Cecil, poached in Zimbabwe in early July 2015, was not a lion who martyred human saints, but rather a lion who became a martyr in the classic sense of the term.
Martyrdom in the classic sense requires not only that the martyr is killed, but that a moral lesson of some sort emerges from how the martyr suffers and dies.
Cecil within six weeks of his death had become central to the moral arguments issued by hundreds of spokespersons for dozens of causes, many of them far removed from anything a wild lion might ever see or think about.
Among the first public responses to the martyrdom of Cecil were acts of retaliation. Soon after the killer was identified as dentist Walter James Palmer, of Minneapolis, “The Twitter and Facebook accounts and website of his dental practice were shut down after being flooded with blistering attacks,” recounted Fanuel Jongwe of Agence France-Press.
“A makeshift memorial began forming outside his shuttered office as people outraged by the story dropped off stuffed animals and flowers, according to images from local media. The online outrage was intense and by late afternoon, there were nearly 100,000 tweets with the hashtag #CecilTheLion, while an online petition demanding justice for Cecil had drawn 95,000 signatures. Comments inundated a page for Palmer’s dental practice on the review platform Yelp, which previously had only three comments. Vandals spray-painted ‘lion killer’ on his Florida vacation home.”
Meanwhile, observed former hunting guide Nick Jans of USA Today, “a no-less strident minority of sport hunters, Detroit rock star Ted Nugent at the forefront, staunchly defend Palmer as a fellow hunter being unjustly reviled. Their mantra is that hunting is a natural act, connecting us to an ancient heritage, and that any critics are, in Nugent’s words, ‘stupid’ people who just don’t get it because they’ve lost touch with who we once were.
“Legal and ethical issues aside,” Jans wrote, “Nugent and company do have a point about heritage—if they and Palmer are descendants of Mesopotamian kings or medieval aristocracy. Consider Palmer’s brand of hunting: spend large sums to gain exclusive access to exotic animals; be escorted by an entourage that does all the work, minimizes risk and all but guarantees success; slay aforementioned beasts in apparently manly fashion; and make public displays to celebrate those exploits. Such parallels are part of the archaeological and historic record, from ancient Babylonian friezes to Facebook.”
However, Jans continued, “Even if the nobles feasted on wild boar or the king wore a fur-trimmed cape, the point was symbol, not substance, a public display of power and dominion. Meanwhile, the common man was excluded from hunting anything larger than a hare, often on penalty of death.”
China donates to fight poaching
China, as the Cecil case broke, was under intensive international criticism as the biggest economic magnet for elephant ivory and tiger bone trafficking, and more specifically as recipient of two dozen young elephants who were controversially captured in Zimbabwe in August 2014, held for almost a year, and flown to China on July 4, 2015.
Seizing the opportunity to bolster both the Chinese image abroad and diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe, Lin Lin, the Chinese ambassador to Zimbabwe, on August 6, 2015 “pledged equipment worth $2 million to curb poaching in Zimbabwe,” Agence France-Press reported.
The equipment is to include all-terrain vehicles, tents, telescopes, mobile radio sets and GPS tracking devices, Lin said.
Opportunity for HSUS
For the Humane Society of the U.S., outrage over the Cecil killing afforded an opportunity to educate the public, and policy-makers, about trophy hunting in general.
Blogged HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to finalize a proposed rule listing the African lion as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, “If the focus begins and ends with Walter Palmer, we will not have appropriately addressed the larger problem.
41 trophy hunters
“Right now, there are 41 trophy hunters,” Pacelle continued, “who, just like Walter Palmer, paid a fortune to kill an animal about to get listed under the Endangered Species Act, and want a waiver from Congress to display the heads and hides of the slain animals in their homes. In the case of the 41, they killed polar bears in northern Canada. We’re fighting their import-waiver effort,” Pacelle said, “not just as a symbolic act to deny these trophy hunters their ill-gotten gains, but to prevent the bum rush of trophy hunters into a foreign land whenever our federal government announces that it’s going to upgrade federal protections for a declining species and restrict imports.
“There is a battle we’re waging in the marketplace of ideas,” Pacelle acknowledged. “We’ve answered the self-serving reasoning of the trophy-hunting clan about the value of their activity to conservation, and more than ever, people see through their pay-to-slay reasoning. People realize that trophy killing undermines wildlife conservation, is no boon to national or regional economies anywhere, and should not be countenanced or encouraged by anyone.”
38 airlines will not fly Big Five trophies
Under pressure from HSUS and other animal advocacy organizations, compounded by concerns about maintaining bio-security, at least 38 airlines within a month of the Cecil killing announced that they would no longer transport lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo trophies.
In addition, Pacelle said, “United Parcel Service announced a good, sound policy of not shipping shark fins, but we are still awaiting a declaration from that company on its policy concerning hunting trophies.”
