In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men

Are committed fathers an endangered species in our culture? Fr. Gordon MacRae draws a troubling corollary between absent fathers and burgeoning prisons.

Wade Horn, Ph.D., President of the National Fatherhood Initiative, had an intriguing article entitled “Of Elephants and Men” in a recent issue of  Fatherhood Today magazine. I found Dr. Horn’s story about young elephants to be simply fascinating, and you will too. It was sent to me by a TSW reader who wanted to know if there is any connection between the absence of fathers and the shocking growth of the American prison population.

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.


In his terrific article, “Of Elephants and Men,” Dr. Wade Horn went on to write of a story very similar to that of the elephants, though it happened not in Africa, but in New York’s Central Park. The story involved young men, not young elephants, but the details were eerily close. Groups of young men were caught on camera sexually harassing and robbing women and victimizing others in the park. Their herd mentality created a sort of frenzy that was both brazen and contagious. In broad daylight, they seemed to compete with each other, even laughing and mugging for the cameras as they assaulted and robbed passersby. It was not, in any sense of the term, the behavior of civilized men.

Appalled by these assaults, citizens demanded a stronger and more aggressive police presence. Dr. Horn asked a more probing question. “Where have all the fathers gone?” Simply increasing the presence of police everywhere a crime is possible might assuage some political pressure, but it does little to identify and solve the real social problem behind the brazen Central Park assaults. It was the very same problem that victimized rhinos in that park in Africa. The majority of the young men hanging around committing those crimes in Central Park grew up in homes without fathers present.

That is not an excuse. It is a social problem that has a direct correlation with their criminal behavior. They were not acting like men because their only experience of modeling the behaviors of men had been taught by their peers and not by their fathers. Those who did have fathers had absent fathers, clearly preoccupied with something other than being role models for their sons. Wherever those fathers were, they were not in Central Park.

Dr. Horn pointed out that simply replacing fathers with more police isn’t a solution. No matter how many police are hired and trained, they will quickly be outnumbered if they assume the task of both investigating crime and preventing crime. They will quickly be outnumbered because  presently in our culture, two out of every five young men are raised in fatherless homes, and that disparity is growing faster as traditional family systems break down throughout the Western world.

Real men protect the vulnerable, not assault them. Growing up having learned that most basic tenet of manhood is the job of fathers, not the police. Dr. Horn cited a quote from a young Daniel Patrick Moynihan written some forty years ago:

“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th Century Eastern Seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history:  A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken homes, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations for the future – that community asks for and gets chaos.”


It’s easy in the politically correct standards of today to dismiss such a quote as chauvinistic. But while we’re arguing that point, our society’s young men are being tossed away by the thousands into prison systems that swallow them up. Once in prison, this system is very hard to leave behind. The New Hampshire prison system just released a dismal report two weeks ago. Of 1,095 prisoners released in 2007, over 500 were back in prison by 2010.  Clearly, the loss of freedom does not compensate for the loss of fathers in managing the behavior of young men.

There is very little that happens in the punishment model of prison life that teaches a better way to a young man who has broken the law. The proof of that is all around us, but – especially in an election year – getting anyone to take a good hard look inside a prison seems impossible. We live in a disposable culture, and when our youth are a problem, we simply do what we do best. We dispose of them, sometimes forever. Anyone who believes that punishment, and nothing but punishment, is an effective deterrent of criminal behavior in the young is left to explain why our grotesquely expensive prisons have a 50 percent recidivism rate.

As I have written before, the United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, but twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. The U.S. has more young men in prison today than all of the leading 35 European countries combined. The ratio of prisoners to citizens in the U.S. is four times what it is in Israel, six times what it is in Canada and China, and thirteen times what it is in Japan. The only governments with higher per capita rates of prisoners are in Third World countries, and even they are only slightly higher.

For a nation struggling with its racial inequities, the prison system is a racial disaster. Currently, young men of African-American and Latino descent comprise 30 percent of our population, but 60 percent of our prison population. But prison isn’t itself an issue that falls conveniently along racial divides.

New Hampshire, where I have spent the last eighteen years in prison, is one of the whitest states in the United States, and yet it is first in the nation not only in its Presidential Primary election, but in prison growth. Between 1980 and 2005, New Hampshire’s state population grew by 34 percent. In that same period, its prison population grew by a staggering 600 percent with no commensurate increase in crime rate.

