The Thoughtful Animal

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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.

I wrote:

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.

I wrote:

…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.

Image source

Comments

  1. #1 Darin Padula
    April 3, 2011

    Great, thoughtful post, man. Your blog has really been ratcheting up the quality level since your launch, and you are certainly keeping me thinking with your informed postings.

    Hip hip hooray!

    TTFN
    Darin

  2. #2 zoonotica
    April 3, 2011

    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.

    I would argue that there is a big difference between biomedical research and killing for food. Biomedical research on animals involves the animal having some sort of procedure (whether it is oral gavage right through to some form of surgery) and it is then monitored for a period of time, perhaps undergoes tests etc., – for a certain period of its life it is subject to stress caused by us. Hunting a wild animal and killing it for food generally exposes the animal to stress caused by us for a much shorter period. So long as the manner of death is quick and humane I would argue that killing for food is much more ‘animal friendly’ than biomedical research so you can be against biomedical research on these animals without being against killing them for food (or pest control for that matter).

    For me, I think the biggest argument against killing these animals is the distress it causes to those animals left behind.

    But as you said, it is a very nuanced area. I’m open to other points of view.

  3. #3 Dario Ringach
    April 3, 2011

    I agree that our relationship with animals is a complex and nuanced one.

    But I think you are make a poor moral argument here.

    Specifically, I fail to see how is that on one hand you claim to have “no answers”, but on the other you encourage others to continue eating animal meat so long as they acknowledge our cognitive differences are only a matter of degree.

  4. #4 Jason Goldman
    April 3, 2011

    @Dario (#3): My intention in saying that was simply to make clear that I’m not making any sort of prescription or recommendations – more a series of observations. Or, at least, I didn’t intend to provide an explicit moral code or judgment.

    I do think that many people – in general – live in a state of relative ignorance about the varied levels of cognition and consciousness in the animals we eat. I think if you’re going to eat something, you ought to have some awareness of what you’re eating.

    (Certainly this entire argument is only tangential to the elephant killing, as there are other known methods of keeping elephants away from human settlements… its just something I have been noticing, lately in terms of peoples’ relationships with the food they eat)

  5. #5 Phil
    April 4, 2011

    the Godaddy CEO is jumping through hoops to justify his “hunt”. If he really wanted to feed people he could just buy them cows. Or shoot a cow. If he wanted to rid the population of pests he could have shot some rats. Having said that, it makes perfect sense after the fact to eat the elephant.

  6. #6 Dario Ringach
    April 4, 2011

    @Jason

    I agree given what is publicly known about the case that there was no good justification under the circumstances for killing this animal.

    I was trying to ask how you, personally, can decide to eat meat of animals that you believe have the same cognitive abilities to that of great apes or humans (all differences supposedly being a matter of degree and not kind).

  7. #7 Angela
    April 6, 2011

    Elephants are definitely one of the most intelligent and aware species on Earth. Along with ellies, I would include in the top tier: chimps, bonobos, gorillas, dolphins (including orcas), some of the large whales, corvids (crows, ravens, and jays), and some parrots. Norway rats are also extremely intelligent and highly social animals that have been shown to engage in reciprocal altruism independent of kin selection; unfortunately they are treated as unfeeling products by most humans.

    Bob Parson’s name deserves to be dragged through the mud. Only someone lacking in empathy could kill an elephant.

  8. #8 Carolyn
    April 15, 2011

    When I heard about this event i was floored! How could anyone harm an elephant, well any animal for that matter. The reasons why he did it are not valid what so ever and I canelled my account with GodDaddy. I found an amazing promotion from Hostpapa (http://www.hostpapa.com/hostpapa-puts-its-support-behind-saving-the-elephants-in-africa. They will donate $5 to Save the Elephants!
    I used the coupon code “elephant” and got 3 months free hosting.

    I took my business else where.

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