Finally, Pacelle wrote, “U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) is introducing a bill to ban all imports of trophies and parts from African lions and other at-risk species into the United States. The bill is called the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies Act,” CECIL for short.
Pacelle also invoked Cecil’s name in welcoming a recent decision of the California Fish and Game Commission to ban bobcat trapping.
“The commission, led by its two newest appointees,” Pacelle observed, “grounded its action not on concerns about scarcity, but around the very notion that killing a predator for his or her pelt is just not right.”
Pacelle acknowledged the roles of “California citizens living around Joshua Tree National Park––people like Tom O’Key, who found a bobcat trap on his property and was appalled by the idea of these animals living safely in the park and then being lured over some invisible line and being killed and skinned for their coats. According to O’Key and others, trappers were lining up right outside of Joshua Tree National Park to conduct their life-draining activities––reminiscent of what Walter Palmer did to Cecil the African lion right outside of Hwange National Park.
“Earlier this year,” Pacelle reminded, “Illinois representatives voted down a bobcat-killing bill on the final day of the legislative session. But downstate lawmakers in Illinois created a scene and demanded a re-vote. They made outlandish claims and nine lawmakers switched their votes from ‘no’ to ‘yes,’ allowing the bill to pass by just one vote. The measure may allow the use of packs of dogs to hunt bobcats and the use of inhumane and indiscriminate steel-jawed leghold traps.”
Pacelle hoped that public concern for Cecil, and other African lions, might be extended to bobcats as well, a closely related if much smaller and more abundant species.
“Put an end to killing sprees”
Trophy hunting and other forms of competitive recreational killing “don’t just happen abroad,” reminded WildEarth Guardians wildlife program director Bethany Cotton. “Killing contests occur across the U.S., often on our public lands. These killing contests are not hunts where the animals killed are eaten or otherwise used,” Cotton said. “Instead, the animals are brutally slaughtered, then discarded. Sometimes prizes are given for the largest animal killed, sometimes for the highest body count.
These contests disrupt the natural balance of ecosystems, perpetuate false myths about keystone species, threaten public safety and disrupt quiet non-consumptive uses of our public lands.
“Although it is too late to prevent Cecil’s appalling death,” Cotton appealed, “we can put an end to killing sprees here at home.”
“Elephants are under a greater threat”
Pachyderm conservationists meanwhile openly envied the media focus on Cecil, while wild elephants and rhinos are killed in much greater numbers than lions, and breed much less readily.
Wrote Kevin Sieff of the Washington Post on July 29, 15, “Poachers killed five elephants on Monday night in Tsavo West National Park, Kenya. The carcasses were recovered by rangers on Tuesday morning—what appeared to be an adult female and her four offspring, their tusks hacked off. While the killing of the lion in Zimbabwe has attracted the world’s attention, the death of the five elephants has received almost no coverage, even though elephants are under a far greater threat from poachers than lions. Between 2010 and 2012, poachers killed more than
100,000 African elephants.”
Vegan Strategist blogger Tobias Leenaert, a cofounder of the Belgian organization EVA, short for Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, meanwhile addressed “Cecil the lion and the steakholders.”
Wrote Leenaert, “Every time there is general omnivore outrage over a case of animal abuse (we can call this ‘selective outrage’), a lot of vegans are angry. They’ll point the finger at these people who are horrified––for instance right now at what happened to Cecil the lion––and sometimes seem actually very irritated with them.
“My question is: would we prefer those people were not outraged at all over such horror? Given that mass outrage over what happens to pigs, chickens and cows is not exactly for today, would we prefer omnivores to be consistent and shut up about Cecil? I guess not. I’m happy, personally, with the omnivore outrage against what happened to Cecil, inconsistent and absurd as it might be. It’s the beginning of something. It’s a seed of compassion that has taken root.”
But a variety of spokespersons for social justice and human rights causes questioned whether that compassion was well-directed.
“We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads”
“Why are the Americans more concerned than us?” asked Joseph Mabuwa of Zimbabwe Standard writer MacDonald Dzirutwe. “We never hear them speak out when villagers are killed by lions and elephants in Hwange.”
Elaborated Goodwell Nzou, a doctoral student in molecular and cellular biosciences at Wake Forest University, in an op-ed essay for The New York Times, “The American tendency to romanticize animals that have been given actual names and to jump onto a hashtag train has turned an ordinary situation—there were 800 lions legally killed over a decade by well-heeled foreigners who shelled out serious money to prove their prowess—into what seems to my Zimbabwean eyes an absurdist circus.
“PETA is calling for the hunter to be hanged. Zimbabwean politicians are accusing the United States of staging Cecil’s killing as a ‘ploy’ to make our country look bad. And Americans who can’t find Zimbabwe on a map are applauding the nation’s demand for the extradition of the dentist, unaware that a baby elephant was reportedly slaughtered for our president’s most recent birthday banquet.
“We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads,” Nzou said, “wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.”
