The death of a lion by the hands of Walter Palmer, an American tourist in Zimbabwe, and local guide, Theo Brankhorst, ignited outrage around the world in late-July 2015. Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, reportedly paid upwards of $50,000 for an opportunity to kill a lion, and Brankhorst organized the opportunity. They allegedly travelled to the outskirts of the Hwange National Park and lured a lion out of the park boundaries using meat attached to the back of their truck. This is when Palmer shot the lion with his crossbow. The lion was not killed instantly, however. For the next two days, Palmer and his guides tracked the lion who was slowly dying of his injuries, and when they eventually found him, one of the guides shot the lion dead with a gun.
This lion, as it turns out, is none other than Cecil, who was a favourite sight among tourists on safari in the Hwange National Park. In addition, Cecil was part of a research project at Oxford University and was fitted with a tracking device, which is how park rangers realized he was the lion decapitated outside the national park borders. Yes, you read that correctly. Cecil was decapitated and his head is still missing.
Before going any further into this essay, let me present you some facts according to the African Wildlife Foundation: “The black rhino population is down 97.6% since 1960; there are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas remaining; up to 35,000 African elephants were killed in 2014; approximately 2,000 zebra remain in Africa; and 85% of a lion’s historic range has been lost.” This means that elephants and lions are considered vulnerable, the zebra is endangered, and the rhino and gorilla are critically endangered. According to the foundation, “At current poaching rates, elephants, rhinos, and other iconic African wildlife may be gone within our lifetime.”
During a lesson about endangered species in elementary school, my teacher tried to explain why some animals were disappearing around the world, and she said that one of the major causes was illegal hunting in Africa and the Amazon (for many years as a child, I thought those were neighbouring countries).
“Is that how Bambi died?” my classmate asked.
“Well, it wasn’t Bambi who died. It was his mother,” said our teacher. “But that is a little different. Bambi’s mother was shot by a hunter who probably eats deer in the wintertime.”
I remember the class making a gross sound when she said this.
One boy, sitting near the front, put up his hand and said, “My grandpa eats moose!”
More disgusted noises from the class.
“That’s right,” said our teacher. “In some parts of Canada –– and around the world –– there is more selection of meats in the grocery store apart from chicken, beef, and fish sticks.”
I thought of my bologna sandwich, imaging that it was made out of kangaroo or walrus. That’s when my teacher said something that has stuck with me for the rest of my life.
“Hunting animals for food is a natural part of being human. We have always been hunters and gatherers. Poaching is a modern phenomenon and many animals are disappearing because of it.”
It was in this class that I learned the difference between hunting and poaching. My teacher explained quite simply that hunting is the legal act of killing an animal (usually, but not always) for the intended purpose of eating it, whereas poaching is the illegal act of killing an animal (usually, but not always) for purposes of selling certain body parts. She used the elephant tusks and rhino horns as examples of this. Although my vocabulary was quite limited at the time, as I was probably ten or eleven, it was not a struggle for me to understand what she meant.
Later in the lesson, we were all given different animals to research. My partner and I were given the spotted owl, which we decided to name Owl from the Winnie the Pooh cartoon series. We were not the only group; every pair decided to name their animals. Instead of the project focusing on where the animals came from and why there were so few of them, we all gave our animals jobs and personalities. The lesson started off strongly, but it veered in the wrong direction near the end. (If you must know, Owl was a librarian who kept books in his tree.)
Disney films –– particularly the children cartoon films –– are riddled with humans killing animals. Other than the unnamed man in Bambi, there are Amos Slade from The Fox and the Hound (1981), Gaston from Beauty and the Beast (1991), John Smith from Pocahontas (1995), and Charles F. Muntz from Up (2009), to name a few. Even Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy appear as hunters in the cartoon-short Moose Hunters (1937). Some of these films clearly distinguish between hunting and poaching, whereas others leave it more ambiguous. At a first glance, one might think that the distinction is too nuanced for children to understand, yet I must refer to the film The Rescuers Down Under (1990).
