What Elephants Can Teach Us about the Isla Vista Tragedy

Like so many people in the greater Santa Barbara community, I am saddened and deeply impacted by the actions of a deranged young man Friday night in Isla Vista, CA.  I’d like to put things into context and compartmentalize so much that the national media is missing and make a bold statement that if we paid more attention to how elephants deal with their young; specifically adult male elephants and teenage elephants, we may learn how to properly socialize our young men and prevent such heinous crimes in the future.  Though gun control, misogyny, race, and a soulless culture focused on money all played into what happened last Friday – I believe the principle issue is about how we socialize our men these days.  More on this momentarily; but let’s first put things into context with the various locations and institutions that have been all over the news lately.

For those of you that are not locals, Isla Vista is home to the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB).  UCSB is one of the finest educational institutions in America.  UCSB has produced numerous Nobel Laureates – of which 5 are currently on faculty, has one of the most diverse student bodies in California in terms of minorities and yes socioeconomic status (UCSB is not just for rich kids), and has one of the highest alumni giving rates in the Country – about 1/5th of UCSB alums donate.  UCSB also has the reputation of being of the top party schools in America.  And it is.  But my alma mater – The University of Michigan – also knows how to party and anyone who disagrees has never been to Ann Arbor on a Saturday in the Fall.  The point is that UCSB is not all party – it’s also a very serious, disciplined place of education.

About Santa Barbara City College – SBCC

The troubled young man who killed 6 people in his rampage last Friday night had attended Santa Barbara City College – SBCC.  The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program  (a standard like US News & World Report) awarded SBCC as winner for Community College Excellence in 2013.  The Aspen Institute examined the top 1000 public community colleges in America and rated SBCC the top prize (co-winner was Walla Walla Community College).  SBCC is integrated into almost every facet of life in the Santa Barbara community and the award is representative of the care and energy faculty, staff, and administrators place into each student and the results speak for themselves.

About Santa Barbara
Most people think of Santa Barbara as the American Riviera.  This is a special community nestled between mountains and the Pacifica Ocean with the Channel Islands creating a unique bay like experience for sea goers.  Indeed, this is a heavenly place seemingly always in bloom and operating with the highest standards of cleanliness, decorum, and celebration of life.  What you may not know about Santa Barbara County is that it is also home to the second highest number of nonprofits per capita in America.  Santa Barbara’s 89,000 population is a community driven population that embraces and produces philanthropy across the board.  Santa Barbara is also the birth place of the Earth Day movement – yet another statement on the City’s passion for environment.  As a resident, I can tell you the most amazing aspect of living here is that the gratitude we feel for calling Santa Barbara home translates into giving of our time and energy.  Just about everyone living in SB contributes and does so with glee.

Learning from Elephants

So now, let’s talk about elephants.  How in an environment so giving, so picturesque, and so heavenly, could something so hellish take place?  The obvious answer is that no place is immune to mental illness and tragedy.  In the case of Elliot Rodger, we have plenty of videos and manifestos to analyze. And, wow, has it ever been analyzed in the last 72 hours.  I think I’ve read about 20 articles each with a different take… “it’s about gun control”, “it’s women’s rights,” “this is what happens when you party too much,” “he was half white/half asian and compensating,” and “our culture is too focused on money!”

As I said earlier, all of those are valid points and may very well have played into the recipe that led to his “retribution.”  I wonder though if  the core issue is much simpler.  Please read the follow excerpt from a story that appeared a few years ago:


Some years ago, officials at the Kruger National Park and game reserve in South Africa were faced with a growing elephant problem. The population of African elephants, once endangered, had grown larger than the park could sustain. So measures had to be taken to thin the ranks. A plan was devised to relocate some of the elephants to other African game reserves. Being enormous creatures, elephants are not easily transported.  So a special harness was created to air-lift the elephants and fly them out of the park using helicopters.

