Elephant Tracks and Child Safety Devices

It is probably true that every culture has child safety devices. It is also probably true that all of these devices are very limited in their effectiveness.

As an anthropologist living with the Efe Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, I often found myself observing some thing ... an object, a construction of some type, or a behavior ... that utterly baffled me. I learned to avoid asking about things as questions occurred to me; The very asking of a question, especially if you are roughly the equivalent of an alien visitor (an extraordinarily wealthy giant scary white being with highly advanced technology, which in this context, is what a poor American graduate student would be), is a significant act. It can stop people in their tracks, cause people to change what they are doing, even to question what they are doing, or change the nature of your relationship with the people you are trying to "blend in" with.

So, I was living with a particular "camp" (our term for an Efe residence group) and we had just moved to a new "camp" (our term for the place the residence group lives ... I know, English is a relatively primitive language, we often refer to multiple things by the same one syllable sound) and I noticed something strange. The camp itself consisted of eight or so round dome-shaped huts made of saplings and covered with giant Marantaceae leaves. The huts are more or less arranged around the outer edge of a clearing. Middens form quickly at the edge, consisting initially of the vegetation cleared from the clearing, then being augmented by kitchen waste. The cleared area is mostly exposed dirt which becomes muddy and quite slippery when it rains.

So, I was hanging out on one edge of the clearing trying to stay out of the way when I noticed one of the Efe men, the headman of the camp and my main informant, spending inordinate amounts of time chopping away at small lengths of wood and some vines, and working these materials as though making a basket or something, while everyone else was collecting Marantaceae leaves or pole-saplings for the huts or doing other camp set-up activities. Since he was working only in one small area, I figured I could meander over there later and see what he had done and eventually ask him about it, at a more appropriate time.

So, later that day I started wandering aimlessly about the camp taking things in, and in so doing, I made my way to the place where my friend had been working. There, I saw something that actually startled me and caused a minor flashback: There was a set of round holes in the ground each covered with a cage-like grate made of the saplings tied with vines that he had been working with. The reason this sight caused a flashback is unrelated to this story. Anyway, several ideas went through my mind as to what this was for. They were like little subterranean cages, but at present empty. The first thing I thought of was that some animal ... maybe a baby animal ... would be put in here if captured. Some Efe keep baby animals, often ducks, as pets for a short amount of time for amusement, and eventually, as a snack. I'd seen cages built for these critters before, but not underground like this. Then, it occurred to me that this could be a trap of some kind. Perhaps while setting up camp someone had detected the presence of a fossorial (underground living) creature like a colony of moles or something, and this was a way of trapping one. As an archaeologist, I knew that this could work .... moles traveling along in their preferred substrate poke through the wall of a hole, fall to the bottom, into harder subsoil, and are trapped for good. Maybe this was such a trap. But the spaces in the caging were too large to be an effective rodent trap.

Eventually, of course, things settled down in the new camp, food was being cooked, a few people had gone off to forage, and it was time to sit down and chat for a while. That was my opportunity to ask about the holes with the grates.

"So, what are those," pointing with my chin towards the traps.


"Those holes with the sticks tied together like this," making a grate by holding my spread fingers of both hands at right angles to each other, not knowing the word for 'grate.'

"Over there? Those things? The feet places"?

"Feet places?" We were using a language that was my second language and that I had only been speaking for a few months, and that was his fifth language. Feet places ... hmm, what could that mean?

"Foot spots," he said. "Not so old elephant places of the many feet," was the next thing he said. And then it dawned on me.

"They were foot prints,"

"Yes, of elephants, but not just footprints. One specific spot like the Marantacae leaf spots you asked about the other day."


"When we were walking via the trail by bat cave, and so-and-so dropped the leaf, and then so and so dropped his leaf, all on the same spot, to make a pile of leaves along the trail, and you asked about that."

Right. Previously, we had been walking along a trail and the man in front yanked a medium size Marantaceae leaf off of its stalk and laid it down on the trail at the base of a tree. This was common practice to point people following in the correct direction where a trail spit and conditions for observing footprints were poor. But this was a seemingly random spot with no splitting of trails, on a trail that no one had been on for a year, and thus, with no footprints.

After that first person dropped the leaf, most of the other men did the same thing so a small pile of leaves was formed. this was similar to a different practice, where one or two people, usually men, make a pile of leaves at the base of a tree that contains some resource, claiming the resource for later extraction. So I asked about that and was told there was no resource in this tree. There was no reason the men were dropping these leaves. It was just something they did "mbore." (No reason.)

So, now, I was being told that these holes with the grates were mbore like the pile of leaves.

"So, you dug the holes and put the grate there mbore. What does this have to do with elephants?"


"No, no, Gregoiri, the elephants dug the holes."

At this point, my friend stood up and did his imitation of an elephant walking, using his fists to represent the round stumpy feet of an elephant. He punched on fist repeatedly in one place.

"The elephants walk in a line, the biggest one first, the smallest one last." Yes, I knew this ... that particular elephant behavior was one way the Efe managed to hunt them. "Then the first one puts its foot in this one specific spot, like this" ... imitation of an elephant taking a step ... "then the second elephant puts its foot in the same exact spot" ... imitation of an elephant taking a step ... "and so on and so forth again and again" ... repeated imitations of elephants taking steps.

"Aha!" I cried out. "Like when the guys all drop the same leaf on one spot, the elephants all step in the same exact spot, making a big hole!"


