship began. I also saw the beauty of our relationship in a more brilliant way than I had ever looked or appreciated in the friendships I interacted with everyday. It is something taken for granted, the trust that is needed and the sacrafice that is given every time you open up to another being, and I am so grateful to have seen that in Anna.

How lovely that you should share in your email your life with Prayer. How beautiful , such learning. I must remember in my relationship with others when I "storm" about rattling my pans. Cassandra

I beleive that the animals we have dominion over are exhibiting more of what we used to call human emotion then we are.We depend on technology so much and let it control to much of our daily lives.As our technology continues to increases I think our humanity to ourselves and animals will continue to decrease.If it werent for people like Katy Payne and Jane Goodall,et al many species would have already dissapeared.If you havnt seen it already the new documentary,'Last Lions',is a great example.Its hard to beleive that there are only 2,500 Asian tigers left on this planet.Think about it.

Along the line of what you shared clear back 10 years ago here on this site, I am reminded of somewhere reading, "Animals teach us how to be human." And that is true for me with my daughter's Boston Terrier, Charliy, as I become more loving through caring for her, relating and talking to her, and "seeing" her. And the latter expands out to others, the two legged and the four and I become more human.

I just want to say thank you for today's show with Katy. Listening to the interview, I felt like a kindred spirit. I am always happiest when outdoors in nature. Just being in the presence of others animals always leaves me feeling a sense of peace in what is an otherwise turbulent life. I currently am at a turning point in my life. I am making the decision, at 42, to go back to college. I've always wanted that environmental science degree. But, truthfully, I have been to afraid to pursue it. I feel like it was fate that I happened to listen to today's show. I'd give a lot to walk in Katy's shoes. In my opinion, every experience with an animal helps teach us what it means to be human. But, in searching for one specific example, I can think of a time when my oldest daughter was one. We were at the zoo in the chimpanzee enclosure. My daughter was standing with her hands on the glass window looking at the chimps. A mother chimp with a small baby drug her bed up to the window and sat down. She put her hand up against my daughter's. They stayed like that for a while. When another boy walked over by the glass, the mother chimp shooed him away with her hand toward the glass. It was obvious there was a connection between that mother chimp and my daughter. I was very happy (and maybe even somewhat jealous) that my daughter had that experience. Thank you again for a marvelous show.

I would love to know where you are in your passion to get your environmental science degree and what is happening with your daughter now at 13 that reflects what that mother chimp knew in her. And if she remembers that day. How lovely you should share it with us.

I had the good fortune of working w/Katy at her then home in Lincoln, MA, under the New York Zoological Society's Whale Research work. Like the elephants, her unmistakable and unforgetable voice has called me from a faraway room to my television on more than one occasion. Today is her Birthday, and so I am searching for a way to send her my best wishes. Even though it may not be a Quaker thing to celebrate birthdays, I just want to wish Katy a fabulous day and tell her I'm glad she was born. Be well, Katy.

Well done, as usual. It is a terrible shame to hurt so many elephants and whales when the science provides us with evidence of their ability to create and maintain a civil/social group. Wish we could do the same.

I felt this interview deeply. I have a few comments:
1) I always listen to the extended interview. But this time afterwards, in order to hear the sounds of the whales and elephants, I also listed to the produced show. I was very upset that you edited three words out of Ms. Payne's dream, "I was naked." Why in the world you do such a thing? The only reason I can think of is whoever decided to consciously remove these three words, could not bare the sublime nature of the dream and had to (unconsciously) diminish its power. I was quite shocked by this cut.

2) RE: How the elephants become silent and just listen to one another. I had this experience with 3 horses once. For one year, I spent time with 3 Fjord horses. I would walk, brush and sing to them. One afternoon, I started singing Amazing Grace to one of the horses, my favorite matron 25 year old Caroline. The other two came over to us and the four of us stood in a tight circle, facing each other, for some time during the song and afterwards in silence. A very powerful moment in my life that I will never forget.

The dream was so much more powerful, if that is possible, with her being "naked", but since Ms. Payne was tenuous about sharing, perhaps she herself asked that it be removed. Years ago before I visited two months in India I had an elephant dream, very clear, in color, and felt amazingly wonderful. Like a blessing. I am lying on the ground on my back with my head turned toward someone I do not see taking my photo of me and a huge elephant standing with her front foot on my head, ever so gently. In the dream I am so happy. And wake up with the feeling of deep gratitude and happiness.

