GoDaddy and the Dead Elephant in the Room

BlogHer Original Post

Bob Parsons, the CEO of GoDaddy - the Ted Turner/Hugh Hefner of web hosting - recently posted a video that shows him killing an elephant bull in Zimbabwe. The highly emotional online backlash against Parsons and his company has been swift. While animal folks cry "Murderer!" and call for boycotts, hunters cheer him on and once again, nobody learns anything. As bad as it was for the elephant, this scenario is not any better for humans.

Parsons six-year relationship with Zimbabwe began with his interest in buffalo hunting. Talking to the locals, he learned of their plight. As Parsons explains it, he killed the elephant at the request of local farmers tired of having their sorghum fields trampled by the same elephant herd. As one might imagine, when a hunter is approached by a village pleading with him to kill a bull elephant, he is not going to investigate alternative methods, no matter how many there are. This is exactly what happened.

"It seems like perhaps Parsons and his company aren't necessarily the type of people with whom we'd like to do business, which is why GOOD has decided to pull all of its sites from GoDaddy.com. If you'd like to join us and let Parsons know you don't give money to colonialist misogynists, follow these 10 simple steps."
--GOOD, in a post entitled: "A Step-By-Step Guide to Boycotting GoDaddy.com"

Though the villagers tried various methods to scare off the herd - drum beating, setting fires, cracking whips - nothing worked. And so, a night hunt was planned and - quite literally - executed. He has explained in interviews that he shot the oldest bull in the herd, with the knowledge that another bull would quickly replace him. (Males are somewhat incidental in the elephant world. The ladies? Invaluable.) Today, an elephant expert - who was not there - chimed in, insisting that evidence illustrates the elephant was actually female.

"I wanted people to know what goes on over there. The fact that there is that type of poverty. People live in that type of situation that that's what's happening. It takes a guy like me - and there's just a few of us - to go into the field at night, when a herd is there, to isolate a bull, shoot the bull. The rest leave immediately and don't return and the crops are saved… The one voice that's not being heard in all this are the people that live over there. They are the ones saying, 'Please come back. Please do this again.'"
--Bob Parsons, explaining why he posted the video in a CNN interview with Brooke Baldwin

No matter Parsons true intentions, posting the gruesome video with great bravado and painting himself as a hero to beleaguered Africans was an asinine move. It is not the actions of a humanitarian, it is the behavior of a bloodthirsty braggart and it smacks of colonialism. And those orange GoDaddy caps on the villagers ripping at the elephant carcass? Way to exploit that branding opp, Bob.

As a successful businessman who makes his living off the Internet, his surprise over the vitriolic response is alarming. Beyond maintaining his own bizarre vlog, does he travel anywhere else on the Web?

Furthermore, does the man not have a publicist? Or even a VP? How about a best friend? Were they on vacation that week? Good lord. Even a herd of Bimbii would know better. (I hear they are trampling fields of Prada knock-offs in China. Tragic.)

"The elephant population in Zimbabwe has now reached crisis proportions and large-scale die-offs are probably imminent and unavoidable. Severe impacts on the environment and bio-diversity will continue for some time, even if population-reduction measures could be initiated rapidly. However, the resources needed to implement effective control and subsequent monitoring are lacking....A combination of culling and some contraception or sterilization would probably be the best solution. Local opinion would favour culling alone but the arguments for this course are not generally supported internationally."
--Conclusions from a 2001 report: "The elephant population problem in Zimbabwe: Can there be any alternative to culling?"

Nevertheless, having camped in Zimbabwe and spent time with its citizens, I have to concede that Parsons makes a few valid points. It is very difficult for the Western mind to understand African life and the unique challenges that come with it. Not only did I witness this time and time again, but I felt the resistance in my own mind.

The gritty reality of day-to-day life, the submissive relationship with Nature (as opposed to wrangling it, taming it or shoving it aside) and their sense of time is vastly different than ours. Even the concept of death is unlike ours - much more ho-hum, less tragic and easily accepted. Believe me, it takes some adjustment.

There is no 911, no Animal Control, no food stamps, subsidies or government assistance of any kind to address this situation - it's just the farmer v. the elements, which includes roving wildlife. We have the luxury of ideals here but believe me, those go out the window pretty damn fast when you begin to starve. Truth is, lots of people have ideas about how this could have even handled better but none of those people were there. But Parsons was, his gun too.