“Compassion shouldn’t become competitive”
Wrote Biznews columnist Jani Allan, “Lindiwe Mlandu, a reporter from the Cape [of South Africa] wrote that she remembers reading the story and thinking it was a senseless killing. ‘But I quickly moved on. Earlier this month in the small town of Grabouw, a 14-year-old was raped, stabbed, and buried alive. Not once did her story trend on social media,” said an aggrieved Lindiwe. ‘In the same month, 20-year-old Bongiwe Ninini was raped, stabbed, and her body dumped in an unused drain. That story didn’t make prime-time news either.”
“Since a woman is raped every three seconds in South Africa,” Allan responded, “it is hardly surprising that horrors like these are, in the main, ignored by the media. Besides, Lindiwe, it is possible to feel strongly about several awful and terrible things at the same time. Compassion shouldn’t become competitive. Perhaps Lindiwe is unaware that history is replete with serial killers whose violent tendencies were first directed at animals.”
Paul Watson reminded of fall of KKK
Blogged Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson of the Cecil fracas, “It reminds me of the trial of David Curtiss ‘Steve’ Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan who was convicted of the abduction, rape and murder of a young woman in Illinois named Madge Oberholter in 1925.
“The Klan at that time was extremely powerful and influential,” Watson summarized. “Stephensen met with and advised among others, both the governor of Illinois and the president of the United States. His last rally before his arrest drew over 100,000 supporters. His arrogance led him to believe he was above the law.”
However, Watson continued, “Thanks to the bulldog determination of a young prosecutor, Stephensen was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1925. The power of the Klan quickly unraveled when the trial revealed the extent of Klan corruption in political circles.
“He picked the wrong lion”
“Palmer’s arrogance has caused the story of Cecil the lion to go viral,” Watson assessed. “He picked the wrong lion, took the wrong actions and cowardly tossed his guides under the bus. Safari Club International has already recognized the danger Palmer has placed [trophy hunters] in. They in turn tossed him under the bus and cancelled his membership and since then have been preparing themselves to defend their vile and bloody enterprise from the wrath of the public.
“Safari International has some 50,000 members, 150 chapters and collects $3.17 million in membership dues each year. It raises another $7 million from their annual convention,” Watson recited. “But what is truly despicable about this organization is that it encourages slaughter through awards. It is this award system that is driving thousands of wealthy primarily white men and a few women to spend millions of dollars stalking animals around the world for the sole purpose of killing in the name of vanity and self glorification.”
Palmer, Watson said “has now been deservedly immortalized as the most vile and despicable hunter of all time, but history may look on him a slight bit more favorably if his actions bring down Safari International Club like Stephenson brought down the Klu Klux Klan.”
Hindi denounces call to hang Palmer
The PETA call to hang Palmer, echoed by several celebrity spokespersons, caused Showing Animals Respect & Compassion (SHARK) founder Steve Hindi to call for PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk’s resignation.
“Walter Palmer is a sniveling, cruel coward and a pitiful excuse for a human being,” said Hindi, a former trophy hunter himself who gave up hunting and became a vegan animal rights activist after witnessing a pigeon shoot, which he later helped to end, in 1990.
“Palmer’s vile behavior has focused attention on a problem the world has ignored far too long,” Hindi continued. “The spotlight was exactly where it needed to be. Did Cecil’s suffering even matter to you,” Hindi asked, directly addressing Newkirk, “or did you just see it as another way to grab attention and raise money? That there is a bring yellow ‘Donate Now’ button attached to your press release indicates your intent.
“For far too long, people within the animal rights movement have turned a blind eye to PETA’s shameful exploits,” Hindi fulminated, “but when you call for the death of a human being, those actions are clearly unethical, and harm our cause and animals. It’s time the empress be told she is wearing no clothes.”
Responded Newkirk in a widely distributed op-ed column, “We’ve heard some people say that the widespread shock and anger, including PETA’s, over the execution of Cecil the lion is a little bit crazy. But wouldn’t it be far crazier if people weren’t outraged?
“Cecil was a healthy lion, the patriarch and defender of a family of dozens of cubs,” Newkirk summarized. “Walter Palmer and his hunting party lured Cecil out of a national park, blinded him with a spotlight, shot him with a high-powered crossbow and left him to suffer for 40 hours with a steel arrow in his body before shooting him with a gun and having him beheaded and skinned—all just so Palmer could hang a lion’s head on his wall. Should people just shrug off this atrocity? Would it be better to mutter “what a shame” and turn our collective consciousness back to the latest celebrity gossip? I don’t think so.
“Like many others,” Newkirk said, indirectly conceding to Hindi’s concerns, “I was speaking metaphorically when I called for Palmer to be given a punishment equal in degree to the one he inflicted on Cecil. What all of us at PETA hope,” Newkirk finished, “is that he gets counseling for the hideous perversion of “thrill” killing and that he gives up his wretched hobby.”