In an election year, politicizing prisons is just counter-productive and nothing will ever really change. Albert R. Hunt of Bloomberg News had a recent op-ed piece in  The New York Times (“A Country of Inmates,” November 20, 2011) in which he decried the election year politics of prisons.

“This issue [of prison growth] almost never comes up with Republican presidential candidates; one of the few exceptions was a debate in September when audiences cheered the notion of executions in Texas.”

This may be so, but it’s the very sort of political blaming that undermines real serious and objective study of our national prison problem. I am not a Republican or a Democrat, but in fairness I should point out that the current Democratic governor of New Hampshire has but one plan for this State’s overcrowded and ever growing prison system: build a bigger prison somewhere. And as far as executions are concerned, the overwhelmingly Republican state Legislature in New Hampshire voted overwhelmingly to overturn the state’s death penalty ten years ago. Governor Jeanne Shaheen (now U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen), a Democrat, vetoed the repeal saying that this State “needs a death penalty.”

But for me, the most mindless politics of all are those of groups like Voice of the Faithful, obsessed with the “survivors” of priestly misconduct – both real and feigned – from 30, 40, or 50 years ago. But they have absolutely nothing to say about the thousands of young men dumped annually into prison systems from which they emerge with little hope of ever recovering from what they encounter there. How can anyone claim to protect young people while ignoring that? Perhaps the VOTF people concerned for youth at the hands of priests would do well to read Jeremy’s comment posted awhile back on These Stone Walls.Gordon-MacRae-Falsely-Accused-Priest-Land-of-Nod-East-of-Eden

Eighty percent of the young men I have met in prison grew up in homes without fathers. The problem seems clear. When prisons and police replace fathers, chaos reigns, and promising young lives are sacrificed.

Before we close the door on Father’s Day this year, let’s revisit whether we’re prepared for the chaos of a fatherless America. “Fathers” and “Fatherhood” are concepts with 1,932 direct references in the Old and New Testaments. Without a doubt, fatherhood has long been on the mind of God.


About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Beth G. says:

    Absolutely agree with this article, but don’t forget how females are affected too when there is no father in the house. They have no idea what to look for in a mate. The absence and/or abuse is a normal thing and “who needs a man anyway, we can do anything they can do”.”They believe their bodies, looks and sex is the way to keep a man and the only way to get a man. Oh the list goes on and on! I cannot tell you how many women friends I have that have said about their husbands-“He’s a good man, he doesn’t beat me”-Really, the fact he doesn’t beat you elevates his behavior to good? So sad.

  2. Stuart Tutt says:

    Very powerful post. One that needs to not only be addressed but shared.

  3. Reggie Barton says:

    This IS, indeed, an awesome article. One thing that we should not overlook is the critical role that women play in fatherless homes. The two greatest fears that a woman has (according to survey) are 1) growing old, and 2) growing old ALONE. Because of the latter fear, women will often select a “less-than-desirable” with whom to mate (the females in the wild would NEVER do this). The nature of their thought process ranges anywhere from, “I’ll fix him” to “He’s better than having nothing”. A staggering 98 percent of women who has had children with a bad man knew what he was about from the beginning. The males in the wild KNOW that they have to become the best of the best or they will not mate. We “men” can always find a willing female regardless of how sorry and pathetic we may be. I could be a 35-year old, living in my mommy’s basement, playing video games all day, no job, 3 different kids and not paying child support, police record a mile long, and a FICO score of 114, and STILL can mate. My message to women is to only “mate” with top-quality men and the herd will grow strong again. You may say that the available top-quality men are far and few in between. Well, that’s because we men are not required to be top-quality.

    • likeDaniel says:

      The two greatest fears women experience and adapt to on a daily basis:
      1. being attacked(raped/killed) by men
      2. being attacked(raped/killed) by men

      Having a man around (men are more valuable in our society) may offer protection but may bring other issues as you have stated. So really it’s accepting risk for the promise of protection which, is btw what the North American public is doing as a whole currently, ie giving up something (rights to privacy etc) under the promise of something that may or may not happen in the future (national “security”).