The young protagonist stumbles upon Percival McLeah’s trap in the outback of Australia. The boy yells, “Poaching is against the law! […] This is a poacher’s trap, and you’re a poacher!” Immediately, we learn that McLean is looking for a rare bird to kill, and that this is not his first time poaching (not hunting) rare animals. He frequently finds rare animals and sells their hides for profit. Even in a children’s film, this is a perfectly adequate way of depicting the distinction between hunting and poaching.
The ambiguity becomes a problem in Bambi (1942), where the man is left unnamed. We are told the event from Bambi’s perspective, and there is no doubt that it is tragic. The loss of a mother (in any scenario) is a tragedy. What troubles me is the consideration that this man is a villain. From the little information that we can glean from the short scene, the man lives in the woods in compete isolation. Perhaps hunting is his only source of protein during the long winters, and we must assume that hunting is legal is this area of the woods.
However, is this unnamed hunter the same as Percival McLean? No. One is a hunter, and the other is a poacher. One kills legally for nourishment of the body, whereas the other kills illegally for nourishment of the ego. Having them both categorized as villains only intensifies the confusion between a hunter and a poacher. A poacher is always a villain. A hunter, well…that depends on the narrative.
The villain in this narrative is no doubt Walter Palmer. Obviously, he would argue differently, but when the internet is the medium of the story, the number of news articles, tweets, retweets, Facebook posts, and Tumblr tags matter. Palmer is losing the public relations game, for sure.
Once Palmer’s name was attached to the story, not only was his digital reputation tarnished, but his professional one as well. Palmer is a dentist in Minnesota, and his practice was shut down because people kept on dropping off decapitated lion toys at his office. Yes, some people left their house, drove to a children’s store, bought a stuffed lion, cut its head off, and drove it to a dentist office. Others spray-painted Palmer’s houses –– in Minnesota and Florida –– with phrases like “Lion Killer!” Then the rest simply shared the story on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.
On July 28, 2015, a few days after the story broke about Cecil’s death, Walter Palmer released a statement regarding the situation. Here it is in full:
“In early July, I was in Zimbabwe on a bow hunting trip for big game. I hired several professional guides and they secured all proper permits. To my knowledge, everything about this trip was legal and properly handled and conducted. I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favourite, 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. I have not been contacted by authorities in Zimbabwe or in the U.S. about this situation, but [I] will assist them in any inquiries they may have. Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally results in the taking of this lion.”
Palmer’s argument that his trip was completely legal to his knowledge is a valid point that we must consider. When we travel abroad, even for simple tourist experiences to Venice, we trust our travel agents or local guides to organize a safe and legal experience. Trusting strangers is one of the many gambles we take when we travel abroad. I could not imagine the paperwork necessary to secure an opportunity to hunt big game in a foreign country. I barely know where to start in my own country.
Do I think some of the blame comes from the guide, Theo Brankhorst? Yes. However, I can only imagine the pressure that these guides are under when they are individually escorting hunters around to find and kill an animal. If the contract says, “One lion head equals a paycheque,” they will probably do anything to ensure they find a lion. The hoards of tourists sitting in a jeep driving on safari are told that they might see something. This is a chance that they take. Yet, they are only paying a few hundred dollars to take a picture of a lion. When the price is $50,000, you better bet that the guide will find a way to corner a lion.
(One of the most vile parts of his statement is the use of the verb “take” when referring to the death of the lion. He did not “take” the lion; he killed/shot/poached the lion. The fact that he avoids using the correct terminology shows some cowardice.)
However, there are some important facts that we should know about Palmer before placing him in the misunderstood-villain-category. Palmer is a professional crossbow hunter. He is well known in the field for travelling to exotic locations and killing exotic animals for pleasure. There are images of him holding a jaguar, a boar hog, a ram, another lion, and a bear. That bear, as it turns out, got Palmer into some trouble a few years ago.
In 2006, Palmer was in Wisconsin for a hunting trip. As it turns out, hunting is only legal in certain areas in Wisconsin. The bear that Palmer shot and killed was outside this zone, making the bear ineligible to be killed. Palmer lied about this and was charged for making a false statement to federal agents in 2008. Although Palmer had the proper paperwork, and was legally allowed to kill animals (which makes him a hunter), the fact that he killed a bear in a restricted area makes the act illegal and, therefore, a form of poaching.
