I'm in a vehicle with researchers Katito Saiyalel and Vicki Fishlock of the nonprofit Amboseli Trust in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. An elephant named Tecla, walking just a few yards ahead to our right, suddenly turns, trumpets and generally objects to us. To our left, a young elephant wheels and screams. It seems we have separated this mother from her baby. But another female, her two breasts full of milk, runs in, cutting just in front of us. She is actually the mother. Tecla was communicating, basically, 'The humans are getting between you and your baby; come and do something.' Mother rejoins baby, restoring order. All proceed.
Behold the mothers of others.
When the vervet monkeys around camp hear an infant's distress call, they instantly look to the infant's mother. They understand precisely who is important to whom.
When a free-living Atlantic spotted dolphin named Luna got separated from her days-old infant in murky water in the presence of a large tiger shark, research scientist Denise Herzing, founder of the Wild Dolphin Project, wrote, "I had never heard a mother more vocally distressed." These mothers know exactly who they are.
A senior female elephant, her sisters, their adult daughters, and all their children live together as a family. The family is the foundation for shared infant care and child-rearing. Usually the oldest female serves as prime holder of living history and knowledge.
This über-mom, or matriarch, manages decisions about where the family will go, when, and for how long. She's the family's rallying point and chief protector. And her personality — calm, nervous, firm, indecisive, bold — sets the whole family's tone. (Adolescent males leave families, consorting with other males, sometimes wandering.) For months the mother keeps her infant in range of her touch, often in physical contact. She frequently makes soft, humming sounds to her infant, saying, in effect, "Here I am; I'm right here."
These babies we're watching are fat, as if overindulged. In elephants as in humans -- experience matters. A teenager is more likely to get into difficulties than a 40-year-old. Fishlock emphasizes, "Older elephants are fantastic mothers. They know what's going on, and they're superchill."
Morning heat begins hurrying the elephants into the quenching wetland. But matriarchs pace travel to the youngest. No child gets left behind.
In 1990 in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, the elephant Echo gave birth to a baby who could not straighten his forelegs, could barely nurse. He shuffled painfully slowly on his wrists, frequently collapsing. Officials discussed shortening his misery.
For three days as the exhausted infant hobbled along, Echo slowed the family's pace to his disabilities, continually turning to watch the little one's progress, waiting as he caught up from behind, patiently raising him when he fell.