I was reading Christie’s excellent post (and you should too) on GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons’ elephant killing incident (is it too early to be calling this #ElephantGate?)
Although I don’t know quite enough about what is going on in Zimbabwe, I tend to err on the side of not intentionally killing elephants because – as I argued for the case of chimpanzees – they are very likely self-aware.
There is another important cognitive capacity that unites animals with high encephalization quotients (the ratio of brain to body size – I recommend going back to read my earlier post for the context of this argument): mirror self-recognition. Until relatively recently, it was thought to exist only in humans and great apes, though more recently, mirror self-recognition has been found in elephants, African grey parrots, dolphins, and (potentially) in Japanese macaques. Many believe that the mirror self-recognition test underlies a basic sense of self. Indeed, the great apes have shown varying levels of introspection, theory of mind, deception, and moral judgment – all abilities that require at least a rudimentary sense of self.
For me, the encephalization quotient gets the job done. While I approve of and encourage behavioral experiments with such species, I can’t stand behind biomedical research on cetaceans, great apes, elephants, or any of the bird species whose cognitive capabilities mirror those of primates and cetaceans.
And if I wouldn’t stand behind biomedical research on elephants, I don’t see how I could stand behind killing them for food or (even worse) as a means of pest control.
If Bob Parsons had read my blog, he might have remembered that you can discourage elephants from raiding human villages and crops with only the use of a few cleverly placed audio speakers, playing the sound of angry bees. Exactly one year ago, I wrote:
Aside from the general importance of better understanding animal communication, as it can inform our understanding of human communication, this research has very practical implications as well. Elephants regularly raid the crops of humans; strategically placed beehives (or even just speakers broadcasting bee sounds or bee rumbles), could minimize human-elephant conflict and potential elephant deaths.
Definitely a better solution to what is certainly a real problem.
So that’s my thinking on this issue at the moment.
That said, Christie said one thing that struck a particular nerve with me. She wrote:
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.
Regular readers of this blog know that I love my meat as well (who remembers the #BaconBlogWars of 2011?). But I am far from convinced that intelligence is the metric to be used to determine which animals are acceptable to eat. Nor am I convinced that domestication is a fair metric either. Part of what I do on this here blog is write about the cognitive abilities of the animals that we don’t usually consider when we think about cognition and intelligence. I did this on Thanksgiving, for example, when I wrote about the social cognitive abilities of domesticated turkeys.
…while carving up your golden-brown turkey, take a moment to appreciate the complex social-cognitive abilities of these delicious birds. Domestic turkeys do more than just pair well with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce: they can distinguish group members from strangers. And that’s nothing to gobble at: human infants can’t reliably distinguish among unfamiliar human faces until 19 weeks of age!
What it comes down to, for me, is this: I don’t have any answers. But I do know that understanding the human relationship with non-human animals is extremely nuanced and very complicated.
So, by all means, continue eating your hamburgers, your turkey thighs, your bacon, your bacon-wrapped steaks, your bacon-wrapped hot-dogs, your bacon narwhals, and whatever else you might already enjoy. Just don’t think that the cognitive abilities of those critters are so different from those of critters you wouldn’t dream of eating. Their cognitive abilities aren’t even so different from our own human cognition. Where they do differ, they more likely differ in degree rather than in kind.
Feel free to comment with your (respectful) thoughts, below.