This bear story found its way online exactly one day after Palmer made his statement about Cecil. This, for me, makes his confession disingenuous. Having a prior conviction should make Palmer even more careful about where and what he hunts when in a foreign country. And yes, I did use the term hunt on purpose because killing wild game is perfectly legal in Zimbabwe. Well, in certain areas of Zimbabwe, at least. The Hwange National Park is one of those restricted areas; however, Cecil was killed just outside that area. Was it technically legal to hunt game in that area? Probably. But wouldn’t you get a bad feeling if you had to lure a lion from one area into another? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of hunting wild game? You might as well lure a lion out of the New York Zoo and shoot it in Central Park. The legal fees from that would probably be far less than the price he paid to Brankhorst, the plane ticket, and the cost of shipping the dead animal back home combined. (I could call NYPD for an estimate on how much killing a lion in central park would be, but I have an odd feeling my phone line might be tapped afterwards.)
But let’s be honest here and remind ourselves that Palmer is not the only foreigner travelling to Africa to shoot big game. This has been a popular travel experience for nearly three centuries, and these individuals even have a unique name –– the white hunters. In his book White Hunters: The Golden Age of African Safaris, Brian Herne writes that, “Almost all of these amateur hunters set out with the object of bagging [a] lion. Some were successful, but the lions in many cases kept the score fairly even, mauling or killing many of these daring souls. Hunting was, of course, a long cherished tradition during the Victorian and Edwardian eras in England, just as it was on the European continent and in the United States” (3). White hunters, therefore, are men (although increasingly more woman are participating in big game hunting) who travel to the subcontinent of Africa for the sole purpose of shooting a large animal. They are usually after the big five: a lion, a jaguar, an elephant, a white rhino, or a water buffalo. These are considered trophies in the community of the white hunters.
Palmer is simply the most recent reincarnation of the white hunter. I refuse to call him a hunter because that is not what he is doing. Many of the animals that he has killed are vulnerable or endangered species and were killed solely for his own ego. Do I think he had the paperwork to kill animals? Sure. However, he has a history of fudging details on those documents, so my trust in his ability to fill out those forms properly is limited. He is definitely more a Percival McLeah from The Rescuers Down Under than the unnamed hunter from Bambi.
Let’s get back to the victim in this narrative. Cecil was part of a long-term study at the Wild Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at Oxford University. Their goal is to observe a wide range of animals in their natural habitat; many of these animals –– from African lions to Brazilian jaguars to Chinese snow leopards –– are endangered and on the brink of extinction. The WildCRU team explains that, “[…] lion numbers are precariously low, estimated at fewer than 30,000 across the continent and we have evidence that there are actually fewer […] Our goal is to understand the threats that lions face, and to use cutting-edge science to develop solutions to those threats.”
Since 2008, Cecil was among many lions whose every movements were carefully tracked. When the recent news of Cecil’s death reached the researchers back in the United Kingdom, they released an official statement:
“Of course, as people devoted to wildlife, and having known Cecil personally, we are saddened by his death, and insofar as this happened allegedly illegally we consider it deeply reprehensible (and are working closely with the National Parks authorities to support their meticulous work in prosecuting this case). We support all efforts to prevent illegal and unscrupulous hunts.”
Despite the minor use of neutral, legal language (“allegedly illegally”), which probably prevents anyone from suing them for slander, the statement is steeped with emotion and contradictions. The first comes at the very end with the word hunt. This was not a hunt. This was “a poach.” Calling it an “illegal hunt” further blurs the line between hunting and poaching. Just call it what it is. An illegal hunt is a poach.
What I found most interesting about the statement was that they knew Cecil “personally.” They did not just know him, they knew him “personally.” Although this does not directly insinuate a person-to-person relationship, it does personify Cecil. Cecil was not a human; he was a lion –– a wild lion, no less.
To personify Cecil is to further complicate the issue around his death. And this, my friends, is where I begin to state my thesis about Cecil’s death. I am less concerned about Cecil or Palmer, but rather our reaction to the situation in general.
(Let me be clear and say that I am against poaching. In fact, I am barely for hunting. I am a meat-eating human being, so to be against hunting completely would be hypocritical.)
