While watching Channel 4’s Inside Nature’s Giants last night, I had rather a bizarre and somewhat worrying epiphany; I’ve watched many, many autopsies on humans – both on TV and, years ago, in person when I was studying medical science and forensics – and I never once had a concern that the human was being robbed of dignity, yet I did last night while watching an elephant go under the post-mortem knives. And that kinda worried me because I felt rather uncomfortably like a creepy voyeur while watching this show.
I think I’ve now decided that it’s possibly due to the fact that elephants are among those animals that are revered for their magnificence, their dignity, grace and beauty, not to mention the mysticism surrounding them.
Elephants are the only other animals aside from humans who ritualise death which of course shows a level of cognitive ability that is quite astounding, but, where we humans can give consent for our bodies to be used for medical science after our death, an elephant cannot, and I’ve concluded that was the cause of my unease last night. Nobody asked this beautiful creature how she felt about being dissected on TV and I had to wonder how her nearest and dearest were coping with her bewildering disappearance.
However, I should also add that I did feel that those who were involved in the autopsy did pay due respect to the animal; vet Mark Evans used the words “tragic death” which some may feel was OTT when talking about the euthanised death of an animal – the elephant had crippling arthritis – but I personally felt it was entirely fitting.
Evans was especially keen to stress the points about the animal’s dignity and to reassure us viewers that she hadn’t been put down for the sake of cutting her up on primetime TV, and I did find, at points, that their collective enthusiasm was rather infectious. Comparative Anatomist Joy Reidenberg – who apparently has the rather unique distinction of having been “inside more whales” than anyone else – clearly couldn’t wait to wade in among the gore to discover the elephant’s secret anatomy.
And, moralistic debate aside, one could argue of course that in order to better understand the animal, post-mortem examinations are invaluable and likewise, televising them could be construed as a valuable tool for bringing that knowledge to those of us who’re unlikely to ever be invited to witness such a thing in person. And I can’t deny that it was very interesting.
We learned about some of the amazing features of the elephant such as their ‘pogo’ like hidden toes which facilitate that rather comical bouncy gait and how their ears control their temperature. We heard too how elephants have to eat the equivalent of their own body weight every 20 days in order to survive… that’s a very lot of veg, hence the need for gargantuan intestines.
There was even a touch of levity as the remainder of the elephant’s huge 2,000 litre methane store leaked out after the abdominal incisions were made; it made me really glad we don’t have smellyvision.
And interspersed with the autopsy footage were other pieces of film such as elephants swimming underwater which was a beautiful thing to behold. We also saw Joy up to her elbows in whale, which was less joyous I have to say.
Overall, niggling doubts about the righteousness of the film aside, it was very interesting and, if you’re into anatomy or just curious about what makes an elephant work, this show is well worth watching. If you missed it, you can see it here on 4oD.