Why Do Elephants Sway? (The Truth Behind Abnormal Behavior in Captive Animals)

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Why Do Elephants Sway?

You have probably encountered elephants in captivity at some point, and maybe you noticed them displaying abnormal behavior like swaying back and forth or bobbing their head. Did it ever make you wonder ‘why DO elephants sway?’

Maybe it wasn’t just elephants. Have you seen lions pacing or parrots pulling out their own feathers?

Animals in captivity have been placed in an un-natural environment. Even if they were bred in captivity, they still possess natural instincts that they will never be able to use like roaming long distances and hunting. 

This causes them to become mentally distressed, which leads them to perform abnormal behaviors. So lets look further into these behaviors and ask ourselves why they act in such ways.

Why DO elephants sway?

Head bobbing, swaying, and weaving are 3 huge tells of distress in an elephant. They might bob their head up and down or from side to side. I have seen elephants that will lightly swing their trunk in a figure 8. Some elephants will sway their head and shoulders from side to side, and others will rock their entire bodies back and forth lifting one of their feet in rhythm.

It has been said that the elephants are dancing or playing along with the humans observing them. I’ve even read where a keeper told bystanders that elephants sway to their own heartbeat to keep themselves calm. 

All of this is total BS! 

Most elephants in captivity are kept in solitary confinement away from other elephants. In the wild, you would hardly ever find an elephant by itself unless it was a male that had gone into musth.

Elephants are highly social creatures, and they need interaction with their fellow species. When they are not given that interaction, they will begin to sway and bob their heads in order to distract themselves from the lack of social interaction.

Elephants in the wild have to constantly roam to look for food and water. Once they are in captivity, their roaming of miles a day dwindles down to a few hundred feet, that is if they are lucky enough not to be chained. This lack of movement could drive anyone mad!

So what else are they to do but start swinging their trunk from side to side in order to keep themselves preoccupied. After years of doing this, most elephants develop severe mental illness that may never be cured.

This behavior is not only related to elephants. Bears, apes, and large cats have also been observed bobbing their heads and swaying.

Now that you’ve asked ‘why do elephants sway?’ maybe you were wondering ‘why do lions pace?’ or ‘why do monkeys play with their poo?’


Why DO lions pace in their cage?

If you have been to a zoo, you have probably noticed a worn path along the perimeter of the lion exhibit. This path has not been worn by humans but by the cats that live in the enclosure. 

Lions and many other feline species have been seen pacing around their cage for hours a day. 

In the wild, these cats would be roaming large areas in search of prey. Finding food takes up a good portion of any predator’s day. Once they are in captivity, their food is provided for them. No hunting. No stalking. It’s simply a dead piece of meat thrown on the ground.

Now that they don’t have to rely on their instincts to find food the lions have to figure out what to do with the rest of their time. This is where pacing comes in. 

Some people believe the large cats were originally looking for weaknesses in their enclosure for means of escape, but once the lions realized there is no way out, they would continue pacing because it had become part of their daily routine.

Bears and elephants have also been observed pacing in their enclosures.

Why DO giraffes lick the fence?

Giraffes and many other foraging animals have been seen licking and biting at the fences of their enclosure. Most people may see this as a way for the animal to test their enclosure, but really it is a sign of intense boredom. 

Like most animals in the wild, giraffes spend a good portion of their day looking for food and roaming. Once that outlet has been taken away from them, they may become frustrated and bored. This could lead to them licking one area of a fence day in and day out or biting at the fence. 

They may be looking for a way to escape, but mostly it is a way to keep themselves preoccupied. 

Animals in the wild do not have to be given forms of enrichment because the daily struggle for survival is enriching enough! Captive animals rely on humans to provide forms of enrichment, and more times than not, humans fall short of the animal’s needs. 

Why DO parrots feather pick?

Parrots, cockatoos, and other “flock” species need a social environment for their mental heath. They feel safe in their flock and can become anxious and fearful if separated. 

When a parrot is placed in captivity, it relies on its “human flock” to keep it calm, but unlike birds of a flock, humans will leave their bird for hours at a time. 

This can cause the bird to become extremely anxious and lead it to start pulling out its own feathers. Birds have also been seen biting the tips of their feather off, bending their feathers, and pulling out the underlay or “down” feathers and leaving the top. 

I worked with rescued parrots last year and met a pet parrot who had been given up because of his consistent feather picking. He was almost completely bald! 

Like feather picking, large cats, apes, and bears have been observed over grooming themselves. They will continuously lick an area and pull out hair leaving open sores. Self mutilation has also been witnessed in captive animals.


Why DO primates play with their poo?

Anyone who has watched America’s Funniest Home Videos has probably seen at least one video of a monkey playing with its poo. The monkey might be throwing it, smearing it on the glass of the enclosure, or even eating it.

I used to think this was a normal behavior and that monkeys simply played with their poo. Little did I know this was a sign of lack of stimulation in the animal.

We may think it’s funny to see a chimp throw its poo at humans or other monkeys, but it’s not funny at all. That chimp is extremely bored and frustrated. It is looking for a way to stimulate itself and maybe even lashing out a bit by trying to hit humans with its excrement. 

Like all captive animals, these primates are looking for ways to stimulate their natural instincts. If the humans taking care of them do not give them enough enrichment to satisfy their needs, they will figure out their own way and that might just be playing with their own poo!


As you can see, most of these abnormal behaviors come down to the animals being bored, lack of socialization, and next to no stimulation. They are not allowed to fulfill their natural instincts to roam, hunt, and forage. They are simply placed in a small enclosure and left to come up with their own forms of stimulation with limited means. 

Next time you are visiting an attraction with captive animals take a minute and really observe how the animals are behaving. Ask yourself questions like ‘Why DO elephants sway?’ ‘Why DO lions pace their cage?’ ‘Why DO parrots feather pick?’ 

I’m sure you’ll find most of the animals, if not all, are displaying some sort of behavior linked to mental distress and boredom.

Have you witnessed an animal showing signs of mental distress? Please tell us about it in the comments below.

Why Do Elephants Sway?

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  • Heather Charnley on said:

    I recently visited the Lokkawi Wildlife Park near Kotal Kinabalu in Sabah, and noticed the distressing swaying and nodding actions of a group of elephants, and a bear looked at me with dejection in his/her eyes. I do not normally visit zoo type environments, perhaps I just wanted to see how they are all faring, and report findings afterwards. The park is quite small, and so all the animals really need more space. Sabah is not a rich country by any means, perhaps that is why the park isn’t big enough. I shall investigate further very soon and contact them. Their email address is lokkawiwp@gmail.com .
    I thought you would like to know, since you care for animals world wide.
    Best wishes, Heather Charnley

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