Remembrance and Appreciation of Cecil the Lion
I was fortunate to get paid for writing my opinions for a good long time, but it was only after getting hired by Indian Country Media Network that I had no editors objecting to my biases. We all have them, and in my first career as a trial court judge I took my duty to be accounting for my biases rather than pretending I had none. On Medium, I do not have to pass an editor to publish, so if my biases get punished, it will be my readers wielding the stick.
In July of 2015, I kicked over a hornet’s nest of disagreement when I added my opinion to a chorus of disapproval over the killing of a lion named Cecil by Dr. Walter Palmer of Bloomington, Minnesota, an American dentist and self-described “big game hunter.”
I didn’t say “taking.” Killing is the right word. Unless you believe human animals are innately superior to all other animals such that other animals have no rights humans are bound to respect, killing is the ultimate trespass on the rights of others and it requires justification.
In the kind of killing we are about to discuss, the victims you hear about as individuals are always anthropomorphized to some degree, starting with having names. Animal shelters understand names to be important, and so animals up for adoption get “shelter names,” which may or may not go home with an adopted cat or dog or hamster.
Cecil had a name because of his fame among wildlife photographers. He looked like the male lion from central casting, with a big black mane and a regal bearing. He was not only photogenic, he had become so accustomed to humans that he was easy to photograph without a telescopic lens. Cecil was the most popular attraction at Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, where he lived most of the time. He had worn a GPS tracking collar from the University of Oxford since 1999, part of a long term study of the habits of lions.
Dr. Palmer has had his property vandalized and his life threatened over the events of July, 2015, and it can be certain that he was aware of only part of those events. He paid in excess of $50,000 to kill a lion and it seems unlikely that he would have specified a relatively tame lion. He intended to use a bow rather than a rifle, which might have given the lion a fair chance had he not had a couple of men with rifles nearby.
The local “hunters” Dr. Palmer retained to facilitate acquisition of a trophy lion acquired a somewhat ripe elephant carcass for bait, dragging it behind a Land Rover from the border of the park to the vicinity of a blind they had built for the kill. I’m guessing that if you pay $50,000, you don’t expect to have to go traipsing through the brush looking for “your” lion.
Cecil, baited out of Hwange National Park, was chowing down on the elephant carcass when he was hit by Dr. Palmer’s arrow. The big cat retreated as the “hunters” scurried back to a vehicle to give chase. Cecil the semi-tame lion suffered for approximately ten hours before the guides were able to bring their patron close enough to finish the beast off with another arrow.
At that point, it seems clear that a cover-up took place. The location of the killing, while outside the park, was in an area that had no quota for killing of lions. The first evidence that somebody had an awareness of guilt was that Cecil’s tracking collar went dead immediately. The second was that instead of the usual practice of taking the skin and the head — the trophy parts — and leaving the rest for scavengers, the “hunters” made off with the entire carcass.
Dr. Palmer was back in the United States by the time Cecil’s demise became an international incident. He admitted the killing and the unlawful location but denied any knowledge of the illegality. He wanted to use a bow and arrow. Was that some kind of indigenous nostalgia? Please, God, I don’t want to hear about his Cherokee grandmother!
If he did have a Cherokee grandmother, she would have told him that you don’t take an animal without the animal’s permission, without asking in advance and expressing gratitude afterward.
Gratitude for what? Gratitude that the animal gives its life for your sustenance. Oh, right — he didn’t eat the lion. I guess I could ask if he had anything else for which to be grateful?
I’ve been listening carefully to the trophy hunters and they make two claims about why they do what they do. The first is that they want to be congratulated for paying fees that allow the management to keep the animals from going extinct, like the Jicarilla Apaches use permit fees to manage their elk population.
The Apaches manage elk hunting on their reservation by a very limited permit system and it is a permit that guarantees a hunt in the proper season — not a kill. Hunting permits are limited by seasons and by numbers that vary depending on the elk population. And, yes, they charge enough for the permits that they probably attract some trophy hunters who have elk on their bucket list.
Elk are not lions and if you are successful in an elk hunt, you have a lot of meat to process and, yes, you might want to keep the rack to remember Elk, who gave his life for your sustenance.
