Observations of a Nerd

GoDaddy.com Chief Executive Bob Parsons feels absolutely no remorse for his choice to engage in elephant hunts in Zimbabwe. He posted this boastful video saying it’s one of the most ‘rewarding’ things he does (warning – strong stomach required), and continues to defend it even after coming under fire for his actions.

Parsons had this to say about his hunts (this wasn’t his first):

I spend a few weeks in Zimbabwe each year helping the farmers deal with problem elephants. The people there have very little, many die each year from starvation and one of the problems they have is the elephants, of which there are thousands and thousands, that trash many of their fields destroying the crops. The tribal authorities request that I and others like me, patrol the fields before and during the harvest – we can’t cover them all, there are just a few of us – and drive the elephant from the fields.

The farmers try to run the elephants away by cracking whips, beating drums and lighting fires. All of this is ignored by the elephants. When my team catch elephants in a field (there are never just one) we typically kill one of them and the rest leave for good. After we kill an elephant the people butcher the elephant and it feeds a number of villages.

These people have literally nothing and when an elephant is killed it’s a big event for them, they are going to be able to eat some protein. This is no different than you or I eating beef. If at all possible we avoid elephant cows and only kill mature bulls. By just killing bulls it has no effect on the elephant social structure (as it is matriarchal) as well as the herd size. The reason is another bull quickly steps up and breeds in place of the bull taken.

Zimbabwe has had a lot of issues with its elephants. Local officials have outright lied about population numbers to benefit from ivory sales, and illegal poaching is commonplace. Are there thousands and thousands of elephants in Zimbabwe? Well, yes, technically, but the story isn’t that simple.

Overall, African elephant populations are classified as ‘vulnerable’. There used to be over ten million elephants in Africa. The ivory trade decimated populations in the 70′s and 80′s, leaving behind only about 5% of the continent’s elephants. The mass slaughter prompted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) to ban the trade of ivory in 1989, and thanks to conservation efforts that protected animals from illegal poachers, depleted numbers began to recover. The success was quickly tainted, however, as rising human populations encroached upon what little habitat the elephants had left, and herds began to come a little too close for comfort to human settlements. In many southern African countries, whole-herd culls were enacted to keep elephants away from villages and crops. Such large-scale culls were stopped in the 90′s, but the debate about how to deal with the elephants still rages on.

In Zimbabwe, the situation is complex. Conservation efforts have raised population numbers so much that the parks designated to protect the animals aren’t big enough for the entire population. Similarly, human populations have grown, leading to settlements in established elephant corridors like the Zambezi River area. It’s no wonder that the issue of elephant-human interaction has become a hot topic in Zimbabwe. The country’s sociopolitical issues only exacerbate the problem. It’s hard to tell people that are starving that they shouldn’t kill the elephant that just destroyed their only source of food.

The problem is, elephants aren’t like locusts or other pest species. They are extremely intelligent and have complex social structures that rival primates. They live for 65 years or more. Many believe that the need to reduce elephant numbers is outweighed by the specific moral argument that sentient, long-lived, social animals such as elephants should not be killed.

I can see both sides of the debate, and thus can’t say explicitly that, given extreme circumstances, killing an elephant is wrong. But it is definitely not, as Parsons says, just like eating beef. I’m not a member of PETA. I eat meat. I like meat. But there is a big difference between eating domesticated cattle or chickens, raised specifically for the purpose of food and (at least in theory) killed in the most humane way possible, and shooting an intelligent wild animal.

Furthermore, Parsons has no justification whatsoever in his statement that his random killings have “no effect” on the social structure of the herd. Elephants have specific reactions to death, and are thus one of only a handful of animals which is thought to understand the concept. Some speculate they may even grieve. What scientists are 100% sure of is that the loss of adult members of a herd has a significant impact on other elephants, especially young ones.

“Calves witnessing culls and those raised by young, inexperienced mothers are high-risk candidates for later disorders, including an inability to regulate stress-reactive aggressive states,” explain researchers in an essay in Nature. They explicitly state that contrary to Parson’s statement, the loss of males is anything but meaningless, and that older males play a ‘critical role’ in the normal social development of young bulls.

Even if, and I do say if, the killing of an elephant how and when he did was necessary for the safety and welfare of the villagers, I find it easy to be disgusted by Parsons. What bothers me about his actions isn’t so much what he did (though it’s really hard for me to watch) but the boastful joy he has about doing it. Let’s be clear about one thing: Parsons doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the starving people in Zimbabwe. It sickens me that he tries to claim a moral high ground when he clearly is killing for sport, using the guise of a real political and ecological issue to justify his perverse pleasure.

If Parsons really wanted to help the villagers, his money could be put to much better use. He could invest in effective, humane measures to keep the elephants from destroying crops. Protective measures like fences solve the problem far more effectively than joy-killing a random elephant every year. Furthermore, research has suggested that so-called “rogue” elephants which raid crops can be trained to stop. One group placed texting radio collars on problem elephants which alerted rangers when they got too close, and found that one elephant that was turned away enough took the hint. If Parsons is going to kill elephants, at least he could go through an organization like CAMPFIRE, which directly works with villagers to ensure they benefit from any actions involving the wildlife they share their land with, not just hand poor, starving people a carcass and video them ripping it apart to the tune of “Hell’s Bells.”

