Cecil the Lion Died for Our Sins: Good May Come From His Murder

Steve Russell

My culturally biased column about the thrill-killing of Cecil the Lion went up in the middle of the night. I woke up around five and linked my Facebook page to it, touching off an instant debate that included:

I don't know that morality works there (in Africa). Look at how women are treated around diamond mines...How does the outcry about a cat compare...?

I’ve had similar discussions with editors and writers and the words that keep repeating are names: Jay Spotted ElkSarah Lee Circle Bear, and Rexdale Henry. Let’s not get started on African-Americans, who have lately come up dead for failing to signal a lane change, failure to display a front license plate, and selling untaxed cigarettes.

So, yes, human beings treat each other badly.

Human beings also treat animals badly. Based on many years as a trial judge hearing domestic violence cases, I say those two cruelties often travel together.

There was the “father” who punished his daughter, and when she didn’t stop crying from the spanking quickly enough, he hurled her fish tank on the floor, killing the occupants.

There was the “man” who tossed his girlfriend’s kitten out of a fifth floor window to hurt her.

One of my last dog rescues before leaving Indiana involved Jimmy, a barely adult bichon friese who had been whacked in the head with a hammer after the perp finished beating his girlfriend. The prosecutor had coerced the woman to sign the dog over to Small Paws Rescue as a price for meeting her demand to dismiss the assault and animal cruelty charges.

My part was to retrieve Jimmy from a rural animal shelter and deliver him to another Small Paws volunteer in Indianapolis, where he would receive veterinary care and be prepared for adoption. What amazed me about this whole transaction was the temperament of this dog that had barely escaped violent death. He rode quietly on my mother’s lap, licking her hand. Some family got a very fine dog and I do hope the dog’s former owner survives her next beating and leaves the bum she rushed to get out of jail.

Humans can be vicious, but the argument about how badly humans treat each other deployed against getting exercised over animal cruelty ignores the connection between the two. The connection is at this time anecdotal, though. I can’t prove it. I believe it because of my life experience but it’s dangerous to build policy around anecdotes.

So I’m willing to let that one go as long as I can tell my stories connecting the two kinds of violence. There’s another problem I’m more reluctant to let go.

Game theory calls it “zero sum,” the idea that a limited amount of human compassion or political energy squandered on endangered animals is a loss of same for endangered human beings.

Let me first observe that even if that were true, it is not at all clear to me that Homo sapiens is inherently more valuable than Panthera leo or Canus lupus familiaris. But that’s just me, and in that I’m an outlier.

Let humans be the apex of animal virtue, the zero sum view of human compassion is still nonsense. The logical converse has more truth in it. That is, if you can show compassion for animals, you are more likely to show compassion for humans. It’s not true that abused animals are in competition with abused humans.

Those who see it as a competition will be disappointed if they succeed in quieting the objections to trophy hunting. My modest prediction is the silence would cost animal lives without saving human lives.

I am reminded of the comedian Dick Gregory replying to critics of the U.S. space program, who object to going to the moon or Mars “when we have so many problems on earth that need attention.” After making a joke about whether NASA faked the moon landing with “a close-up of a bowl of cold oatmeal,” Gregory asked if people seriously believe that resources taken out of the space program would be devoted to solving our terrestrial problems?

Dick Gregory asked that question back in 1969. Now, we have effectively ended NASA’s commitment to manned space flight. We can’t even re-supply the International Space Station. The Russians do that ever since we quit flying the space shuttle. Has killing the manned space program improved anything on earth?

By now, we could have had a permanent settlement on the moon and sent humans to fly by Mars. We haven’t, and as a result we have fed how many hungry, clothed how many naked, educated how many ignorant? The technical ability to leave the solar system that we know will die eventually has been set back without advancing life on this planet one whit.

Goodwell Nzou, a tribal African from Zimbabwe writing in The New York Times, offered a more substantive criticism of Cecil symps. Lions, he reminded us, not only eat people’s livestock—they eat people. Nzou had plenty of first hand stories of how lions had terrorized whole villages until taken down by a hunter, often white. There are similar stories about tigers in India, also a threatened species.

We share the tribal form of social organization with Africans, but Nzou points up a difference in our experience with non-human animals. Plenty of American Indians have died by claw or hoof or fang, but largely when the humans chose the encounter. Our experience of hunting is closer to the bone than the white man with the high-powered rifle. In modern times, you don’t see hunters lined up to stalk an American bison in “bow season, “ but for our ancestors prior to First Contact, it was always bow season and we did eat bison meat.

Casualties were part of the hunt, but we have had little experience of being the hunted. A wolf pack, a bear, a mountain lion would take a human being now and then but to consider our people terrorized would be an exaggeration. In most deadly animal encounters, we started it and we prevailed.

I would say to Mr. Nzou, with due respect to our differing heritages, I do not criticize his people for protecting their young with firearms any more than I would criticize Cecil for protecting his with fang and claw.

In my original column, I contrasted the trophy hunter with the meat hunter and suggested that killing for sustenance is morally superior to killing for the thrill of killing. If I implied sustenance is the only justification for taking life, I stand corrected. Self-defense is a right and defense of helpless others is a duty, but I do not see how this improves the moral posture of a trophy hunter?

Cecil’s killer, in particular, is getting whacked in public opinion because he killed a beast famous for not threatening humans and he lured that beast out of a wildlife refuge in an effort to legalize the kill. It came out later that Cecil was not even the first lion that died at the hands of Dr. Walter Palmer of Bloomington, Minnesota AKA Great White Hunter.

Humane Society International reacted to the poaching death of Cecil the Lion with #DontFlyWild!, a campaign to persuade commercial air carriers to quit providing poachers “a getaway vehicle for the theft of Africa’s wildlife.” The petition focuses on the “Africa Big Five:” Cape buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhino.

The Daily Beast reported that trophy transport from Africa to the U.S. could range from $1,100 for a lion’s head to $18,800 for an entire hippo. So what? A trophy hunter is already light tens of thousands of bucks before this even comes up, so why quit with the finish line in sight?

The airlines most hostile to shipping pieces of dead endangered animals are Air France and KLM, but in response to Cecil’s poaching, Delta and American and United also quit. Aghast, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs claimed the ban could damage a $500 million business in trophies.

Many more airlines ban the transport of ivory (British Airways, Swissair, Cargolux, Turkish Airlines, Singapore Airlines), but trophy hunters still have many choices of getaway planes: Qatar Airways, Egypt Air, El Al, Lufthansa, Qantas. Poaching Cecil the Lion has at least run up the price of trophy hunting substantially.

Moving the trophies may be important, but even more important is that Cecil’s death may have moved human beings just a little toward a time when displaying dead endangered animals is shameful. The whole point of a trophy is to brag. The brag used to be about courage, but those who know how the hunts go say there’s no danger—just expense.

Right now, the exotic kill is important not because you have the courage to do it—none is required---but because you have the money to do it. The public argument against trophy hunting does no harm to humans but it hastens the day when bragging rights will be worthless because nobody is left willing to stroke the ego of the braggart. 

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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