The Elephants In The Room

» July 12th, 2014


My apologies for the long absence. The site experienced ongoing technical problems while my web man was on vacation. But the good news is that we all got a rest. That said, matters are in order and I’m back to work.

Over the break I became intrigued by the current outrage against ivory. Just the other day, Ricky Gervais, the English comedic actor, called on the public to “turn in” their ivory products as an act of public absolution. It’s curious, but all of sudden the media is all about elephants. Will ivory trinkets become targets of public attack such as fur coats once were? Why are we currently confronting the elephants in the room?

As usual, I’ve no idea. But in and of itself, the public/media outcry against ivory is a praiseworthy response to the gross atrocities committed against elephants. Interestingly, though, nothing of the sort is happening with respect to, say, the tens of millions of cattle we slaughter every year. This kind of inconsistency is common when it comes to the way humans treat animals. And it cuts both ways. I recall commenters on this site advocating the death of elephant poachers. But would they advocate the death of slaughterhouse workers? Either way, this paradox bears some consideration.

One obvious reason for the disparity—aside from the fact that we eat one product and not the other—is that elephants are going extinct whereas cattle, whose genetics are controlled by humans, proliferate at whatever rate we want them to proliferate. In essence, elephants are wild creatures who matter collectively whereas cattle are factory products who do not. The terms of their reproduction have illogically determined the terms of their extermination. How that happened is a historical/cultural question that somebody should explore.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a collective focus on a species, of course. But the current “save the elephant” gambit rests on a false—or at least conflicted—sense of what’s considered “natural.” That is to say, what bothers environmentalists isn’t the death of individual elephants for their tusks. It’s the fact that their death is denuding the landscape of the elephant’s presence, a diminution that’s perceived to be out of sync with what nature intended—whatever that may be. But who ever said scarcity, even anthropogenic-determined scarcity, was unnatural?

It’s more that scarcity can be unjust. But even if this kind of human-driven ecological change is unjust, the same kind of ecological logic would have to be applied to cattle. Cattle may not be going extinct, but the resources used to ensure their proliferation most certainly are in grave danger of depletion: arable land and water most notably. If conservationists and environmentalists are truly committed to the ecological logic of scarcity, then consistency would require them to wring their hands just as earnestly about the consumption of beef as the consumption of ivory. But don’t hold your breath on that one.

What’s lost in the failure to do so, however, is an opportunity to incorporate animal sentience into an increasingly cynical environmental lexicon.

PS: Speaking of which, if you’d like to send me your critical thoughts about the documentary Cowspiracy, please email them to I’m hoping to do a post that incorporates readers’ thoughts on the film.


20 Responses to The Elephants In The Room

  1. Taylor says:

    I believe that many people who don’t question the industrial slaughter of animals for food do think that elephants matter individually as well as collectively. Elephants have been positively mythologized in a way that facilitates their being seen as individuals.

    Speaking of the wild and the domesticated, and those in between, I have a just-published lengthy interview with Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, authors of Zoopolis, in Between the Species.

  2. John t maher says:

    A minor point on killing humans responsive to your question re killing poachers v killing slaughterhouse workers. I refer all to Derrida and his work living well which discusses who is sacrificial in human culture. First let us apply this to elephants v cattle: elephants are less sacrifice ghzn cattle because human society values elephants more. That is the reality of the situation and through this lens we free ourselves from the hobgoblin of analytical philosophy — consistency — which unrealistic all insisted in treating likes alike. Likes are only alike based upon which ontology we use to make them alike. Therefore the penalty for killing an elephant is greater than for killing a steer. Not saying it should be greater just saying our assumptions about treating likes slime are garbage. Next the humans should poachers be shot while slaughterhouse workers be allowed to live? In the political economy many slaughterhouse workers are coerced victims. Read Charlie le duff on this or Tim pachirat. So again it is which ontology go we use to classify the killing done by each group not assuming both classes are the same. For the record I say the bankers, importers, lawyers, corrupt officials and consumers in the us snd china are All worthy of being shot under law for their role in killing elephants. And the land grabbers from the us eu and china who are segmenting cnd fencing off snd polluting Africa which destroys the elephants habitat should Be eligible for capital punishment as well. So the message from my cupppertino typo causing iPhone today is consider shy one assumes liked are alike in the world and challenge those assumptions. For the record I disagree with kymlicka and Donaldson on several points and view their work as derivative of David Favre Judith butler and others who write About yaw need to include others as subjects. We should be talking about species survival re today’s column not individual citizenship. The old thinking on animal subjectivity has gotten us nowhere.