Dear Krista, I continue to be deeply, or rather, profoundly moved to be able to hear the completed, integrated final show and hear the raw interview, raw in its humanity, integritity, and allowing me to close be there in your midst. I love even hearing the footsteps leaving the studio and sometime hearing the problems you are having with "dead air" as we just hang out in the silence as the equipment is repaired and readied. Raw means I am more woven into the sharing, the life, the beauty of two who share together in the quiet of the studio. And the guest feels "heard", someone who takes the time to know them, they open and soften into sharing their lives. My heart is full toinight here after midnight in southern california on the shoulder where the sea rubs up against, and I here in my kitchen cleaning up and preparing my meal, and writing to you... In gratitude. Cassandra

I have also been fascinated with animals and I always wanted to learn about them. I remember always reading the magazines (I don’t recall the name of the magazine) and watching the National Geography channel with my family. What I think is amazing is how they communicate with others and how different it is with human beings. For example, as Katy Payne says during her interview with Krista Tippett, whales communicate by what we calling singing. When human beings speak with each other, there’s no singing, at least that’s not what it sounds like to us. I wonder though, how do we sound like to animals? Animals are smart but may not be at the same level as us in certain things. My point is how do they think we sound like when we’re speaking with each other?
Katy Payne shared a story about a baby elephant dying. The calf was dying and was lying on the ground. Each elephant of the herd stopped by the dying calf to show remorse; even though they were not related to the calf. Katy also mentioned that a young adolescence male elephant was trying to pick up the dying calf with his trunks 57 times! And he came back 5 times to try to pick the calf up. As the broadcast goes on, they mentioned that it is also in our human nature when there is a need in help; we disregard the fact that we are related or not. I believe that is true because we show compassion towards others who are suffering, those who are hurt and those who are dying. For example, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary was a terrible tragedy that took the lives of the young children and brave adults. Even though we are not related to the families that lost their beautiful and innocent children and loved ones, we still show remorse and have sympathy for those families. To show support, we would attend the funerals (the people who are close by of course), attend vigils, send letters, etc… All in all, I think it is in all of our nature to help one another.
Lastly, I love how Katy talks about the communication between the whales and how it changes overtime. Can you imagine being sing to, whether it’s from your husband, wife or significant other? To me, I would find that a bit odd but only because it is not in our nature to communicate by singing. If it was natural to communicate by singing, it wouldn’t be considered weird. It would be like singing an opera, at least that’s how I see it.

Bare with me while I sing to you... How lovely you are. How lovely in your singing your thoughts onto "paper", dancing your singing, your searching and sorting it all out, with us who listen deeply and move on . Your music so loud of the beauty you are. With deep respect and love I suppose I listen with something beyond my dear ears to the music of the movement of your mind, intertwined with your heart beating so bravely beneath your shirt or your blouse where your noble self lives and hears. With gratitude for all you are, Cassandra

I inserted the link to this show on the Ted Talk with Allan Savory above.

I think Stanley Fish would be an excellent contrasting view--literary--to this particular interview. From a religious studies lens, although I enjoy learning about studies that can benefit humanity, I am not sure how a monotheist and panenthiest enter into a truthful discussion about our differences. However, I think the interfaith community can do better than we have in the past.

Listening to Katy Payne’s dream of an elephant elder telling her in plain English « We did not reveal this to you for you to make it known to others », I could not suppress from my mind the advice in Matthew’s Gospel : « Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. »
This raises the issue of the frequent predatory use of scientific knowledge and its emblematic examples of scientific remorse of the likes of Einstein and Oppenheimer when they witnessed the devastating use of their scientific discoveries.
Without entering the seemingly endless debate between those who scapegoat Descartes and Bacon as advocates of torture and rape of Nature and those who herald them as heroes of promethean proportions, it is clear that any form of knowledge, be it scientific, spiritual or otherwise is invariably used by both sides of the « to be or not to be » equation, the forces of death having often the most spectacular and predatory consequences.
The true lesson to be learned from such evidence is that evil is a force to be reckoned and seems especially active in the world through human nature. A delicate balance must always to be struck between what can and should be public knowledge and what is best kept to limited circles. Both sides of the equation know that and have, for that reason, strong occult and underground currents (e.g. secret societies, brotherhoods, sisterhoods of all kinds, etc.). In our days of instant textual and photographic communication, and of massive confusion between information and voyeurism, I find it hard to advocate for any restraint in knowledge dissemination, but the question raised by the elephant elder in Katy Payne’s dream remains. By intruding nature’s secrets, are we not, after an initial “high”, ultimately eroding our capacity to be awestruck (the typical addict circle) and are we not reifying Nature and making it easier for those who will use these « secrets » to better exploit and destroy it?
One last point: while we are reading the books of Nature and marveling about theirwonders, a team of the best of our scientists (Princeton, Berkeley and Stanford) released a definitive study, hardly 2 months ago, showing that our planet has entered, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the sixth extinction. In other words, our modern Alexandria Library is burning and, so far, arsonists by far outnumber firefighters.Of course, is can be argued that better understanding whales and elephants inspires firefighters to be...
I am grateful that On Being helps me, every Sunday morning, to reflect on the deepest aspects of being alive, and I thank you for it.

