New York — How can you tell if an elephant is pouting?
Joan Embery, host of the Entertainment Channel's ''The Animal Express,'' knows the answer. The Entertainment Channel is the new pay-TV cable service that foresees viewers in over 30 cable systems by December of 1982.
As the new service grows, Miss Embery is fast becoming one of cable TV's major stars (of whom there are not many), and her unique animal show (Monday through Friday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern time) is one of cable's top family-entertainment programs.
According to Miss Embery, who is also goodwill ambassador for the San Diego Zoo, when she reprimanded her favorite elephant, Carol, the elephant would pout to indicate that her feelings were hurt. How could Joan tell that Carol was pouting?
''She would just stand there and let her trunk hang limp. Elephants have 40, 000 muscles in their trunks, so when it just hung there, it was like a huge, loose rag. She would drop her head and blink her eyes, too. I'm not imagining all this - you can only appreciate how animals feel when you're with them all day, every day.''
Many Johnny Carson viewers know Miss Embery from her frequent visits to the NBC ''Tonight'' show with animals from the San Diego Zoo. There is a glacier-like quality about her - but a melting glacier. She seems to be almost obsessed by her contacts with animals, especially elephants, and likes nothing better than to talk about her experiences with zoo animals, especially Carol.
How did Embery the TV personality get started in the electronic medium?
''I worked as an animal handler at the zoo, and in that capacity I trained Carol to hold a big household paintbrush and swing it back and forth on an easel. She attracted newspaper and TV attention as the painting elephant. That one experience led to my career in national television - at that point I was considering being a veterinarian while I worked as an animal handler.''
Miss Embery's training had been in zoology, but when she found herself more and more on TV, she went back to college to take some courses in telecommunications. ''I've really had to train myself,'' she says proudly.
How about the feeling among some zoologists that zoos are archaic places where animals are kept in involuntary captivity when they should be allowed to roam free?
Her eyes sparkle with indignation. ''There are over 1,000 endangered species today. There are many species in our collection considered extinct in the wild - so a zoo may be the only place a particular animal still exists.
''Zoos serve an important role in conservation. That's one of the things I like to point out on the TV show. We get people's attention, start them asking questions about animals, answer some of those questions, persuade some people to visit zoos. This show may be the first step forward for many people - the next step is to appreciate all wildlife and its value to civilization.''
If Miss Embery were to identify herself with one animal, what would it be?
''I'm pulled toward the elephant. There are so many social and intelligence bonds you can develop with them. They're sad creatures because they are essentially land giants with a limited life span under present conditions. They require a tremendous amount of food and a tremendous amount if space, both of which are getting scarcer. They are being poached for their ivory, too. I feel so close to elephants - they are such sensitive animals. I've spent a tremendous amount of time training them. I almost think like an elephant, behave like one when I am working around them. I can sit and watch a group of them communicating , and understand what they are saying, what they are feeling.''
What's the most human thing Miss Embery has ever seen an elephant do?
''Use tools. They'll pick up a stick and scratch themselves. Sometimes it is frightening how intelligent these animals can be. It shows us how much there is for us to learn about animals. We're finding through our behavioral studies that it's not true that many animals have no intelligence. There's frequently a high level of intelligence - but they may use their intelligence and reasoning power differently, because they have evolved to survive and most of their reasoning involves gathering food or fending off predators.''
What lessons has Joan Embery, human being, learned about animals through working with them?
''Animals are not an endless resource. They're very delicate creatures. Animals have a right to coexist on earth, and it would be unfortunate to lose that which cannot be re-created.''
As serious as she is about wildlife preservation, Miss Embery enjoys the animals' sense of humor, too.
''We have one elephant who, when you are running by, will put her foot out to trip you, then casually walk on. You can almost see the smile on her face. One day, we were doing a trunk mount, where Carol would pick me up with her trunk and put her front feet in the air. When I was about 10 feet off the ground, I slipped and fell. Carol came down with her feet spread apart so she wouldn't hurt me, put her trunk down and touched me, and started vocalizing. I could swear she was saying, 'I'm sorry, did I do something wrong?'
''I lay there quietly for a while, and then began to giggle. She was so happy , she snorted with glee.''