Besides, killing one elephant doesn’t keep the villagers from starving. If the people mattered to him, the thousands of dollars he spent on killing an elephant could be used to buy food or help modify agricultural lands to maximize output. Heck, he could work with initiatives like the World Food Programme, donating his time or money. He could help turn the elephant problem into a source of income for the village through ecotourism. But instead, he uses an emotional debate to excuse his bloodthirsty desire to shoot at things.

I know that the situation in Zimbabwe is terrible, but having arrogant, rich assholes pay to come kill elephants isn’t the answer. I wish I had a Go Daddy account, just so I could close it.

Comments

  1. #1 Aurora
    March 31, 2011

    Thanks for the balanced write-up, the context, and the clarity – I feel like you pinned down a lot of my not-too-thought-out feelings on this issue into a coherent response.
    I guess the other jarring thing about Parsons’ attitude is that he doesn’t even acknowledge the complexities of the issue, which you did a great job of laying out.

  2. #2 dreamer
    March 31, 2011

    “Besides, killing one elephant doesn’t keep the villagers from starving. If the people mattered to him, the thousands of dollars he spent on killing an elephant could be used to buy food or help modify agricultural lands to maximize output.”

    He could also help by donating to qualified groups who know the best way to empower local women and help villagers accept and use birth control (for the humans.)

  3. #3 greyteo
    April 1, 2011

    deeply horrifying. isn’t there an agency to deal with “problem” executives?

  4. #4 Krishna
    April 1, 2011

    Its is saddening that after killing 95% of the elephants, the life of an adult elephant is still invaluable compared to the rice fields of the natives which incidentally were created by clearing their natural habitat.
    Maybe parsons believes that we can then just kill every animal in the world and inhabit the entire world with human population with no consequence.
    Is it really surprising that the local people inspite of the loss of their crops still stick to “cracking whips, beating drums and lighting fires” but a ex-marine, software-CEO from the US thinks that killing them is the solution?

  5. #5 Tom
    April 1, 2011

    Christie, setting aside the question of intelligence, you seem to be saying that the moral edge goes to killing domesticated animals raised for food versus wild animals, and I don’t think I agree with that.

    I enjoy fishing, and I know a few hunters. I’m also vaguely aware of some of the complaints regarding the treatment of livestock. I enjoy a good steak (and what I wouldn’t give for a Chicken McNugget right now), but I come down on the side of sportsmen and women in the question of the most moral way to get your meat fix. At least, the ones who don’t kill wastefully. The animals they kill have generally lived a natural life, free to come and go, eat, sleep, screw, etc. They have a fighting chance in a familiar habitat, much to the chagrin of the skunked fisherman or hunter.

    Intelligence complicates things, and killing “dumb” animals is preferable to killing more intelligent ones, all else being equal. So Parsons’s comparison to eating beef isn’t a good one. But I think he’s half right, anyway.

  6. #6 Christie Wilcox
    April 1, 2011

    Tom: I get what you’re saying. My moral comment there isn’t about the motivations for the kill, or how to use it afterward – in all cases, most would agree (and me too) that it is more morally sound to kill only for food and use everything.

    I would argue that killing a domesticated animal is more humane than killing a wild one (in general). When you kill a wild animal, it dies in a state of terror by nature of the chase (or reel, or what have you). In theory (and I stress in theory, as esp the beef industry is not always known for this) a domesticated animal lives its last moment like every other, blissfully unaware of its impending doom. There are regulations and protocols in place to ensure that the animal experiences the least amount of stress and fear possible. Of course, this does hinge on the domesticated animal being treated well, comfortable, and killed instantly in a humane way (again, not always the case in modern industry, though one can hope). Of course, the more intelligent the animal, the more this matters (I don’t stay up at night thinking about the undue stress I cause a cockroach by chasing it around before killing it), and thus the difference between cattle and elephants is even greater.

    To expand the analogy, let’s say your dog and a local wolf (pretend, if you don’t, that they are around) both attack a kid in your neighborhood. I think it’s more humane to put down the family pet than to shoot the wolf, though neither death is particularly more justified or morally valid. The dog dies by falling asleep with the comfort of his owner at his side – the wolf dies terrified, confused, and being chased by scary men with sticks that make loud bangs.

  7. #7 Amy
    April 1, 2011

    Brava! This is one of the most articulate and cogent responses I’ve read on this.

    An illustration of how important bulls are was some years ago when young bulls who had been orphaned by culls were translocated together and soon began attacking other wildlife, which is completely uncharacteristic of elephants. How they solved the problem was to bring in older bulls who reestablished the hierarchy of age, and the attacks stopped.

