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Go Daddy's Bob Parsons: The Elephant In The Room

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Elephant Nature Park via Flickr user kungfuji
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Go Daddy founder and CEO Bob Parsons went on a little hunting trip recently. Parsons, who has been to Africa a number of times on similar hunting trips, was ostensibly working with a tribe in Zimbabwe who had been having trouble with elephants raiding their crops. In an interview with AOL, he said:

This is the sixth year I've been to Africa. I'm a hunter. I went there to hunt buffalo. I gradually became aware of this situation with problem elephant and the need to control them. Since then, it's the only thing I do. I go over and spend two weeks volunteering to deal with problem elephant.

As a result of his recreational habits (and his decision to publish a video of the hunt online), many in the conservation, animal rights, and scientific communities are up in arms.That the elephants' raiding of the villagers' crops is problematic is clear. But are there better solutions to the problem than killing elephants? A recent experiment conducted by Dr. Lucy King, and colleagues (and partially funded by Disney!) suggests that there are. African elephants avoid contact with African honeybees, even avoiding feeding on trees which contained beehives. Despite the fact that elephants have thick skin, they are particularly sensitive to bee stings around the eyes and trunk.

Watch as this group of elephants immediately retreat from grazing as soon as they hear the sound - played through stereo speakers - of angry honeybees.

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This research suggests that strategically placed beehives (or even just speakers broadcasting bee sounds), could minimize human-elephant conflict and potential elephant deaths. So there are certainly reasonable alternatives for dealing with the problem of elephants from a pest-control perspective. (Interested in finding out more about this experiment? Details here.)

Another non-lethal, partially Disney-funded, conservation effort aimed at controlling elephant populations in areas of shared space conflict is the work of the Elephant Population Management Program (EPMP), an international collaboration of specialists that perform vasectomies on wild, free ranging bull elephants. Theirs is a preventative alternative that offers contraception, not castration, and allows the animals to maintain normal behaviors in the wild.

But, digging a little bit deeper, why are people so upset about the killing of elephants? After all, most of us regularly eat other animals, like chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys, and so on. Elephants are part of a small number of species that have high encephalization quotients, or EQs - in other words, they have larger brains than would be expected, statistically, given the size of their bodies. Other members of this club are humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, whales, dolphins, and a few types of monkeys (remember: chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangs are apes, not monkeys).

There are a number of important behavioral, social, and cognitive capacities that tend to go along with high EQs. For one thing, they live in such complex social groups with such that they can only be described as "political." These animals display evidence of cooperation, alliance formation, social manipulation, and even deception. These skills are rarely seen in the animal kingdom outside of these species. These animals, including elephants, also establish unique cultural "traditions."

Another important mental ability that unites animals with high EQs is the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror. It was initially thought to exist only in humans and great apes, but more recently, mirror self-recognition has been found in elephants, African grey parrots, and dolphins. Many scientists believe that the mirror self-recognition test underlies a basic sense of self.

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Oh, and did you know that elephants can (sort of) play musical instruments? Check out the Thai Elephant Orchestra:

The human relationship with animals is a complicated one, to be sure. But I can't think of any legitimate reason that Bob Parsons could have had for killing that elephant.