Empathy and Elephants: What I Learned From Talking to My Kids About Poaching

What at first seemed like a disturbing reaction to an article was all about my kids finding something they could relate to in the story.

When the recent issue of Smithsonian showed up in the mailbox, we were all curious about the lead story: The Hunt for Africa ’s Most Notorious Elephant Poacher. I read it aloud to Bob over a cup of coffee in the early morning before we headed out to set up our stall at the market. Deciding that now was a good time to start introducing more global concerns in our daughters' education, I chose to read it aloud to them too after dinner.

Fifty thousand elephants traversed the interior of Chad in the early 1960s. Today, less than 2 percent of that population remains.

The article was rife with tragedy. Fifty thousand elephants traversed the interior of Chad in the early 1960s. Today, less than 2 percent of that population remains. To satisfy the hunger of the ivory trade, entire herds are being mowed down with AK-47s. The proceeds have gone, among other things, to finance the Janjaweed militia in its ethnic cleansing of Darfur.

That’s hard stuff for a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old. It was harder still for Bob and me to watch their despair. There wasn’t a dry eye at the table. We read about the guards who had taken bribes to help the killers identify migratory routes; about the villagers and subsistence farmers who willingly assisted the poachers, happy to keep the elephants out of their crops and find a source of free meat.

I read on as the story delved into details about covert operations and arrests. But I was interrupted.

“The trouble is, they need to learn how to cook an elephant,” Ula blurted with sudden enthusiasm.

I lifted my eyes and gave her a brief disapproving stare. I resumed reading about the warring poachers and rangers.

"And the fencing systems!" Saoirse said. “I mean, they need to look at the villagers' fencing systems.”

“Because if you know how to properly cook an elephant,” Ula continued, apparently unmoved by my parental glare, “then you should be able to kill just one, and you should be able to get a lot of meals out of it.”

I was losing my audience. Fast.

“What are the villagers supposed to do, if they are losing their crops?” Saoirse, who had lost some prized melon seedlings to our flock of guinea hens earlier this summer, was on her own tangent.

“Think about how much bone broth you could get from a single elephant!” Ula was on a roll. “And shooting them like that with those guns—that’s not good. They should really be doing it with spears. Because that’s a lot of meat they’re wasting.”

I glanced across the table at Bob. He was holding his head in his hands. This current events lesson was failing. Fast.

“They shouldn’t be killing the elephants at all! I said.

“The trouble is, they need to learn how to cook an elephant.”

“Why not?” Ula challenged me head-on. “I mean, they have to eat, right? Well, no one could eat 250 elephants. That’s not right. But they could do a lot with one elephant. Think about the size! Think how much meat they could take off it! And then, they could make a little something nice with the tusks. But I wouldn’t just use the tusks. After I made broth from the bones, I’d probably make something nice with those too.”

“And how can those villagers farm if the elephants are allowed to just wander through?” Saoirse added.

Homeschooling is a work-in-progress, I thought to myself. I closed the magazine and tossed it aside. Bob was shaking his head as he began clearing the table. This hadn’t played out as I’d hoped. Where had I gone wrong?

I mulled this over for the next several days. As I walked my dogs each morning, I kept repeating these words to myself: Apathy versus empathy. Apathy versus empathy. Did Ula and Saoirse fail to care about the elephants?

Not really. They had grown deeply distressed about the plight of the elephants. And Saoirse’s comments about the fencing systems made sense. But Ula’s comments about cooking the elephants disturbed me. How could she hear about all that destruction and then focus on the proper technique to kill and cook an elephant?

Nearly a week went by before I understood the obvious. Our family raises and slaughters beef, chickens, pigs, and sheep to live. Saoirse’s and Ula’s understanding of the world around them is that people must eat to live. And eating requires two things: protecting the livestock and crops from perils, and killing.

The elephant slaughter was, beyond a doubt, upsetting to them. However, those few short lines about the villagers and subsistence farmers were not something they could easily gloss over. By virtue of their own daily experience, they were able to identify closely with the local villagers.

And as I replayed our family dialog, I realize the depth of their empathy. They were horrified about the ethnic cleansing in Darfur. They cried over the elephants. But they were also concerned about the sustainability of the villagers and the farmers.

Saoirse and Ula had found the component in the story that they could understand and relate to.

Unlike their short-sighted mother, who wanted to expand their knowledge of world events and spark empathy only for the elephants, they had gone a step further. They were using their own life experience along with their ability to think critically. They were not seeing the solution to the problem in terms of international laws or policing efforts, which was the focus of the article. They cared about how to meet the needs of the people as well as the needs of the elephants.

Maybe my current events lesson had not gone wrong. Saoirse and Ula had found the component in the story that they could understand and relate to, and they forced me to think deeper about the problem than I originally had.

As I mentioned earlier, homeschooling is a work in progress. And hopefully, after they’ve worked with me for another decade or so, my kids will finally get me properly educated.