      I do take issue with the blaming element in your post however as you speak English that is understandability as those who speak English as a first language have a much greater tendency to blame victims. In fact this proclivity is so strong in our culture that even victims blame themselves which is at the basis of what you are sharing as evidence that these women knew but took up with the various undesirables anyway. After all, it is better to believe that there is something wrong with yourself, as this can potentially be changed to avoid future difficulties, than to realize there are many highly manipulative emotionally defended developmentally arrested human beings (including men) out there who think nothing is wrong with opportunism and hurting others for gain and in fact act as if they have a duty to conduct themselves in such a way to teach others a lesson.

      The truth is, whenever there is violence/oppression there is resistance. Those who oppress expect resistance and work hard to both overcome and prevent it from occurring such that most resistance is covert rather than overt.

      Lastly, though we also possess a limbic system comparable to many animals, we are not animals. We are rational (or at least have the capacity to be!) human beings with a soul and spirit. Our limbic system which gives us alarm, frustration and pursuit can not function properly and gets stuck when we are messaged constantly with FEAR. If a human being is in a constant state of fear they CAN”T experience alarm and a blind spot is created numbing our ability in the present moment as things are happening (meeting a new potential mate for example) to “see” possible warning signs. There is much more to this of course but suffice to say that we do ourselves (and others) a “diss”-service when we judge situations out of proper context, which includes time. I think this is referred to in popular language as Monday morning quarterbacking…

      I enjoyed your post and think it is a great topic to discuss various viewpoints and respect yours and the unique experiences that exist within.

  4. Bea says:

    Renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary “Into the Abyss” shows the tragedies ensuing in the lives of sons without fathers and in those of their victims. Conversations with death row inmate Michael Perry and those affected by his crime serve as an examination of why people – and the state of Texas – kill. Herzog doesn’t sensationalize or express his opinion. He simply looks and he listens. Powerful images and words!

  5. Skye says:

    Thankyou for this.
    It is not only the young men who get affected by having no father figure, it is the young women too. A woman’s father teaches her how to act towards men, and he gives her affection and security unlike anyone else can. A woman who grows up without a father starts to look in other places for that security that she would have found in her father. Usually the girls without fathers will try to get that security and affection from another male, like a boyfriend. And if her boyfriend isn’t up to that task, which he probably isn’t because he isn’t her father, and might not even have a father figure himself, then it can be quite depressing for the girl, and the boy too, when she decides to look elsewhere for affection and security.

    • Kimberly says:

      I agree of the me as an example of growing up with a father and mother. I had the best of both worlds. My son’s father picks and chooses when he is available. I can’t control that. I can control the positive male role models I allow my son to encounter, Starting with my brother who is always there. Even though children want their own parents. CHILDREN Love who Loves them.

  6. Father Gordon MacRae = Bull Elephant

  7. Mary Jean Scudieri says:

    Hi Father Gordon!

    When Jesus was here on earth He had the guidance of His earthly father Joseph and His heavenly Father. He as the Son of God deferred to His Father always. There is no getting away from the importance of THIS relationship. It’s absence leads to breakdown.
    You are a father to all those men in the prison because you stand for that which was lacking in their lives. You helped Jeremy to be free of the demons that pursued him both physically and emotionally.
    Yes Father, God knows why you are here painful as it is to you.
    We on the outside are also being fathered by your wisdom and your example.
    May God continue to bless us through you and hold you up to us all in the faith and dignity of your life.
    God love and bless you always as well as those in your care.
    My prayers and thoughts are with you andPornchai.
    Your friend, Jeannie

    • Philip Neyland says:

      I am beginning to understand the psychology of why the Catholic
      church employs the term “father” when addressing the men who minister from day to day and from week to week to Her patrons. I do know that if my biological father had been absent from my life, I would probably have been totally different, (not that I am so very profound now) because he was a master tactician when dealing with his seven sons and five daughters. Perpetual praise is due him, in that, as an Christian African American father he is yet the beaconing light that helps me to chart my course and my direction.

      • Albert says:

        I was very happy when I realised that I would never be able to achieve the goodness and cleverness of my father. It was a truth which set me free

  8. Sharon says:

    Hello Father Gordon. I found this article very interesting and important. Thank you!