Am I upset about the death of Cecil? Of course. If I was not, this essay would not exist. However, I am concerned that our reaction to Cecil’s death steams from something less analytical and more sentimental. And this is a problem if we are to move forward and protect against poaching.
One of the The New York Time’s headlines was: “American Hunter Killed Cecil, Beloved Lion That Was Lured Out of Its Sanctuary.” Granted, they do refer to Cecil as an “it,” but the use of the term beloved personifies Cecil. He is not just a lion, apparently; he is the beloved lion named Cecil. In fact, when you google “beloved Cecil,” nearly nine million search results appear. Everyone from the Huffington Post to the Calgary Sun refers to Cecil as the beloved lion in the Hwange National Park. Whether or not he was truly beloved before his death, I will never know, but he truly is now.
I have read many of these articles, and I would argue that every accredited news organization condemned Palmer for killing the lion. (There are a few right-wing blogs which praise Palmer, but let’s not give them anymore occupancy in our minds.) TV personalities Jimmy Kimmel and Whoopi Goldberg took an even more emotional stand on their respective shows; the former spurred audience members to donate to the WildCRU Fund, while the latter’s view went viral with a video titled, “Whoopi Goldberg Calls Death of Cecil the Lion Murder.” On her television programme, The View, Goldberg strongly argues that Cecil was not killed but murdered. This, for me, summarizes the tone of many articles written about Cecil. By personifying Cecil as “beloved” and “knowing him personally,” everyone insinuates that he is less animal and more human.
Cecil was not murdered; he cannot be murdered. Murder, in its simplest definition, is the premeditated killing of one human being by another. Although we feel compelled to add human characteristics to Cecil, he was not a human being. He was a lion, and he was killed by a poacher.
When I think about it (and I wonder why I have not thought of it sooner), the death of Cecil reminds me of another famous lion who died –– Mustafa from The Lion King (1994). Mustafa was thrown off of a cliff by his brother, Scar, and was crushed by a stampede of wildebeests. When this event is referred to later in the film, it is called a murder. Scar murdered his brother, Mustafa –– another lion. Yet, these are not real lions, are they? Although these characters look like lions, they talk and have human emotions, personalities, and intentions. They are not lions at all, really. They are anthropomorphic lions.
This is what we have done to Cecil. He is no longer just a lion. He is a character. A character that we continuously try to personify. We are doing subconsciously because that is probably the only way that we will care. Hundreds of lions are killed illegally every year, and suddenly one lion becomes internationally beloved. Why don’t we write stories about other lions/jaguars/rhinos/elephants that are poached everyday? Well, we probably would if the animals had name, stories, and looked movie poster ready for a Disney film.
I have nothing against Disney, and I am by no means blaming them for our warped perception of animals, but the character of Cecil is a result of our intrinsic need to personify animals. Why can’t we protect lions because they are lions? Why can’t we show empathy when any lion is needlessly killed for someone’s ego? We should be mourning the loss of any lion not because he was a beloved lion.
After nearly a month, the pride that was once lead by Cecil was replaced by Jerico, his brother. This is common behaviour in the lion community. Out with one alpha male and in with another. The transition is seamless.
The same will be true with Palmer’s replacement. There will be more white hunters. They will continue to pay large sums of money. They will continue to flout the law. And what are we to do? Well, I really do not know. The first step is to mourn the loss of Cecil and move on. He was just one lion. If we truly care about him (or what he represents), then we need to care about not only the hundreds of other lions killed every year but also all the endangered species around the world. There are many more Cecils out there; one is probably poached every day.
Hunting as a lifestyle is one thing, so long as it conducted legally. That has been a part of human history since we left Africa. However, poaching is another beast entirely. There is no need for us to go back to Africa and kill an animal that we are just going to hang on a wall.
P.S. TY (the company responsible for the beanie babies craze in the 90s) has released a limited edition toy named Cecil. You can now buy a stuffed Cecil beanie baby. I am not sure exactly how it is different than a normal lion beanie baby, but they claim it is.
P.P.S. One of the original artists on The Lion King released a drawing of Cecil as an interpreted version of Mustafa. People have loved this image so much that he is going to sell it online. Yes, Cecil is now unofficially a character in Disney’s The Lion King. This is truly the circle of life.