Thrill Killing Cecil the Lion

Steve Russell

I’ve been fortunate to get paid for writing my opinions for a good long time, but it's only since getting hired by ICTMN that I’ve not had editorial issues with 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.

This comes up as I add my opinion to a growing chorus of disapproval over the killing of Cecil the Lion by Dr. Walter Palmer of Bloomington, Minnesota, an American dentist with too much time and money on his hands. I didn’t say “taking.” Killing is the right word, and unless you believe that human animals are innately superior to all other animals such that other animals have no rights that humans are bound to respect, killing is the ultimate trespass on the rights of others, and it requires justification.

Whoa, Russell, you’ve written before about eating venison, so get off your anti-hunting high horse. And didn’t you compliment the Jicarilla Apaches on their sale of elk permits?

I have too much regard for horses to burden them with a body of my size, and to call this killing a hunt is an insult to hunters everywhere. They baited a relatively tame animal not very far out of a National Park so they could kill him.

RELATED: Cecil the Lion’s Killer, a U.S. Dentist and Avid Trophy Hunter, Gets Death Threats

My point about the Apaches is that they manage elk hunting on their rez by a very limited permit system, and it is a permit that guarantees a hunt in the proper season—not a kill. A successful kill will not threaten the elk population on the rez. The Apaches manage their hunting permits by seasons and by limited numbers, and yes, they charge enough for the permits that they probably attract some Great White 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.

What about Great White Lion Hunter in Zimbabwe?

That Great White Hunter wanted to use a bow and arrow. Is this 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, just as the Apaches use permit fees to manage their elk population.

We have a righteous stink here in Texas that arose back in March, 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 while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided whether to allow Knowlton to bring pieces of dead rhino back from Namibia on the theory that the kill will “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 on May 21.

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.

There’s another reason trophy hunters give: the adrenaline rush, the high adventure thrill. Maybe that’s why Dr. Strangelove, er, Palmer, attempted to kill Cecil the Lion with a bow. But you can bet that professionals toting the high-caliber rifles that eventually dispatched Cecil after Great White Hunter botched the job were surrounding the doc.

The canned hunts are even less dangerous to the “hunters,” 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. Most individuals who survived report being in imminent danger as a pleasant experience. 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, according to National Geographic.

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 cultural bias I freely admit. My tribal traditions teach that nonhuman 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, and I saw people getting killed for really trivial reasons. I saw a man die over a barking dog, and 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?”

That’s a cultural bias. I claim it and I’m proud of it. R.I.P. Cecil the Lion.

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rockymissouri's picture
Thank you ..thank you.. thank you!!, for an excellent, sensible article.