"The World Wide Fund for Nature and African Wildlife Foundation estimate that Zimbabwe has 110,000 elephants, above the optimum capacity of between 45,000 and 50,000. For communities living next to the wildlife reserves where the elephants are flourishing, the increased numbers are proving dangerous, destroying farmland, driving people from their homes and, at times, trampling people to death."
--Thulani Mpofu, The National, "Booming elephant population wreaks havoc in Zimbabwe" (Posted on SavetheElephants.org)

Since the video's posting, there has been much discussion around alternative methods to dealing with the elephant population in Zimbabwe. Electronic fencing is one. Again, I have to agree with Parsons here, anything that involves electricity is not a realistic solution. We are talking about rural Africa - there is no electricity in these parts. Understand that in Zimbabwe, about 60-70 percent of the population live in rural areas and only about 20 percent of those areas receive sporadic electricity, if at all. Plus, a fence of any kind would have to be massive and powerful. Why? They're ELEPHANTS. You know what they eat for breakfast? Trees.

"Today, expanding human settlements, growing population pressures and the spread of agriculture into traditional elephant ranges means that many areas are not available for the herds to travel and forage for food. As a result, instances of elephants raiding fields and destroying crops are increasing and clashes between elephants and people have led to nearly 300 human deaths a year. There is pressure on wildlife authorities to kill elephants living near human areas to lower risks."
--United Nations website

I remember enjoying an early morning piss next to a towering termite hill in Botswana and admiring a line of tall palm trees in the distance. One by one, I watched the palms shiver and then fall like matchsticks. With tall grasses hiding the base, I couldn't figure out why until a herd of elephants emerged, triumphant. They are powerful creatures, especially when hungry or threatened. (These photos here are from my 29th birthday when we were 'stormed' by a pack of Pygmy elephants in Tanzania, making it my favorite birthday ever.)

"I am from Zimbabwe and it makes me laugh when these people who know NOTHING about why this happens, why it needs to be done and how much it benefits people who live here can immediately condemn this man's actions. They have no idea that our national parks are OVERPOPULATED with elephants, that this in turn is causing the semi-permanent destruction of the vegetation and habitat that ALL the other animals rely on to survive."
--aumnipresent, commenting on YouTube video

When dealing with elephants, sometimes it helps to think small. So, what about deploying African honey bees? Or even recordings of bees? A study, partially funded by Disney (home of Dumbo!), has revealed that strategically placed speakers broadcasting the sounds of an angry bee hive do not go unnoticed by even napping pachyderms. They pack up and move rather quickly to avoid the tiny insects, which - despite their thick hides - can cause painful bites around the eyes and trunk. It's a fascinating solution, a preferable alternative to killing, but again, we are faced with the electricity issue.

"One of the things about being an American is that quite often we want to put our heads in the sand and have this Pollyanna outlook on the world and it really isn't always the way we'd like it to be."
--Bob Parsons

There is talk in Africa about sterilization to control the population but the costs are significant:

"Contraception or sterilization of males and females is an attractive alternative for elephant population control. However, it has been shown by modelling that at least 75% of breeding females would have to rendered infertile for a period of >10 years to produce a significant drop in the population and that it might be more efficient to sterilize pre-breeding females….An ideal contraceptive would be deliverable as a single dose in a dart fired from a helicopter. Treated animals or their breeding groups would have to be identifiable, the cost per animal would be moderately high (at around US$ 150) and there would be no economic return for the effort. Problems with social and behavioural changes in treated individuals may occur, as well as the major disturbance during the treatment program."
--Report: "The elephant population problem in Zimbabwe: Can there be any alternative to culling?"

Do not misunderstand me here. I love elephants and often state my desire to friends and family to live at an elephant sanctuary someday. (Yeah, they roll their eyes too.) But underneath all this GoDaddy controversy is our Western tendency to forget that different cultures value different animals in a wide variety of ways; the hypocrisy is astounding. Cows are sacred in India, yet America has no problem building an entire fast food industry based on their flesh. (And becoming wildly obese in the process.)