  3. Rhys Southan says:

    I do think we’re indoctrinated pretty early on with the idea that extinction is the worst thing that can possibly happen to somebody. We’re all going to die, so an individual death can’t be as big a deal as the disappearance of your entire species. I remember learning about the dodo and how the dodo’s extinction was supposed to be this really horrible thing that happened. But what if dodos generally had pretty mediocre lives anyway? They probably didn’t, but if they did, would the extinction of the dodo be such a tragic thing?

    The argument against extinction would be a lot more plausible if it were based on what we might think it’s like to be a particular animal. For instance, it’s probably really fun to be a flying squirrel, so we should not want the flying squirrel to go extinct. If it’s more enjoyable to be an elephant to than to be a cow, than the death of an elephant would be more sad than the death of a cow. (Additionally, the death of an elephant would be more sad if the surviving elephants mourned the missing elephant more than cows mourn their missing friends.) And if it’s boring or torturous to be a cow, there would be no sense to the meat eater argument that we need to eat cows so they can continue to exist.

    And if it’s more fun to be a dog than to be a human, shouldn’t we want there to be more dogs and fewer humans?

    Of course we can’t truly know which animals are the most enjoyable to be, but maybe we can surmise enough to make some judgments about it. At the very least, that would be a stronger basis for opposing a particular extinction than just “extinction is universally horrible.” “It must be so awesome to be an elephant and now there’s one fewer being having that awesome experience!” at least is an explanation of sorts.

  4. Karen Harris says:

    First, welcome back – missed your blog!
    With regards to elephants mattering more than cows, obviously another example of the uneven way we treat, and think about the importance of different animals – the most obvious and often cited being our companion animals vs.the animals designated as food.
    Possible reasons for the media/public outcry against the slaughtering of elephants for their ivory are: it is a non-controversial issue, it essentially places no demands on the individual to consider lifestyle choices, and we can put the blame on largely on other countries such as China and Japan for the current upsurge in the ivory market.
    That said, I can’t help but be grateful for the current media interest in what is happening to the elephants in Asia and Africa. The all out assault that is taking place against this noble species is literally being carried out with assault rifles. It is a bloodbath.
    Not sure how an animal’s capacity for enjoyment (whatever that means for humans, let alone for other species) should determine whether it is ok or not for them to become extinct. Don’t curmudgeons have a right to exist?
    Finally, would like to know where I can see Cowspiracy.

    • Karen Orr says:

      Hi Karen,

      Filmmakers Keegan Kuhn and Kip Anderson are touring with COWSPIRACY in cities in the western part of the U.S.

      The line-up of the cities on this tour are here:

      I gather there will be a COWSPIRACY tour of east coast cities in late summer or early fall.

      Individuals and groups are also hosting their own screenings of COWSPIRACY via TUGG Events.

      The list of cities where COWSPIRACY screenings are scheduled via TUGG are here:

      If there is no screening in a city near you right now, one can be created if there are theaters there that participate in TUGG Events.

      I saw the June 26th Los Angeles COWSPIRACY premiere at the beautiful CREST Theater.

      The CREST’s 500 seat auditorium was sold out and the movie received a standing ovation.

  5. Steven van Staden says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I am wondering whether it’s generally known that the ANC government in S Africa is against the ban on ivory and wants it discarded, and that rhinos are facing similar or even worse threats. There is so much venality and corruption among officials and authorities that the situation is almost hopeless. So we need to see massive international outrage.
    I agree with the points about killing livestock for food. It’s hard to imagine any change there in our lifetimes, of course, but, again, expressions of outrage and inculcation of the humanitarian and ecological points being made here need the widest possible readership.

