by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
[Update: On October 12, 2015, the government of Zimbabwe announced it was ending efforts to charge Walter Palmer with a crime in this case.]
Social media have been blowing up over the death of Cecil the lion. He was the object of scientific study and a beloved icon in Zimbabwe who earlier this summer was lured out of a wildlife preserve and killed by an American hunter, Walter Palmer, and his guides, slowly dying in a 40-hour ordeal.
Image credit: lowesemployeees.com
There is a segment of commentary that decries the attention given to the death of a single lion in another country whose citizens may not care that much about his death by noting that there are worse things going on in the world that are not receiving as much attention this week. A common one is, “An unarmed man is killed by a police officer, and there is no condemnation, but one lion is killed by a hunter and people explode in opposition.”
Nonsense. First off, for over a year, the killings of citizens by police have engendered not just condemnation, but demonstrations, riots, and calls for investigation and reform at the highest levels of government. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous at best.
But cannot the unnecessary death of a lion also be condemned? Are we not permitted to find more than one thing despicable or deplorable? Does the existence of a great injustice mean other injustices are not worthy of attention? Outrage is not a competition in which something wins and everything else loses. We can consider multiple things outrageous in our minds. This does not mean that we regard these things with the same amount and intensity of outrage, but with the same kind of outrage.
So why the outrage? Some people are just animal lovers, and some are revolted by the flippant hypocrisy of some hunters (consider the responses to Rebecca Francis’s photo of herself next to giraffe she killed). In addition it is a further manifestation of the colonial attitude of the industrialized world that the developing world is here for the benefit of more “advanced” nations, who strip out the natural resources “because the locals don’t care about them and anyway we’re doing them a favor by bringing in our money.” Their gold, their minerals, their forests, their wildlife are all their for the purpose of satisfying our desires and feeding our rapacious disregard. (See my post on environmentally profligate colonialism here.) The dismissive link in the second paragraph of this post comes from a site that calls itself “Conservative Tribune.” One would think “conservatives” would be supporters of “conservation.”
In any case, the theory that money earned from trophy hunting benefits the local population and provides money for conservation purposes has been debunked by an article in Forbes magazine, which reports that the contributions from hunting enterprises amount to about three percent of their income.
But to me the issue comes down to one of personal and societal arrogance. The killing of Cecil was an act of environmental irresponsibility. It is a manifestation of the anthropocentric, self-glorifying attitude that the Earth is here to be exploited by humans. As if we are not a part of nature, not a product of evolutionary forces, not a member of the universe, but somehow superior to nature, and that everything is here for us to have fun with and damage and destroy for our own enjoyment. It’s part of a bigger and more dangerous conceit: “I don’t have to give a damn about the Earth, the environment, wildlife, rainforests, the climate, the water, or anything else because it’s all here for me to conquer and beat my chest and say how powerful I am by subduing it.”
A creature that was alive is now dead because some rich guy wanted a head to hang on his wall. Palmer explains his spending of hundreds of thousands of dollars on trophy hunting (which glorifies killing the biggest and best of a species) by saying he “doesn’t play golf.” He equates exploiting nature for his own enjoyment and amusement to recreational golf! Get over yourself, Palmer. Hemingway died over 50 years ago, and the era of the “great white hunter” conquering African nature died 50 years before that. It has been over 40 years since Roger Caras, in his book Death as a Way of Life, applied modern values to the practice of hunting. The population of African lions is less than half what it was 35 years ago. Former big-game hunter Angus Murray caught on to conservation. What about you?
What was Palmer willing to do to acquire a lion’s head, aside from the $50,000 he spent? The government of Zimbabwe wants to extradite to him face poaching charges. Poaching in this case is more than just speculation. Palmer already has a felony poaching record in the United States involving a black bear, an indication of his disregard for law in the pursuit of trophy.
Downplaying this incident and what’s behind it is symptomatic of an attitude of “The hell with the environment. The hell with nature. It’s all here for the pleasure of those who can afford to exploit it.” Palmer is now trying to explain it away, insisting that he gives a damn when he obviously doesn’t give a damn. He still wants that head to hang on the wall. He left behind the part he didn’t want – a skinned, beheaded carcass. He had photos taken of his grinning manly self next to the animal he shot to death.
Now, of course, he says he’s sorry he killed the animal, which seems odd, considering all the expense and trouble he went to in order to do so. I don’t believe he’s sorry he killed the lion. I believe he’s sorry that the killing caused him to become the object of international disgust. I believe he’s sorry he killed an animal whose death has put him in the spotlight not for his bravery and skill as a mighty hunter, but for his cavalier disregard for wild animals and the laws enacted to protect them.
The Bible (Genesis 1:26 and 28) says God gave man “dominion” over all the other animals on Earth. Dominion – not domination. Dominion implies stewardship – the acceptance of responsibility. There is domination/exploitation and there is stewardship. Psalm 24:1 admonishes that “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” Humans are stewards of the earth “and the fulness thereof.” Not owners but stewards, charged with maintaining the property in the interests of its owner. Either you care about stewardship of nature and the environment or you don’t. Either you respect it or you don’t. Animals are not trophies to massage our egos.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website encourages you to “Get a license and become part of Minnesota’s rich hunting heritage.” Historically, wild animals were the property of the king, and poaching was an act of lèse majesté punishable by death. In a representative government, ownership of wildlife has been awarded to the public. Wild animals belong to the people -all the people – and are held and managed in trust for them by the State as a natural resource.
Therein lies a conflict of interest. The same body tasked with management of the public’s resource property (wildlife) is funded by fees that come from the killing of the same wildlife. The result is the encouragement of hunting as a revenue builder, the glorification of trophy hunting to attract more hunters, and the expansion of habitat for game animals at the expense of non-game species. The Wildlife departments call their hunting seasons a “harvest,” a way to maintain wildlife populations for their own benefit.
Does killing some animals benefit the rest – a form of herd management? If it does not, then it has no benefit to wildlife, the environment, or the public and should be stopped. If it does, then it is time to put trophy hunting into the history books and concentrate on culling weak and genetically harmful specimens.
With the advantages humans have in being able to determine the fate of wildlife and the rest of the planet’s environmental resources, destroying those resources for our own pleasure and self-aggrandizement is an individual and collective crime against our heritage.