  9. jamil malik says:

    This is an amazing story that should circulate far and wide. Most citizens think that courts and prisons pave the way to restorative justice when in fact they are filled with corruption. I just read about two Pennsylvania judges indicted for accepting kick-backs from the private prisons they were sending juvenile offenders to. America’s prison system is very badly broken and beyond repair. Meanwhile, America is in my country demanding democracy and human rights. This is a global example of removing the splinter from your brother’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own. Thanks for writing this.

  10. Hi Fr Gordon,Same message as before,when I next attend A Eucharistic adoration I will pray for you and yours,IHS.

  11. Patricia says:

    Dear Fr. Gordon, this post was so outstanding I had to send it to culture war notes website. They had it as a headline yesterday and today it is still on their website.

  12. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Another poignant post from you dear Fr. MacRae. God bless you for always courageously speaking the truth. I read and listen to all who do the same. This is why I listen to EWTN frequently.

    Johnette Benkovic, who hosts Women of Grace daily on EWTN, is a favorite. She brings to light all the nasty and horrendous, as well as the good and holy, things going on in society today. This week she has as her guests three male guests who all are good examples of men who keep the faith by teaching it, writing about it, and by living it, and doing so in a public way. Again, I say we need more and more men like these, and like you Fr. MacRae.

    In reference to your posting in February, I reread Jeremy’s comment. Once again, I was lifted up by your manly, and courageous defense of that young man when he was being physically abused by a bully. I have to use these terms you know, manly, courageous, bully, because our society has forgotten the meaning of such words. Words mean something.

    My prayer daily is for strong families. Families who exemplify faith, hope, and charity. Mother and Father together with children and extended family members close by, like Grandparents, cousins, etc. This is what all children need and so many are missing today. We do them all a great disservice by dismissing the importance of these things in each child’s life.

    I have read about the elephants before, and was really impressed by this observation of animal behavior. I was reminded of my own teenage son when a real man, his stepfather, came into his life and showed him daily what it is to love and to sacrifice, to give unselfishly, and to discipline one’s self. What a different young man I saw after a short time with the presence of this man in his life. Where I had seen disrespect and self-willed behavior, flagrant disobedience, I began to see a young man with self-control, and a spirit of cooperation, as well as respectful behavior and language, especially towards me, his mom. I know how it happened, because I saw it up close and personal.

    Real men who will step up to the plate are sorely needed. All may apply.

    Blessings once again to you Fr. MacRae.

  13. Judy Stefencavage says:

    dear Father; you have hit the “nail” on the head, spot on…. I work in an alcohol/drug rehab foundation. Most of the “patients” there in full time rehab and detox, are boys without fathers, not all, but the majority. It is heartbreaking to see the ways in which they “hide” their fear and loneliness for a father-figure. That is only one result of what you are speaking about.
    If only….there was a simple way to get this across to men; that they need to be real fathers to their children both girls and boys. If only there was a simple way to teach young men before they become fathers.
    I know that” if only”….is not a realistic thing to say…. But is there no way to bring t his to the attention of politics and parents. Someone who is respected and listened to must take on this responsibility. I will pray that in the near future some type of solution can come about, but I am not counting on it.
    Thank you Father for this piece; I would like to cut it out and put on the posterboard of my church and the supermarkets!!:_)

  14. So much of this makes sense! Thank you, Father, for your insight and ability to explain this so clearly. I pray many will not only agree with you, but will pick up a phone or write and letter and try to do something about this. If we don’t all contribute to healing our world, we are all doomed to fight a losing battle. One further comment I want to make about the community in general, and the relationship to the Church, is the Alinsky Community Organizing that advocates for many things in the community through the Catholic Churches and CCHD grants–they push for more money for social services, more money for housing, more money for police, higher wages, and more services–BUT THEY DO NOTHING FOR THE FAMILY. In fact, their ideology is considered (by their own supporters) to be “progressive” which does NOT support the traditional family in any way. I do not mean to make this political, but Father Gordon is right–our world is uncivilized (not because of jobs or housing or economics but) because the traditional family is no longer held sacred by the community. Please do your own research, but if your church supports a community organizer like IAF, Gamaliel, DART, PICO, Interfaith Worker Justice, and the many many others, please ask your pastor and bishop to stop supporting them. God Bless you, Father Gordon.

