David Cogswell | August 04, 2015 5:00 PM ET
The Lion, the Dentist and the Law of the Jungle
Who would have predicted that a story about the killing of a lion in Zimbabwe would become one of the biggest news stories of last week? Many people wonder why this particular animal and this particular hunter would have captured the imagination (and the ire) of the world to the extent that the story would outshine many of the major news stories of the week.
People I talk to on a daily basis who are involved with Africa and the world of safaris know only too well about this kind of behavior and much worse. And they know that at the rate we are going, if nothing changes, our young children today will no longer have lions to see anymore by the time they have children.
Such killings of endangered animals by big game hunters paying enormous premiums are, unfortunately, fairly commonplace. This one, however, created an international outrage of unprecedented proportions.
As the New York Times put it, the killing of Cecil the lion “unleashed a global storm of Internet indignation.” It was such a tsunami of rage, in fact, that "The hunter, Dr. Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, has been forced into hiding."
It sounds rather extreme for an affluent professional in a Midwestern city to go "into hiding" to avoid the name calling and anger that he was subjected to, furious though it was. And this is a man who fancies himself a “big game hunter.”
Thousands of outraged people went onto the Yelp.com site for Dr. Palmer to vent their fury. It was such a landslide of anger that Yelp.com itself stepped in and scrubbed thousands of comments from the site. It was not to defend Palmer, Yelp was careful to point out, but to defend the functionality and integrity of the site itself.
Suddenly the hunter had become the hunted.
The fury against the dentist is not surprising. The story of the incident was nauseating. As The Guardian reported it: “Dr. Walter J. Palmer recently took a break from his job at River Bluff Dentistry in Minnesota to kick back, relax, and pay $55,000 to kill a lion named Cecil. Palmer used an animal carcass to lure Cecil away from protected park grounds and kill him someplace more, uh, legal. Park officials found Cecil’s skinless, headless body and estimate it took him 40 hours to die.”
After Palmer shot the animal with a crossbow, he and his guides tracked Cecil for 40 hours before they finally finished the lion off with a rifle. The hunter and his guide posed proudly for a photograph over the dead lion.
They skinned the lion, took its head and left the rest of the corpse to rot or be eaten by scavengers.
What brought this particular incident to the attention of the world was the fact that Cecil the lion was a celebrity. He was known and admired in Zimbabwe in Hwange National Park, the reserve where he lived and was protected. He had been tagged by scientists from Oxford University who had been studying him since 2008.
It was because of the tag that the killing would not go unnoticed, though the killer and his guides tried to hide the tag.
Palmer issued an apology that probably only inflamed the anger against him even more because it was clear that he entirely missed the point and was not really sorry at all, nor did he have any feeling that there could have been anything wrong with anything he did.
In a statement, Palmer said, “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study, until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”
He had not known that Cecil was a celebrity, not just an ordinary lion. He passed the buck, blamed his guides, saying he had relied on them to assure him that what he was doing was a legal kill.
In his apology he actually used the word “love” – his love of killing, that is.
“I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity that I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion,” he wrote. But only this particular lion.
He seemed surprised and indignant that the killing of beautiful animals, beheading them and skinning them for trophies, would be objectionable to others.
Nothing about Palmer’s apologies vindicated him in the slightest or even showed any real sense of regret or remorse. They just show that he has no clue why anyone would object to his killing of great endangered animals and his sensitivity to any negativity directed toward his own person. And he’s scared.
If remorse is a condition of reprieve or forgiveness, Palmer showed none of it. He only showed cowardice when the tables were turned and the odds were against him.
He paid $55,000 for the opportunity to destroy a beautiful, priceless animal. Now all the people who have paid Dr. Palmer for the pretty implants he provides can see that their fees contributed to the support of his primitive, heartless hobby.
The farm owner and the hunting concessionaire who assisted Palmer appeared in court last week on poaching charges. The illegal killing of a lion in Zimbabwe is punishable by a fine up to $20,000 and up to 10 years in jail. The Zimbabwean government is said to be seeking the extradition of Palmer himself.
How much courage or manhood does it take to point a weapon at an animal and destroy it? Why do people such as this take such pleasure in killing beautiful animals, including endangered species?
The phrase “endangered species” somehow does not convey the gravity of the problem. We are talking about the danger of losing the entire species, the magnificent lions, forever. This is a real danger. How can these so-called big game hunters be oblivious to this?
I normally lean toward lenience when it comes to punishment. As one person recently said to me, I can understand people being driven to crime in some cases. Who would not steal a loaf of bread to feed their starving children? Who would not kill to defend his family from a raging murderer? But in this case I find very little that can be said in defense of this killer.
Oh yes, it was only a lion, not a human being, Palmer would surely say. It’s implicit in what he says that he does not believe the life of a lion has any intrinsic value beyond a boost to his own ego. It’s interesting to see how cowardly such a person becomes when the odds are not stacked totally in his favor. All he had to do was sit in a safe place and aim a weapon.
If he were thrown into the lion’s den, one on one versus the lion, it would be hard to work up much sympathy for him. It would feel like primitive justice.
Of course this is not an isolated phenomenon. There are many pictures of big game hunters on the Internet standing proudly over the corpses of once beautiful animals whose lives were ripped from them by some fancy toy in the hands of one of these megalomaniacs.
Now that Cecil is dead and irretrievably gone, one question that remains is: will this storm of outrage be just one of those anomalous storms on the Internet that will pass soon and be forgotten? Or will this event trigger changes in attitudes or policies that may actually help to avert the probable mass extinctions that human activity is forcing upon the world?
Since the incident a New York state senator has introduced legislation to outlaw the shipping of the remains of endangered species as cargo into the U.S. in New York airports. It’s small, but it’s something. Delta Air Lines declared that it will no longer allow big game hunting trophies to be shipped via its airplanes.
If the latter is the outcome, then Cecil’s death will not have been for nothing.
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