A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

A Conservative Catholic Plea for the Elephants


It’s always special when Matthew Scully writes about animals. He’s done it again with a remarkable article in The Atlantic about the “global industry that’s slaughtering Africa’s elephants.” And although he avoids one critical piece of the issue, the article is no less a must-read.

More than 10 years ago, Scully stepped down from his White House job as a speechwriter for George W. Bush to write his book Dominion – The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. He wrote as a conservative Catholic, filling a much-needed gap in the world of animal protection literature and advocacy that had become increasingly associated with left-wing politics and philosophy.

After that, Scully found himself steering a somewhat tricky course between maintaining ties to Republican politics (his day job as a speechwriter) and his animal protection agenda. In the 2008 presidential campaign, he was hired by Sarah Palin, who was already infamous for shooting wolves from helicopters. And as soon as Mitt Romney picked the avid bow-hunter Paul Ryan as his running mate in 2012, Ryan hired Scully as his speechwriter.

Call it compartmentalization. But how does anyone keep these compartments out of each other’s sight. I mean, ten years ago when I interviewed Scully, he said:

“Sport hunting is becoming a very grubby and tawdry business, and it needs serious examination by the law. … Bow hunting inevitably inflicts more suffering on these animals. It makes hunting less reliable and greatly increases the likelihood of wounded animals running off to die a slow death somewhere.”

His book also fired double-barreled rounds of contempt into the heart of the Safari Club, which counts among its members the elite of high political and military office, whose chief hobby, when they’re done with planning and waging war on other humans, is to take out as many nonhuman animals as they can lay their sights on. In other words, people like Paul Ryan.

Scully will probably exasperate us again, sooner or later, by signing up for another round of speechwriting for these same dreadful people, but meanwhile let’s be grateful for this remarkable piece of journalism that combines careful reporting with passionate advocacy.

As a conservative Catholic (and I’ll come back to that), he begins with the words of Pope Francis on March 12th this year:

“Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!”

To which he adds:

If we want to take seriously those words from Francis – a new pontiff named for the saint who despised cruelty, whose very first sermon spoke of “respecting each of God’s creatures” – [the elephants] would be a very good place to focus our attention. Unless Western and African nations can turn things around fast, to protect the 400,000 or so left, then the elephants of Africa, pretty much all of them, will be gone.

Last year, 32,000 elephants died at the hands of ivory poacher and the pockets of the nouveau riche of Asia:

Nothing in Chinese says “I’ve arrived” like a carved tusk, and they go for about $1,300 a pound or more these days … as much as $50,000 for a sizable pair of tusks on the street in China. … The government of Kenya reports that 90 percent of ivory smugglers caught there are Chinese citizens.


Scully pours more scorn on the right-wing marketeering philosophy of ivory-tower, Washington DC think tanks like the Cato Institute, which recommends leaving the poaching industry to “the market” so it can find its own level. Cato advocates maintaining “a population of 500,000 elephants [that] could naturally generate $6.7 billion worth of ivory annually,” and ensuring, by the laws of supply and demand, that there will always be enough elephants to keep the supply ivory going. (That should be a real consolation to all those elephant mothers.) The elephants are not dumb to what’s going on. They know they’re being massacred.

The elephants are not dumb to what’s going on. They know they’re being massacred. Frank Pope, of Save the Elephants, tells Scully that the animals are devising their own strategies to avoid being seen. They try not to move around in daylight, and “when the urge to reach a new area becomes too strong, they’ll often wait for nightfall before making a rapid streak across the landscape until they reach another safe zone.”

Much of this horror is sponsored by the Safari Club, a tax-exempt charity, no less, which explains its murderous mission as being all about “conservation”.

(Note to the IRS: Forget the Tea Party groups and have a look at these people.)

Scully then hones in on the other side of the equation – the environmental movement:

… [which] somewhere along the way took on an impersonal, abstract mindset, more about “habitat” than animals, and so fixated on broader economic agendas as to lose its basic moral vision as guardian of our fellow creatures in the here and now.