It would not be fair to the memory of another anthropomorphic animal to mention elk hunting without telling of a death that roiled the Cherokee Nation much like the killing of Cecil the lion. The J.T. Nickel Preserve, located near the Cherokee capital city of Tahlequah, has an elk herd, but the elk are shy and a photographer has to get lucky. Since 2016, anyway, when poachers killed a bull elk known as Hollywood. The name was derived from his habit of hanging out near the main road and posing for photographers.
While shooting a tame animal is fairly disgusting behavior, the poacher (surely there could not have been more than one) cut off Hollywood’s head and left the carcass. I can understand persons who knew Hollywood well not wanting to eat him, but in the meat cooler a steak is a steak. The killing was an evil deed and the poacher upset the community but many people — particularly elders — were just as outraged about wasting the amount of meat provided by a bull elk. In spite of cash rewards being offered, the barbarian poacher was never caught.
Before the stink over Cecil’s death died down, there was a bit of public outrage in Texas when the Dallas Safari Club auctioned off the right to shoot an endangered black rhino with a permit issued by the government of Namibia. Corey Knowlton blew past the ethical challenges and bought the right to kill one of the few living black rhinos for $350,000.
The “hunt” was delayed for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to allow Knowlton to bring pieces of dead rhino back from Namibia on the theory that the kill would “enhance the survival of the species in the wild,” an exception to the ban in the Endangered Species Act. I presume USFW said yes, because the kill happened.
R.I.P. unknown black rhino. This guaranteed kill for a mere $350,000 borders on a “canned hunt.” According to Field & Stream, there were about 1,000 of these “high fence operations” in the U.S. and they are controversial among real hunters. The guaranteed prey may be as common as white-tailed deer or as exotic as big cats, but the prey cannot escape and require no tracking skill. This “hunting” is for profit and wildlife preservation is not part of the agenda.
There’s another reason trophy hunters give: the adrenaline rush, the high adventure thrill. But the canned hunts are even less dangerous to the “hunters” than Dr. Palmer’s bow hunt with armed escorts, because the prey have been raised in close proximity to human beings who are responsible for their care and feeding. Even those not really tame are not really wild, either. When’s the last time you heard of a participant in a canned hunt losing his life?
Still, an adrenaline rush is a physical reaction that can be peculiar to an individual. Many individuals who survive report being in imminent danger to be pleasant. This was the import of Sir Winston Churchill’s famous bon mot:
Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.
Let that be so, trophy hunters seldom face any real danger and Cecil was not armed nor was he inclined to attack. He was used to being shot by cameras, not arrows. Cecil was a rock star among lions because he was virtually tame.
But if Cecil did not die to sustain a human being, did he die to help preserve his threatened species? Those countries that issue safari permits for cameras rather than weapons claim to bring in plenty of money for wildlife management. Income from observation safaris is said to dwarf income from killing safaris, but that is a matter for measurement, not opinion. Let that policy issue go where the numbers take it.
Economics and ethics are different domains.
Non-human animals either have some sort of dignity that humans should respect or they do not. If they do not, there’s no ethical issue. Even the torture inflicted by Dr. Palmer’s incompetent archery would not raise an ethical issue.
This circles back around to my wisecrack about a Cherokee grandmother and a cultural bias I freely admit. My tribal traditions teach that non-human animals do have inherent dignity and humans disregard that dignity at great moral hazard.
Another bias comes from my first career as a trial court judge. I saw lots of homicides go by that involved people getting killed for trivial reasons. A man died over a barking dog; another over road rage. But of all the crappy excuses for taking a life, the one that got the least respect and the most head shaking among sane people was thrill killing.
If Dr. Palmer took up archery because he has a Cherokee grandmother, she would say to him, on hearing he killed Cecil for the excitement, “What’s wrong with you, Grandson? Have you forgotten the story about how disease came to human beings? Didn’t your parents teach you anything?”
Grandmother would be referring to one of the Cherokee origin stories that had all the animals meeting in council and, one by one, relating the outrages perpetrated on them by human beings. Each animal (in origin stories, a representative of his or her kind) brings some sort of disease to humans in retaliation.