Dogs are considered dirty and vile in the Middle East and yet we indulge our Western pups with gourmet kibble, padded beds and rhinestone collars. Furthermore:

  • Deer? The suburbs want them gone. Elephants are the deer of Africa.
  • Bears? Mountain folk fear and dread them.
  • Wolves and coyotes? To ranchers, they are the enemy.
  • Mountain Lions? Joggers beware!
  • Squirrels? Every gardener I know wants them dead.
  • Kangaroos? Most rural Australians I know have 'Roo Bars' on their vehicles and carry Roo Insurance to protect them from the many road run-ins with these mammals and yet most tourists remain unaware of this reality.
  • Rabbits? Adorable? Yes. Obnoxious and unwelcome in much of the world? Absofrigginlutely. I once dated a Rabbit Sniper in Australia, I kid you not. His job was to hang out of helicopters and shoot the "furry bastards." They are so hated in Oz that during Easter, the stores only sell chocolate Bilbys (a native marsupial) instead of the chocolate bunnies we see in April.

But a squirrel is not an elephant, you say. So who decides which animal deserves our protection and love more than another? I'm a huge frog fan but they are not very huggable, which puts them farther down the list of Animals To Love for most people. Yet frogs are up there with bees - we lose them and we're SCREWED. Big time.

"Zimbabwe has a population of 100 000 elephant in habitats that can support about half that number. This does not indicate successful conservation, but failure of the conservation authority to preserve natural values. By not fulfilling its mandate the authority is guilty of allowing elephant to prejudice their habitats, those of other animals and the nation’s biological diversity. It also encourages local destruction of the country’s long-term ecological productivity. Put differently, mismanagement of over abundant elephant is a serious danger to the human environment and to wildlife and its habitats, including healthy elephant populations."
--First paragraph of a 2004 report entitled, "Elephant Culling in Zimbabwe" by Graham Child, Former Director of National Parks and Wildlife Management, Zimbabwe, PDF only but Google-able

I have not met Mr. Parsons and remain truly suspicious about his true intent with the hunt and the video posting, but I'm going to skip the crucifixion party and here's why: I have vowed to cover my animal beat here at BlogHer with a wide lens, "everything from your dog to your dinner" and at any point where mankind and the animal kingdom intersect. I've learned that most people have very specific preferences and ideas about animals, mostly in relation to themselves, with very little consideration for an animal's natural environment.

Parsons's dead elephant is not black and white issue, it is much more complicated than that. I would prefer that no animals be killed at the hands of man, ever, but I know this will never be.

Why? Because mankind is part of nature and we are active participants in the food cycle, whether we are comfortable with it or not. Hunting is a way of life for many people - in both hemispheres. (About five percent of the US population are active hunters, generating $700M annually in conservation funding.) We are animals too (mammals, specifically) and here's the thing: Animals kill each other. Always have, always will.

The fact is, Parson's killing was legal and the animal was readily consumed by locals, including some who had walked 25 miles to get their share of protein. Yet PETA asserts that the killing was done "for fun." As much as Parsons failed miserably to communicate his message about the plight of African farmers (posing on the carcass with a shit-eating grin certainly didn't help), PETA hasn't done much better. Is PETA in Zimbabwe assisting with this problem? If not, they probably should be.

"I'm appalled that you would kill sensitive, intelligent animals for personal enjoyment. Elephants are capable of experiencing emotions, including joy, anger, grief, and sympathy. They play with each other and can reason and use tools; they have exceptional memories and form enduring bonds with other elephants. Killing elephants is unnecessary because there are ample effective and nonlethal methods to deter elephants from crops, including using chili-infused string and beehives on poles to create low-cost "fences." I won't buy from Go Daddy until you stop killing animals for fun."
--PETA's form protest letter for people to send to Bob Parsons

My advice to Parsons, who plans to visit Zimbabwe again next year, is to bring along real pachyderm experts who might offer viable alternatives to the hunt. He may want to help those villagers (seems nobody else is) but he shouldn't be doing this alone with a gun. I think paying for some beehives might be a good place to start and the extra honey couldn't hurt.

Also, PETA keeps talking about using a "chili-infused string" so it couldn't hurt to look into the idea. And, if he can manage not to shoot or strangle them with said string, Parsons should bring along a PETA rep next year. They'll either fix the problem in the non-lethal way or it will shut them up - a win-win.

And for the love of god, Parsons, hire a publicist.

A final tidbit on elephant death outrage: Turns out you don't have to be a misguided CEO - or even a dude - to kill a magnificent creature. Sometimes all you need is a dare.

~ClizBiz

BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz

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