  8. #8 A. D. Fitzgerald
    April 1, 2011

    This Neko Case vid seems appropriate:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXl870NoF4E

  9. #9 Chris
    April 1, 2011

    Could someone explain how you can safely domain names registered through Godaddy to somewhere else? I do not want to risk loosing the domains. Luckily I have no hosting account. But others might want to know that as well.

  10. #10 Help an Elephant
    April 1, 2011

    Christie, this is a fantastic post. You’ve laid out a very clear explanation of why Bob Parsons’ actions are wrong. I wish I could’ve gathered my thoughts enough to write like you did, but I’m still torn apart by this story.

    For Chris, here’s an article with some good offers for transferring your domain away from Go Daddy. Most registrars will walk you through the process of a transfer. Follow the instructions carefully and you should be alright.

    Talk on Talk: The Elephant in Bob Parsons’ Business http://bit.ly/fCu2he

  11. #11 James Pomeroy
    April 2, 2011

    Thank you for this post. Very clear, balanced, and eloquent. For those interested in elephants, their intelligence and their social lives, I would like to add a recommendation. When Elephants Weep, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. The book explores the apparent emotional lives of many animals, but the elephants are in the spotlight. (Caveat emptor: Some have claimed in reviews that the book is anti-scientist, but I love science and was not put off by anything in the book. However, I did read it years ago and may be forgetting something.)

  12. #12 Peter Triestman
    April 2, 2011

    I have had websites on GoDaddy since 2002, and recommended others. I am politically conservative, never a bleeding heart liberal, and worked on designing the last two nuclear power plants built in this country, over 35 years ago. I had a brother serving as a sniper in the Middle East for the Army, and think favorably of Parsons’ presumed service as a Marine, all of which I think fine. I have never taken a public position on any animal “rights” issue in the past.

    Watching Parsons’ slaughtering the elephant “to save the sorghum crop” is horrendous. Watching the villagers butcher the carcase with rock music blaring in the video, wearing GoDaddy hats compounds the offensiveness. Parsons should show what a man he is by helping others, including animals, not trying to destroy them and gloat over it publically.

    I would not recommend GoDaddy again to other website owners, and will find out how to pull out our websites, presently with long-term committments to GoDaddy.

    This is a trophy that Bob Parsons won’t be proud of for long. It could be a $1,000,000,000 elephant trophy, depreciating the value of his business, and ruining his reputation. Hopefully this slaughter can be a life-turning event for Parsons. Maybe he will learn to use his resources for good. Public repentance would be appreciated too.

    This is also the time for Mozambique to show the world that it can apply laws to criminal acts of poachers, if there are any. At least to deter the “recreational” poaching of wild life.

  13. #13 Darin Padula
    April 2, 2011

    Bravo, Christie!

    Between you, and the great writeup at The Thoughtful Animal http://scienceblogs.com/thoughtfulanimal/2011/04/quick_post_on_the_godaddy_elep.php
    I think people are really getting some reasoned input on this.

    Just an FYI, but I know that several hosting sites are offering special “SaveTheElephants” specials, such as this one, where the transfer price is discounted, and money goes to a real elephant charity, all while keeping your domain name safe.

    http://community.namecheap.com/blog/2011/03/30/elephants/

    http://www.byebyegd.com/

    Happy hunting (for a new hosting provider, that is) Ha! comedy gold.

    TTFN
    Darin

  14. #14 ResCogitans
    April 4, 2011

    you go through a lot of why the issue is complex, and admit it is so, yet your view on it seems to be very black/white “he is wrong”.

    if an animal is killed for food humanely where do you draw the line? dogs, dolphins, chimpanzees, humans? if you have a principle of “don’t kill a sentient life” then i fail to see how the purpose and method of the kill bears any relevance.

    If Bob Parsons and his fellow hunters shot the elephant with tranquilizer and only later killed it humanely would you still be against it?

  15. #15 Tom
    April 5, 2011

    Christie, I was kicking around a dog and wolf example myself, but I didn’t wind up including it in my comment.

    I don’t disagree that we kill our domesticated animals in a more humane way (ideally) than we kill wild animals, partly because killing humanely often requires that we be up close with an animal that is familiar with humans. But to me, the morality is as much in how the animal lives as it is in how it dies. And when you’re talking about livestock versus a hunter’s prey, I think the wild animal is … happier? I don’t know exactly how to say it.

    One other thing – I’m not sure that killing in the most humane way is necessarily the most moral thing to do. Take the example of fishing. I find a board or a mass of seaweed that harbors a few dolphin (the fish, not the mammal, you might know them better as mahi mahi). I could toss a firecracker over the side that would kill the fish before they knew it, as humanely as possible and without killing anything that I wouldn’t use for food, but that wouldn’t be sporting, and I don’t think it would be moral.

  16. #16 Rony
    April 27, 2011

    The author didn’t done great job moreover science give us the solution of it. New techniques like nanotechnology, carbon nanotubes & carbon nanoparticles and many more are discovered there that could useful in developing the techniques in agriculture and more. By killing the elephants we can’t get any solution.They came out from jungles because we take the spaces of jungles for our use. Science could help us in development of both human and animals.So in my thoughts need is to develop more techniques.

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