The plants, always friends of man, heard what the animals had done and so they, too, had a council in which each plant volunteered to protect humans from some disease cast upon them by the animals. And that’s how the training of Cherokee medicine people came to require broad knowledge of plants.
That story represents a cultural bias. I claim it and I’m proud of it.
Even trophy hunting attracts the whataboutism argument that is so popular these days. When I linked a story about Cecil on my Facebook page, it drew this comment:
I don’t know that morality works there (in Africa). Look at how women are treated around diamond mines…How does the outcry about a cat compare…?
Then other Indians remind me of Jay Spotted Elk, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, and Rexdale Henry — all Indians dead while in police custody. Let’s not get started on African-Americans, who have come up dead for failing to signal a lane change, failure to display a front license plate, and selling untaxed cigarettes.
So, yes, human beings treat each other badly.
Human beings also treat animals badly. Based on many years as a trial judge hearing domestic violence cases, I say those two cruelties often travel together.
There was the “father” who punished his daughter, and when she didn’t stop crying from the spanking quickly enough, he hurled her fish tank on the floor, killing the occupants.
There was the “man” who tossed his girlfriend’s kitten out of a fifth floor window to hurt her.
One of my last dog rescues before leaving Indiana involved Jimmy, a barely adult bichon friese who had been whacked in the head with a hammer after the perp finished beating his girlfriend. The prosecutor had coerced the woman to sign the dog over to Small Paws Rescue as a price for meeting her demand to dismiss the assault and animal cruelty charges.
My part was to use my four wheel drive vehicle in the middle of an ice storm to retrieve Jimmy from a rural animal shelter and deliver him to another Small Paws volunteer in Indianapolis, where he would receive veterinary care and be prepared for adoption. What amazed me about this whole transaction was the temperament of this dog that had barely escaped violent death. He rode quietly on my mother’s lap, licking her hand. Some family got a very fine dog and I do hope the dog’s former owner survives her next beating and leaves the bum she rushed to get out of jail.
Humans can be vicious, but the argument about how badly humans treat each other deployed against getting exercised over animal cruelty ignores the connection between the two. The connection is at this time anecdotal, though. I can’t prove it. I believe it because of my life experience but it’s dangerous to build policy around anecdotes.
So I’m willing to let that one go as long as I can tell my stories connecting the two kinds of violence. There’s another issue I’m more reluctant to let go.
Game theory calls it “zero sum,” the idea that a limited amount of human compassion or political energy squandered on endangered animals is a loss of same for endangered human beings.
Let me first observe that even if that were true, it is not at all clear to me that Homo sapiens is inherently more valuable than Panthera leo or Canus lupus familiaris. But that’s just me, and in that opinion I’m an outlier.
Let humans be the apex of animal virtue, the zero sum view of human compassion is still nonsense. The logical converse has more truth in it. That is, if you can show compassion for animals, you are more likely to show compassion for humans. It’s just not true that abused animals are in competition with abused humans.
Those who see it as a competition will be disappointed if they succeed in quieting the objections to trophy hunting. My modest prediction is the silence would cost animal lives without saving human lives.
I am reminded of the comedian Dick Gregory replying to critics of the U.S. space program, who object to going to the moon or Mars “when we have so many problems on earth that need attention.” After making a joke about whether NASA faked the moon landing with “a close-up of a bowl of cold oatmeal,” Gregory asked if people seriously believed that resources taken out of the space program would be devoted to solving our terrestrial problems?
Dick Gregory asked that question back in 1969. Now, we have effectively ended NASA’s commitment to manned space flight. We can’t even re-supply the International Space Station except by hiring Elon Musk. The Russians handle routine crew rotations and resupply ever since we quit flying the space shuttle. Has killing the manned space program improved anything on earth?
By now, we could have had a permanent settlement on the moon and sent humans to fly by Mars. We haven’t, and as a result we have fed how many hungry, clothed how many naked, educated how many ignorant? The technical ability to leave the solar system that we know will die eventually has been set back without advancing life on this planet one whit.
