False: One of our more familiar comical scenes is the image of a gigantic elephant on its hind legs, cowering in complete terror at the presence of a cute little whiskered mouse. It’s funny, but is it based on reality?
Elephants have shown themselves to be one of the most fearless animals in the world, even though they share habitats with lions, rhinos, and tigers (sadly, their fearlessness also makes them easy prey for poachers). Elephants are more likely to encounter mice in zoos and circuses than in the wild (grain and hay tend to attract the critters), but either way, there’s nothing about rodents they find particularly frightening. In fact, given the large size and relatively poor eyesight of elephants, they don’t necessarily notice mice scurrying around them all that often.
If there’s any truth to this legend, it comes from elephants’ being anxious about nearby sounds or movement underfoot that they can’t identify. Elephants really don’t fear much, but unlocatable sounds and small fast objects that are difficult to follow, are some of the most common things to set off their “danger” signal. Elephants may also be startled just as easily by things other than mice, for example, birds or small dogs.
When we think of massive pachyderms being terrified by a tiny rodent, we need to consider our own frequent irrational reactions to itsy-bitsy creatures like spiders, insects, and of course . . . mice.