Daniel, your thinking here is very interesting and provocative. Thank you.

It is painful to listen to this discussion. It is astonishing to me that people walk the earth unaware of the rich, complicated lives of animals -- all species of animals. Against the backdrop of this conversation, hunters and trappers closer to home are salivating at the thought of the upcoming seasons to torture and slaughter wolves, bears, mountain lions, bison, fox, coyotes, elk, deer, bobcat, otter, beaver, seal -- really, every creature. The disruption and grief to family groups and invidivuals is immense and immeasurable. I can think of these hunters and trappers as nothing other than demons.

Just heard "In the Presence of Elephants and Whales" today - new to me but am so glad I did finally hear it! I wonder if Katy Payne and Temple Grandin have ever met and shared thoughts -how fantastic would that be.

Once again, THANK YOU!

I have always seen amazed at how recently we have known about whale songs(1972?)but wonder what the earlier mariners thought about the sounds they heard through the hulls of the ships. I do not recall any reference in Melville's book "Moby Dick" although that would have been an excellent place to write about it.

Are there any stories about these sounds before they were realized in the 70s?

From the time we are born, our innate affection and kinship with non-humans is apparent. What child's face is not delighted at seeing animals? What child is not affectionately caring and loving of them without regard for species?
What kind of species desensitizes and pummels the very heart of every child that naturally loves and care for animals? Ours! Looking broadly at human society, is seems that this is our most ancient and devastating religious and spiritual morass. Thanks Krista, for inviting and furthering the imminent conversations we must have regarding our relationship with other beings . A topic of such profound bitter/sweet implications.
Dr. Richard Schwartz would be such a wonderful guest as past President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. His understanding of Judaism's deep rooted obligations to care for and protect other vulnerable beings is as healing as it is prophetic.

I really enjoyed this story, until I listened to the part about Katy's observation of elephants in the Portland zoo. Most scientists and animal welfare activists agree that zoo environments are ill-suited for elephants, due to their immense size and roaming instincts, as well as innate needs to live in elephants families (of their choosing). Zoos cause unimaginable psychological and physical harm to such intelligent creatures. For someone that seems to love and appreciate animals in the wild, I was struck that she had such positive reflections on her time spent at the zoo- and was disappointed that she encouraged listeners to observes them in such an artificial setting. -Jenny (Elephant Ambassedor, Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai Thailand)

Yesterday was an unusually beautiful August day here in St. Louis. Crystal blue skies, cool temps and no humidity - truly rare. So I chose to take my walk in the afternoon instead of the AM. I live directly across the street from Forest Park, a glorious gem of a city park, and I typically walk in the Kennedy woods, a small dense 100 acre forest that is located immediately to the west of our amazing zoo. I often listen to OnBeing while walking and yesterday I chose to listen to Christa's mesmerizing and astonishing interview with Katy Payne.

As I walked I became TOTALLY immersed in her amazing stories. I was deep in the woods near the zoo as she told her story about how the elephants experience joy and deep emotion when they meet each other. I was not paying attention to where I was when suddenly I heard something VERY LARGE moving behind me, shuffling and growling/rumbling. Realizing where was - a few hundred yards from the large mammal section of the zoo - I froze as the obviously large animal noise behind me seemed to move closer. The adrenaline started kicking in... That's when I started laughing - to the point of tears. You have REALLY GOOD sound engineers. I nearly had a heart attack... I guess context rules.

The quality of the guests, ideas, interviews, music and yes - the sound engineering is a testament to your highest standards of audio journalism. Katy Payne's word truly moved me, and that is not an atypical experience listening to OnBeing. Thank you all for your wonderful work! I look forward to many more amazing interviews that challange my head and my heart.