The Elephant in PETA's Room

Upon returning from a recent trip to Zimbabwe, controversial GoDaddy.com CEO Bob Parsons posted a video on his website documenting his shooting of an elephant to protect crops in a Zimbabwean village. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), immediately issued a statement condemning Parsons’ actions and calling for individuals to suspend their use of GoDaddy.com’s services.

Parsons’ video is graphic and eerily reminiscent of the days of Western colonial poaching in Africa. While Parsons argues that his main objective was to protect the Zimbabwean villagers' sorghum crops from attack by rampaging elephants, the tone of the video encourages the viewer to assume that Parsons’ hunting was mostly for sport. The rock music coupled with photos of Parsons posing on the dead elephant cause one to question Parsons’ true motives in hunting the animal.

But no matter how grotesque Parsons’ video (and questionable motives), the fact is that, in order to survive, these Zimbabwean villagers need elephants to stop trampling on their crops.

And that’s where PETA and its logic fail. In its statement, PETA argues against killing elephants by building a case for their humanity. The statement says, “Killing a single elephant can devastate a family, and their mourning ritual over the death of a family member rivals any that we humans have developed.” At once, PETA’s argument both elevates elephants by analogizing their behavior to that of humans and also debases humans by suggesting that elephants’ rituals “rival” the rituals of humans.

The logic not only silences people who may be adversely affected by animals, but also it pits humans and animals in a zero-sum war that PETA insists the animal should always win. For example, PETA suggests that the villagers should simply use the “ample effective and nonlethal methods to deter elephants from crops.” Yet, these alternative methods take time and resources that the villagers may not have. And the methods that PETA suggests, such as “beehives on poles,” are ideas that have yet to be fully researched and put into practical use. Furthermore, elephant meat can be a valuable source of protein for the villagers. PETA’s dismissive suggestion that the villagers use alternative methods betrays the privileged, Western mindset of those at PETA.

PETA’s response has focused on the elephants at the expense of the villagers. Galvanized by PETA, many people on the blogosphere have condemned Parsons’ actions, but few, if any, have shed light on the plight of the villagers. Even GoDaddy.com’s rival Namecheap.com has issued a press release condemning Parsons’ actions and offering a “transfer special” to donate 20% to Save the Elephants. What about saving the villagers, our fellow human beings?

Look, Parsons’ video may have been made in poor taste, but we cannot allow the death of an elephant to overshadow the plight of an entire village. As an animal rights organization, PETA should be in the business of protecting animals not neglecting humans. A more nuanced condemnation of Parsons’ actions that compassionately takes into account the legitimate needs of the villagers would prove a far more stable means of promoting animal and human rights.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Matthew Clair

Matthew Clair is a PhD student in sociology at Harvard. He regularly contributes to The Diverse Arts Project.

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