Rescuers of a male elephant brutally abused for 50 years in India claim that after the chains and spikes were removed from elephant Raju's legs, tears streamed down its face. But were the tears due to an emotional outburst?

Certain animals may weep out of sorrow, similar to human baby cries, say animal behavior experts. In this case, the tears appear to reflect Raju's astonishment and relief.

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"The team were astounded to see tears roll down his face during the rescue," Pooja Binepal from Wildlife SOS UK, which transferred the elephant to a sanctuary, told The Independent newspaper. "We knew in our hearts he realized he was being freed."

This isn't the first time an elephant has been seen weeping after a traumatic event. Last year, a newborn elephant calf at Shendiaoshan Wild Animal Nature Reserve in eastern China reportedly cried inconsolably for five hours after being stomped on by his mother that then rejected the little elephant. The calf, named Zhuang-zhuang, was later "adopted" by a keeper, according to the news site Metro.

Elephant tears, as for human ones, often appear linked to feelings of sorrow.

"Some mammals may cry due to loss of contact comfort," animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff explained to Discovery News. (Bekoff wrote about the topic in this blog.)

"It could be a hard-wired response to not feeling touch," added Bekoff, former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who, with primatologist Jane Goodall, co-founded the organization Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies.

For elephant calves and human infants, crying is probably more out of stress than sorrow, he said. "But stress is an emotion," continued Bekoff, who is author of "Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed."

He pointed out that scientific studies have proven that chicken, mice and rats display empathy -- feeling another's pain -- which is an even more complex phenomenon. For crying, the animal would have to be of a social nature, possess eye anatomy similar to ours, and have brain structure for processing emotions.

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Dogs are among the most social animals, but scientists and owners have yet to report on a depressed dog crying its eyes out.

"However, dogs and other animals certainly can suffer and may recognize suffering in others," said Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University who co-founded the dog analysis tool "Dognition" that any owner can use.

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In a questionnaire on the Dognition site, 72 percent of owners reported that their dog suffers from mild to extreme separation anxiety, likely similar to what the elephant calf felt.

"This anxiety is manifested as whimpering, whining and howling when the dog is separated from a loved one," Hare said. "So dogs may not cry with tears, but they certainly can cry with vocalizations to say they are anxious, stressed or lonely."

Over half of the owners also reported that their dogs actively try to comfort or console them when they are sad and weeping, so the dogs seem to understand the person is in distress.

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At such times, a dog might rest its head on the owner's lap or nuzzle the individual. In each case, the dog is making comforting physical contact -- the same kind that a human baby or elephant calf is hard-wired to crave. Human hugging might be akin to a dog nuzzle or a mother elephant using its trunk to caress a calf.

Writer and naturalist Virginia Morell told Discovery News, "Not so long ago, people thought that we were the only animals that could laugh, but now we know that rats and dogs and chimpanzees do as well. Laughter, in fact, may be a universal emotion in all mammals. If so, why not sorrow?"

Or why not tears of relief in Raju's case, after 50 years of reported beatings, starvation and other torture? Raju is now at the Elephant Conservation and Care Center at Mathura, India, where he is being treated for his many wounds and abscesses and is receiving food to help restore him to a healthy weight.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article appeared on Sept. 13, 2013.