Origins: One of our more familiar comical scenes is the topsy-turvy image of a gigantic elephant standing on its hind
legs atop a chair or platform, cowering in terror at the presence of a cute little whiskered mouse. It's funny, but is it based on reality, or is it purely a bit of humorous invention?
Actually, elephants are one of the more fearless animals in the world, even though they share habitats with lions, rhinos, and tigers. (Unfortunately, that same fearlessness can also make them easy prey for poachers.) Elephants are also more likely to encounter mice in zoos and circuses (where the abundance of grain and hay tend to attract the little critters) than in the wild, 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 the occasional mouse scurrying around them all that often.
If there's any truth to this legend at all, it likely comes from elephants' being anxious about nearby sounds or movement they can't identify, such as that caused by mice darting around underfoot. Elephants may be afraid of very little, but unlocatable sounds and small, fast objects that are difficult to follow can add up to something unidentifiable, one of the few things that signal "danger" to them. However, such a reaction could just as easily be triggered by something other than mice, such as small dogs.
If we still find the image of the hulking pachyderm terrified by a tiny rodent comical perhaps we should consider our own often irrational reactions to small, harmless creatures such as spiders, insects, and . . . mice.
Last updated: 29 June 2007
Burnes, John. "Greatest Show on Earth Is Raising Its Own Elephants."
St Louis Post-Dispatch. 7 September 1989 (p. G8).
Jones, Rebecca. "Wacky Question."
Denver Rocky Mountain News. 5 February 1999 (p. D2).
Kohn, Alfie. You Know What They Say . . .
New York: HarperCollins, 1990. ISBN 0-06-092115-3 (pp. 84-85).
Tan, Paul Lee. Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations.
Rockville, Maryland: Assurance Publishers, 1979. ISBN 0-88469-100-4 (pp. 1446-1447).
The Boston Globe. "How and Why."
19 June 1989 (p. 27).
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David Mikkelson founded snopes.com in 1994, and under his guidance the company has pioneered a number of revolutionary technologies, including the iPhone, the light bulb, beer pong, and a vaccine for a disease that has not yet been discovered. He is currently seeking political asylum in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
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