    • Kimberley Mae Richardson says:

      It is extremely sad that the liberation of the native people if South Africa will likely mean the end of elephants, rhinos and more species. Isn’t it strange how races have such different viewpoints about each other and about other species. Liberate the Africans and condemn the animals. I used to wear a tee shirt that said “Animal Liberation. Human Liberation”. A favorite chant of AR activists is “one struggle, one fight – human freedom, animal rights”. I no longer wear the tee shirt nor subscribe to the view espoused in the chant. It is extremely difficult to be truly anti-speciesist as long as the human species is still around.

      • Steven van Staden says:

        Yes, I’ve just found a badge that declares, “I don’t discriminate – I hate everyone”, and while that’s obviously not altogether true, it gets me out of the racism charge that’s levelled against anyone who dares to criticise barbaric cultural traditions that are African – no matter that one acts with the same motivation when expressing a humane opinion against cruel practices in the most civilized societies.
        Trying to deal with barbaric cultural practices that are African is invariably very arrogantly condemned as an attempt to suppress African traditions. Elephants and rhinos aside, there is the tradition of slaughtering a bull by repeatedly stabbing it with a knife at important events (for a Mandela visit to his home town, or prior to a sporting event in front of spectators, or in the next-door garden). The ANC will hear no criticism if these horrors because they are cultural, but then so are muti (African medicine) murders of animals and humans, in which the cries of the dying victim are believed to enhance the efficacy of the medicinal properties of the body parts later removed, especially if removed before death and even more especially the death is by bleeding.
        The point I am making about preserving cultural traditions that are wicked is that by accepting these really heinous crimes against animals on grounds that culture makes them inviolable, the same should hold true of the muti killings that persist in sub-Saharan Africa involving humans, yet the law condones the former but not latter. Of course anthropocentricism is everywhere, but I am focusing on the unbelievable cruelty of these truly bloodthirsty acts against animals more than on their deaths. It seems to me that gratuitous cruelty is an important ingredient in these ritual, cultural and muti killings, and when the tusks are removed from the other creatures mentioned, there is no attempt at bringing about a quick death.

  6. Rhys Southan says:

    “Not sure how an animal’s capacity for enjoyment (whatever that means for humans, let alone for other species) should determine whether it is ok or not for them to become extinct. Don’t curmudgeons have a right to exist?”

    I just mean that a particular species’ capacity for enjoyment would be a reason to be more or less concerned about their possible extinction, as well as the deaths of individuals from that species. Not necessarily a good one — for one thing, it’s impossible to accurately measure that capacity for enjoyment — but it would be more of a reason than “extinction is inherently bad.”

    What reason would there be for wanting animals to live other than that we think they enjoy their lives? So if there were an animal species that didn’t particularly enjoy their lives — let’s say there was something boring or frustrating about being that kind of animal; for an extreme example, imagine a hypothetical sentient animal who is stuck in the ground like a plant and wants to move but can’t — wouldn’t that animals’ extinction be less sad? If not, why not?

    I see vegans making arguments against animal farming that share the above premise: farmed animals are better off being extinct because we give them such terrible lives, and if we stopped eating meat, there would be more wild animals who would enjoy their lives more than farmed animals do. Win win. Reducing the number of farmed animals and by doing so increasing the number of wild animals and seeing this as a positive development because it’s better to be a wild animal than a farmed animal is a way of acting on the premise that some animals are better to be than others. (For an example of this kind of argument, see Gaverick Matheny’s “Least harm: a defense of vegetarianism from Steven Davis’s omnivorous proposal” )

    This kind of discrepancy in which some animal species are worse off than others because of human interference could also exist without human interference. Like, if it’s really amazing to fly through the air and not so great to slowly glide, birds are better off than slugs; if that’s true, wouldn’t it be worse for a bird to die than a slug to die? Or do you think that every species inherently enjoys life the same amount as every other species?

    Of course the people decrying the shooting of elephants aren’t typically making this kind of argument. The actual reason they get upset when elephants are killed is that they care more about elephants than the animals we farm. They like knowing that elephants exist. It’s not inconsistent to eat meat and complain about the hunting of elephants if that’s the reason, just like it’s not inconsistent to eat pigs and love dogs if you don’t care about pigs and you do care about dogs. Where it gets confusing or seemingly hypocritical is when people act like they care about elephants, when what they really care about is their own feelings about elephants.