"So why do the elephants do this?!?!?"


Of course. No reason.

Over time I was to observe this phenomenon again and again. By chance or because the trail takes a somewhat sharp turn, many of the elephants put one or two of their feet in one of three or four spots to create a small line of round holes ranging in depth from about 20 cm to up to almost a meter. In this case, there were three holes one about 50 cm deep, the others shallow, and on inspection I could see that the elephants were probably curving their impromptu trail around the edge of the camp to avoid walking through it. At first that struck me as strange, but later I learned that this was normal procedure.

"OK, but," I asked my friend, "Why did you build one of these (making grate sign with my hands) over the holes."

"For the children."

"To play with?"


"So they don't fall in and hurt themselves! It's a child safety grate!"

~ ~ ~

And so .... this story about some fellow coon rapidians with a toddler who is able to get through a child safety lock put me in mind of the above story, and also sent me to Youtube for more examples of kids breaking through the anti-curiosity security systems that have been set up to keep them safe.

When Julia was little, rather than figuring out how to get through the locks, she figured out that these devices were there to limit her behavior, and more or less went along with it. She quickly learned that it was easier to get permission to explore some unsafe territory with supervision than to break through the lock. Huxley, in contrast, defines what is fun by what is disallowed. I am reticent to attribute this to innate gender differences. For now.

I think the videos above represent a range of problems, including the design of the safety device, lack of proper use, and the simple fact that humans are extra smart monkeys and you can't have doors and drawers that adults can open that are perfectly protected from access by the little ones.


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"The elephants walk in a line, the biggest one first, the smallest one last."

And these blast points? Too accurate for Imperial Stormtroopers. Only Elephants are so precise.

Anyway, most of these child safety locks seem a bit...naivé, to say the least. I guess one of the problems in designing an effective child safety lock are the ethical issues concerning the experiments you would need to conduct - still, some of them just appear half-assed from the get-go. The third one is on the right track, I think - basing the mechanism on the actual physical differences between adults and children (reach or weight), rather than on the assumption that children are stupid.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 10 Dec 2010 #permalink


When my daughter was old enough (much younger than 4) to start walking around the apartment I spent an hour and a half putting "child-proof" catches on the all the cabinets in the kitchen. I recall that was around 12 cabinets.

The type I put in operated on the same principle as the ones in the second video.

The whole time my daughter watched me intently from the other side of the safety gate. When I was done I demonstrated the proper opening technique to my wife. Then we let my daughter in.

Since her hands were smaller she actually opened the door faster than I could.

All the locks that try to hold the doors together are worthless.


By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 10 Dec 2010 #permalink

Child safety devices are only suggestions, like Stop Signs in Texas.

Greg, given that my niece and Huxley have the same definition of fun, I think it's probably safe to dismiss the idea of this as a gender difference. I dread the day my daughter can walk over to my giant precious TV and put her mitts all over the screen.

Luckily, our TV sucks and is the old fashioned kind with glass on the screen so it is easy to clean off. The trick is keeping Huxley from putting his stuff in the VHS slot (not that we use the VHS slot, but still...)

My in-laws tell me that when my partner was a toddler, they took to tying the kitchen cupboards shut with string to keep my partner and the pots safe from each other. This worked until the morning they came into the kitchen, only to find my partner happily re-tying the strings, having opened them earlier.

I always used two drawer locks that needed to be worked simultaneously with both hands. If the drawer was wide enough, a small child couldn't reach both at the same time.

Kids are smarter than they look.

My two year old nephew have a passion to get something that he saw, that's why mom bought a drawer where she can put all things inside, also my nephew can't reach it anymore. As we all know every child has a curious mind, if they saw something they will reach out for it. Sometimes if they can't they will cry, well that's their behavior. Let's just put our things in their proper places especially pointed objects.

Watched the videos...

No longer concerned about where the next generation of mechanical engineers will come from.

But some concerns about the current generation of them.

By Emory Kimbrough (not verified) on 10 Dec 2010 #permalink

Emory, one could imagine a cycle that goes back and forth, like wolves vs deer but with alternating generations of engineers .

My husband says one of his earliest memories is of his older brother jailbreaking him (out of a child pen).

By theshortearedowl (not verified) on 11 Dec 2010 #permalink

I suppose the right way to do child locks is just to do actual locks. Cost is a problem, but if it weren't...

Thumbprint scanners would be nifty. Even cooler would be a "skinplex" persona area network. The devices are already commercially available, though putting one on every drawer and cabinet in your house would currently be cost prohibitive unless you're filthy rich... though that will probably change in a decade or so.

Ey iman edenler, Allah'tan korkup-sakınırsanız, size doÄruyu yanlıÅtan ayıran bir nur ve anlayıŠ(furkan) verir, kötülüklerinizi örter ve sizi baÄıÅlar. Allah büyük fazl sahibidir. (ENFAL SURESÄ° / 29)
Sen ancak, zikre (Kur'an'a) uyan ve gayb ile Rahman olan ( Allah ) 'a (karÅı) içi titreyerek korku duyan kimseyi uyarırsın. Ä°Åte böylesini, bir baÄıÅlanma ve üstün bir ecirle müjdele. (YASÄ°N SURESÄ° / 11)

I was the escape artist of the family. Figured out the locks and showed my siblings. I figured out how to climb out of my crib, climb onto the TV cabinet and eat the things (mostly CDs) stored up there.

By Drivebyposter (not verified) on 12 Dec 2010 #permalink