  15. Trish says:

    Dear Father Gordon

    Living close to Kruger National Park, your story struck a chord with me! I am workling in an HIV/AIDS project for our diocese and just yesterday we were lamenting the fact that, despite our efforts, we have been unsuccessful in affecting behaviour change that would prevent the transmission of the HI Virus. A visiting male colleague pointed out that unless men learn to be men and to regard women as more than objects for their own pleasure when and wherever they please, we will never succeed. This is so true and the word ‘fatherless’ would describe the major percentage of households we encounter. We need to rethink and focus on the young boys and men….this has been so much on my mind lately.

    God bless you – you are often in my prayers and I have recommended your site to many here.

  16. sean maloney says:

    There is a secondary issue :the falsely acused fathers that lose their parental rights due to the bias of the female dominate social service/ family court system. The mere claim of”verbal abuse” is enough for a male to be on the defensive in every acspect of a divorce(money and court dcree leverage are usually always sided with the mother even if the testimony and facts don’t make much sense(“credible testimony” does’nt mean it is true or not a complete out right lie— just that a judge subjectively decided to believe it could have happened that way) The Catholic church gets alot of federal grant money filtered to it for domestic abuse services— ask your self how much of it goes to falsely accused catholic fathers? (it isn’t very flattering to show a mother of a child is a liar, in a “mother mary venerating church ideology”)—There is a short film called “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” by an Afrcan Amercian film producer and it gives a sad but glaring look at the systematic removal of fathers from their GOD GIVEN ROLE. How many Catholic priest (or for that matter other religious denominations ministers) use their numerous social service degrees and family therapy training to be participants in the court ordered family evaulation process? (I lost all my parental rights to a non religious jew {his own self decribed description, who had 2 inapproriate conduct cases against him with female clients(!)— think this person should be in the government family investigation program?). Stay strong Father Gordon, you are a better Christian than me to not have any anger about the way you were treated in your miscarriage of justice.

  17. Caroline says:

    Dear Fr. Gordon,
    I just finished reading the President’s autobiography. He grew up in a home without a father. His maternal grandfather was there and some limited male mentors but he longed for his father. Then when they met there was a lack of understanding, anger and even shame. After his father’s death he had a dream about meeting him and only in the dream was love confessed. His life is a textbook example of how the sexual revolution destroyed the family. It is sinister the numbers of men who have lost their birthright, their right to a father and to live as a free man. Instead, our nation gives them unlimited immorality, pop culture, junk food and four walls. And from what I hear not all these men are in for violent crimes. It is a sort of slavery.
    Thank you for your brilliant article and the Elephant story and the death penalty in NH. Very interesting. I am praying for your intentions. God bless you!

  18. Karin says:

    Fr. Gordon,
    These facts about the elephants are fascinating . Our “fatherless culture” does more harm than many realize. There are studies done also to show that the presence of Dad at Mass each week does more for a child staying with the faith than does a mother.
    Good solid father figures are so important as are role models (like those elephants). Perhaps more programs like Big Brother/Sister need to be in place for children without fathers at home.
    I have also seen changes in men who have children who come to Rachel’s Vineyard for healing from abortion. Once this healing begins, they report changes in their parenting practices, and their faith usually becomes stronger as well. They become the men God created them to be and so are better role models to their children.
    Bottom line though I think the statistics and facts that you have shared here need to be publicized more so that the correlation between fatherless homes and prison population can be seen.
    Thank you for a truly enlightening post.
    Continued prayers as always.

  19. bernadette mck says:

    Those are extraordinary facts about elephant herds and deserve to be publicised to a much wider audience. I do not know any statistics for Britain’s prison population but I suspect that many prisoners come from broken homes which usually means having been brought up without a father, or else having been brought up with a succession of ‘father’ figures neither of which has a stabling effect.

    When someone is sent to prison and it is discovered that they came from a broken home there are those who say that fact is ‘just an excuse’ for crime. Of course not everyone without a father turns to crime but from the example of the elephants it does look as if it is much more difficult for those from broken homes to keep on the straight and narrow. The breakdown in morality and people believing that it is their right to do whatever they want has much to answer for. Also the press who constantly publicise the love-lives of the celebrities often followed by the break-ups and all regarded as ‘normal’ behaviour.

    Fr Gordon has shown for us here that we have a lot to learn from the noble elephant – I understand they even ‘mourn’ their dead.

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