… Environmentalism, without animal protection in the foreground, is just an argument about aesthetics and consumer rights. It’s cheap nature worship, about us and not really about the world around us. I’m all for going green, but as a rallying cry it lacks something. “We lightened our carbon footprint,” as a measure of virtue and moral endeavor, just doesn’t have the solid, selfless ring of “We saved the elephants.”

Amen to that, brother. When I read Al Gore’s much-touted volume Our Choice, it wasn’t until half way through the book that he even mentioned the animals. And even then they’re simply referred to as “species.” The same, unfortunately, goes for Bill McKibben of 350.org, who tends to see animals as nothing more than resources to be managed responsibly as we humans try to adapt to climate change.

Scully notes that the secretary general of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) was one of the worst things that ever happened to elephants:

I interviewed [Eugene] Lapointe once, in 2000, and still remember the utter disdain with which he brushed off the “sentimentality” of protection efforts: all this “propaganda about elephants – elephants being shot and the calf nearby making noises and so forth. … It’s for their own good, to be hunted and used” – a rule “suffering no exceptions.”

He is the only man I have ever met who spoke with hatred for elephants. And this is the guy who ran CITES for nine years.

Scully’s heart goes out, in the fullest way, to those whose lives are dedicated to protecting what’s left of the elephants – like the wonderful Daphne Sheldrick and her sanctuary for the orphans left behind when their mothers are hunted down; and to Lee White …

… who left his post at Stirling University in Manchester to save the elephants and now leads an army of 250 rangers — placed at his disposal by President Ali Bongo — to secure the nation’s 13 parks. … “Either people like me can keep studying these animals until they disappear or we have to join the fight to protect them.”

Unlike others who have reported the ongoing extinction of the elephants, Scully goes on to offer a list of moves that governments and wildlife organization can make – must make – to give these gentle giants any hope of recovery.

We should give to these kindhearted people all that we can, and our prayers, too, because this forlorn, sentimental cause of theirs is the cause of humanity, in the story of life that is bigger than humanity, and right now the fight is not going our way. This is ground we cannot afford to surrender, the final refuge of animals who mourn their own, and deserve more than to be let go and mourned by us.

… Let the spirit of it all be Francis – the pope and, better still, the saint, who “walked the earth like the pardon of God.”

But there’s one thing missing. The new pope may have offered a word of prayer for the animals upon whom we wreak such destruction, but the Catholic Church is implicated in the ivory trade horror right up to its papal miter. That tawdry tale was laid out in a National Geographic cover story, Blood Ivory, last October. But Scully completely avoids it. He doesn’t mention how, for example, if you buy an ivory crucifix at a gallery right opposite the Vatican, the salesperson can get it blessed by a Vatican priest before she ships it to you – anywhere in the world. Francis’s church is a corrupt, ivory-peddling mafia. And if he isn’t going to root out this evil, then it’s up to conservative Catholics like Scully to use the power of the pen to apply some real pressure.

Nor how the trade in ivory that passes through the Philippines is run by Msgr. Cristobal Garcia, who was spirited out of Los Angeles in the late 1980s after admitting to having sexually abused altar boys there. Today, he is one of the most prominent leaders of the church in the Philippines – happily surrounded by more altar boys than ever, along with tons of ivory. This dark satanic Catholic luminary even confides to National Geographic reporter Bryan Christy, who poses as a potential client, how best to smuggle ivory into the United States. (“Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it.”)

Nor does Scully mention the extent to which the last two popes were in on the whole sick ivory trade.

Francis may be a different species of holy father, but an occasional mention of the rest of creation in an occasional homily isn’t going to cut it. When it comes to the elephants, his church is a corrupt, ivory-peddling mafia. And if Francis himself isn’t going to root out this evil, then it’s up to conservative Catholics like Scully to use the power of the pen to apply some real pressure.

It’s a big missing element in an otherwise powerful, must-read article. However, without the active involvement, not only of political leaders, but also of a Catholic leader whom his people are counting on to clean house, the elephants have probably had it.