The helicopters were up to the task, but, as it turned out, the harness wasn’t. It could handle the juvenile and adult female elephants, but not the huge African bull elephants. A quick solution had to be found, so a decision was made to leave the much larger bulls at Kruger and relocate only some of the female elephants and juvenile males.

The problem was solved. The herd was thinned out, and all was well at Kruger National Park. Sometime later, however, a strange problem surfaced at South Africa’s other game reserve, Pilanesburg National Park, the younger elephants’ new home.

Rangers at Pilanesburg began finding the dead bodies of endangered white rhinoceros. At  first, poachers were suspected, but the huge rhinos had not died of gunshot wounds, and their precious horns were left intact. The rhinos appeared to be killed violently, with deep puncture wounds. Not much in the wild can kill a rhino, so rangers set up hidden cameras throughout the park.

The result was shocking. The culprits turned out to be marauding bands of aggressive juvenile male elephants, the very elephants relocated from Kruger National Park a few years earlier. The young males were caught on camera chasing down the rhinos, knocking them over, and stomping and goring them to death with their tusks. The juvenile elephants were terrorizing other animals in the park as well. Such behavior was very rare among elephants. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Marauding Elephants

Some of the park rangers settled on a theory. What had been missing from the relocated herd was the presence of the large dominant bulls that remained at Kruger. In natural circumstances, the adult bulls provide modeling behaviors for younger elephants, keeping them in line.

Juvenile male elephants, Dr. Horn pointed out, experience “musth,” a state of frenzy triggered by mating season and increases in testosterone. Normally, dominant bulls manage and contain the testosterone-induced frenzy in the younger males. Left without elephant modeling, the rangers theorized, the younger elephants were missing the civilizing influence of their elders as nature and pachyderm protocol intended.

To test the theory, the rangers constructed a bigger and stronger harness, then flew in some of the older bulls left behind at Kruger. Within weeks, the bizarre and violent behavior of the juvenile elephants stopped completely.The older bulls let them know that their behaviors were not elephant-like at all. In a short time, the younger elephants were following the older and more dominant bulls around while learning how to be elephants.
The deranged Isla Vista killer lacked 1 thing – true male direction.  Yes, his family knew of his issues and had him in counseling (repeatedly).  Did his father or another male figure come to Santa Barbara and spend several weeks with him?  Did they teach him right from wrong when it comes to women, to relationships, to his views on the world?  It seems like the clinical answer was the first option and missed the boat.

Consider for a moment if this lost soul had an “older bull” to let him know his perception and behavior were not acceptable.  Perhaps we would still be picking up the pieces of this aftermath.  But perhaps, we would have had a very different outcome.  In our litigious and busy culture, we often choose the easy way out.

We don’t want to create liability or get our hands dirty.  More people should have taken him aside to talk, listen, empathize.  Everyone was a virgin once – he was a very late bloomer is all.  I don’t feel sorry for him but I’m exercising compassion to better train myself for the next time.  I wish I knew him.  I would have tried to talk some sense into him.  Now, like everyone, I’m left analyzing and picking up the pieces.

One thing I can do is contribute to a system that could prevent this from ever happening again.  One of our investment companies, SelfEcho, has been developing mobile and Web based software to help clinical psychologists do their job better.  Our concept is to leverage the SelfEcho platform, and using natural language analysis and sentiment reduction coupled with a very powerful “spider” that scours social media sites, we could have been alerted at this degenerative situation.  Would it have made a difference?  I don’t know, but I think it’s worth trying.  One of my colleagues in the Santa Barbara community, Luca,  who I plan on partnering with to develop this technology wrote a brilliant piece on the technical side of this concept.  It’s proactive when waiting for the tragedy is too late.  Also, we will give the technology away for free for as long as possible. If we can save even 1 life, it will be worth it.

We welcome your help and thoughts.  Please private message me if you would like to help at a political, business, or economic level.  And, yes, there is an opportunity to improve gun control legislation through this technology.

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