There is no shortage of cute elephant videos on YouTube, and the millions of views they’ve recorded demonstrate why. Elephants are exceptionally smart. They can use tools. They respond to the human voice, and they demonstrate empathy toward other creatures. And, frankly, there are few sights more joyful than watching a baby elephant splashing around in a mud puddle. From its preposterous nose and floppy ears to its ambling gait, an elephant at any age can make a child smile — Dumbo and Horton set the fictional standard, but real elephants remain one of the most popular attractions at every zoo.
That’s why at some level President Donald Trump’s unexpected defense of elephants in Zimbabwe — putting the brakes on a recent government ruling to permit U.S. hunters to bring home “trophy” elephants killed in that country — shouldn’t be all that surprising, particularly from such an id-driven executive. He tellingly went straight to his emotions, calling big-game hunting a “horror show,” which was pretty amazing considering that his sons are avid hunters. A photograph of Donald Trump Jr. from years ago proudly holding up the severed tail of a hunted elephant has become a popular Internet meme.
President Trump made the right choice. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the wrong one. The notion that big game hunting of elephants in Zimbabwe might have actually been in their best interest — essentially creating a lucrative reason, tourism, for keeping more elephants alive and opposing poaching and using hunting fees to prop up conservation efforts — might have made some sense in a better functioning country. But the practice begun under President Barack Obama to ban the trade of African elephant ivory is the better approach, and all parts of the elephant ought to be treated the same. The less reason to kill elephants the better.
Allow us to repeat ourselves: President Trump made the right choice. We don’t often get a chance to write that, so please pardon the redundancy. The question is this: Assuming that the president’s decision holds up as he does his further research on the subject, might Mr. Trump demonstrate such kindness to other species? Elephants are cute, the gray bat is not, yet it’s the bat, a native of North America including the U.S. Southwest, that’s been driven closest to extinction. Would Mr. Trump demonstrate an elephant-like level of empathy for a species that doesn’t get the YouTube views?
That’s not exactly a hypothetical question. Already during his first year in office, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of the Interior under Secretary Ryan Zinke have made a number of decisions antithetical toward animal conservation. Mr. Trump’s support for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be disastrous for millions of acres of pristine wilderness and the animals from caribou to wolverines that live in northeastern Alaska. Why doesn’t the destruction of an ecosystem count as a “horror show” as well?
Close to home, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recently decided that commercial fishermen should be allowed to harvest more menhaden from the Atlantic Ocean. It was a troubling move considering how important the small fish is for the Chesapeake Bay food chain. But will the loss of those fish, which could prove costly to local striped bass and bluefish populations, touch any hearts in the White House? Probably not. Not much cuteness there either.
This conservation conundrum is known as the “Bambi effect,” the tendency for people to rise to the defense of the cute and cuddly and have far less concern for organisms that are just as important to the ecosystem or just as endangered but not so adorable. So while we are grateful that President Trump is not so hard-hearted as to ignore the suffering of African elephants in Zimbabwe, it would be nice to discover he might be educated on the host of other species that aren’t getting much love from his agencies. That list might include homo sapiens, by the way, who have been taking it on the chin, too. President Trump’s choice to exit the Paris climate agreement and the EPA’s current efforts to repeal the Clean Power Plan that reduces greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants spell serious trouble for mankind’s long-term survival. Perhaps someone can explain to him that climate change isn’t good for elephants either.
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