Goodwell Nzou, a tribal African from Zimbabwe writing in The New York Times, offered a more substantive criticism of Cecil symps. Lions, he reminded us, not only eat people’s livestock — they eat people. Nzou had plenty of first hand stories of how lions had terrorized whole villages until taken down by a hunter. There are similar stories about tigers in India, also a threatened species.
We share the tribal form of social organization with Africans, but Nzou points up a difference in our experience with non-human animals. Plenty of American Indians have died by claw or hoof or fang, but largely when the humans chose the encounter. Our experience of hunting is closer to the bone than the white man with the high-powered rifle. In modern times, you don’t see hunters lined up to stalk an American bison in “bow season,” but for our ancestors prior to First Contact, it was always bow season and we did eat bison meat.
Casualties were part of the hunt, but we have had little experience of being the hunted. A wolf pack, a bear, or a mountain lion would take a human being now and then but to consider our people terrorized would be an exaggeration. In most deadly animal encounters, we started it and we prevailed.
I would say to Mr. Nzou, with due respect to our differing heritages, I do not criticize his people for protecting their young with firearms any more than I would criticize Cecil for protecting his with fang and claw.
If I implied sustenance is the only justification for taking life, I stand corrected. Self-defense is a right and defense of helpless others is a duty, but I do not see how this improves the moral posture of a trophy hunter.
Cecil’s killer, in particular, got whacked in public opinion because he killed a beast famous for not threatening humans and he hired people who lured that beast out of a wildlife refuge in an effort to legalize the kill.
Humane Society International reacted to the poaching death of Cecil the lion with #DontFlyWild!, a campaign to persuade commercial air carriers to quit providing poachers “a getaway vehicle for the theft of Africa’s wildlife.” The Humane Society focused on the “Africa Big Five:” Cape buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhino.
The Daily Beast reported that trophy transport from Africa to the U.S. could range from $1,100 for a lion’s head to $18,800 for an entire hippo. So what? A trophy hunter is already light tens of thousands of bucks before this even comes up, so why quit with the finish line in sight?
The airlines most hostile to shipping pieces of dead endangered animals are Air France and KLM, but in response to Cecil’s poaching, Delta and American and United also quit. Aghast, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs claimed the ban could damage a $500 million business in trophies.
Many more airlines ban the transport of ivory (British Airways, Swissair, Cargolux, Turkish Airlines, Singapore Airlines), but trophy hunters still have many choices of getaway planes: Qatar Airways, Egypt Air, El Al, Lufthansa, Qantas. Poaching Cecil the lion has at least run up the price of trophy hunting.
Moving the trophies may be important, but even more important is that Cecil’s death may have moved human beings just a little toward a time when displaying dead endangered animals is shameful. The whole point of a trophy is to brag. The brag used to be about courage, but those who know how the hunts go say there’s no danger — just expense.
The sons of President Trump have had their photographic evidence of trophy kills leaked to social media, so the brag is alive and well. One photo shows Donald Trump, Jr. with an elephant’s severed tail in one hand and a knife in the other. Another shows both Trump offspring with big grins and a dead leopard. There is more, but that’s the idea.
The International Wildlife Conservation Council is charged with rewriting the U.S. rules for importation of dead animals as the Trump administration pulls back on the Obama administration efforts to keep most animal trophies out of the country. Under Mr. Trump, the Associated Press reported that the Council is “stuffed with celebrity hunting guides, representatives from rifle and bow manufacturers, and wealthy sportspeople.”
It would appear that people who care have plenty of time to debate the economics and the ethics of trophy hunting because the public policy of the United States will be backing it until our government changes.
Right now, the exotic kill is important not because you have the courage to do it — none is required — -but because you have the money to do it. The public argument against trophy hunting does no harm to humans beyond putting experts in the killing of rare animals out of work, but it hastens the day when bragging rights will be worthless because nobody is left willing to stroke the egos of the braggarts.
A version of this post was previously published on medium.com and is republished here with permission from the author.
Have you read the original anthology that was the catalyst for The Good Men Project? Buy here: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls on a regular basis, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: wikimedia