    • Benny Malone says:

      When people care about some animals it may be because they have made a connection and seen them as individuals. In the case of animals that escape from slaughterhouses or transport trucks these stories are picked up by the media and the public is often very vocal and passionate about wanting to save those animals. A connection and individualisation has taken place. I remember the story of Butch and Sundance who escaped a slaughterhouse and evaded capture for about a week in the wild. When re-captured they were going to be killed but a newspaper stepped in to purchase them and guarantee that they would live out their natural lives at a sanctuary – So with the interesting points raised about species and individuals, and how moral concern may differ between the two, perhaps in the case of rarer animals they are closer to being individualised in people’s minds and also the rarity itself becomes a criteria for people’s concern. Unfortunately with cows, often people do not see individuals just a species and an abundant one at that. The sheer numbers are a barrier to seeing the animals as individuals. People may know more about elephants than pigs so this is a factor too. People care about the animal that escapes the slaughterhouse but the animals that don’t escape are no different. (There will be an element of people liking an underdog story but it doesn’t alter the fact that it could have been any pig that escaped if given the chance)

  7. Kimberley Mae Richardson says:

    It doesn’t matter if all the elephants disappear. Heck, they along with every other mammal will be gone one day in any case. (The sun will go out). Elephants are apparently not a species that is important to the survival of other species either. So it really doesn’t matter if they are all gone.
    What DOES matter however, is that along with cetaceans such as whales, they are a species that can galvanize even meat eaters to seek their survival. As such, elephant and whale campaigns are the “low hanging fruit” of the anti-speciesism movement. If we can’t save elephants and whales what chance do we have of stopping fur let alone putting an end to factory farming?
    From a purely personal emotional perspective I get very upset about elephant poaching because I happen to believe that these animals probably suffer more than most other animals psychologically. I am talking about the mourning behavior of the family and the orphaned babies.
    While the world will be a worse place without elephants I actually sometimes wish they were all gone. All I truly care about is the suffering. We have been over this before James and you have criticized me for my beliefs. I prefer the idea of a cold, empty universe than a cruel one.

  8. James says:

    As earth orbits sun
    James will pass by same topic
    People will get hot.

  9. Elaine Brown says:

    The potential for extinction of the elephant is the main cause for concern. It is unlikely that the cow will ever become extinct.

    Furthermore, there are many who defend the use of animals for sustenance whereas the killing of the elephant is for trinkets and the meat is simply allowed to rot away.

    Additionally, an elephant to have a tusk of value must live to a ripe old age so the elephant is a larger and more mature animal than the slaughtered cow.

    Besides even though I do not eat meat, I can relate to the magnificence of the elephant easier than that of a cow. Not that I do not love cows, but I am awed by an elephant.

  10. Zach says:

    The only thing logical morality can possibly care about is the depth and breadth of conscious experience. The top tier in this regard is held by great apes, crows, dolphins, and elephants. All far and above cows. A cow’s depth and breadth of conscious experience is still good enough for killing one to be tragic, but there’s no inconsistency in placing much greater value in the elephant’s life. You don’t have to look too far to find something where this inconsistency does apply (pigs vs dogs), no need to find it where it doesn’t exist.

  11. Kimberley Mae Richardson says:

    Thank you for these great and thought provoking observations.

  12. Mountain says:

    Protecting a species is easy. Just give people property rights, and that species will be in no danger of going extinct. Owning animals may be morally repugnant, but it works. Domesticated species proliferate across the globe, while many wild species face extinction, or at least dwindling numbers.

    People protect what they value, whether that value is emotional or monetary. People may value elephants, but poachers value them more. If someone valued elephants enough to risk his/her life fighting off poachers, I would applaud him/her, but such a person is exceptionally rare.

    Protecting the lives (and quality of life) of individual animals is much harder than protecting a species. Cattle are very successful as a species, but the lives of almost all individuals are miserable. I’d rather be an elephant than a cow, even if it means my species is worse off.

    To protect the lives of individual animals, you have to create value in their lives, rather than from their deaths. Much easier said than done.

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