Cecil the Lion


The death of Cecil, a male lion with a dark mane, killed in Zimbabwe by an American dentist, has drawn widespread anger, most immediately for its brutal methods. The hunters tempted Cecil out of his domain in a protected area (where hunting is illegal) with an animal carcass tied to a vehicle. Once he was outside the park, the dentist shot him with an arrow but did not kill him. The dentist and his guides tracked Cecil for 40 hours before finally shooting him with a gun. Then they took coup by skinning and decapitating the corpse.

There is a larger context: the general disrepute of big-game trophy hunting in recent years as people have become more aware of the threatened status of so many species, especially of large mammals like lions, tigers, elephants, and rhinos. Some conservationists fear that African elephants will be extinct in the wild within a few decades because of ivory poaching. Even “legal” sport hunting, which costs a fortune, and which was once an honored badge of masculinity (although women often did it too) is viewed as wasteful and old fashioned. Even a form, or at least a reminder, of colonial oppression. Old heroes have become new villains.

Why today anyone would consider trophy hunting a legitimate pastime is an interesting question, suggesting a seldom visible divide between value systems of populations that live side by side in our America. Roughly speaking, between an urban population which seldom comes into contact with any animal other than a dog or a cat, or the occasional pigeon, and a rural population that, while necessarily living on the edge of the urban, nonetheless retains a more immediate and practical relationship to animals and the land. While an urbanite can deliver a jeremiad about such things as hunting while dining on a cheap hamburger and fries, the rural inhabitant finds little to be sentimental about the steer from which that hamburger was derived or the field from which that potato came. (Read this op-ed by a native Zimbabwean.)

In between, straddling that urban/rural divide, is today’s sport hunter (also fisherman), like that dentist, a suburbanite from Bloomington, Minnesota, for whom hunting is a hobby rather than a necessity of survival. Sport hunting is a way for today’s educated, sophisticated, and well-to-do urbanite to assert a primitive prowess that would once have earned him status and women, but it is also indicative of just how far we have travelled from the world of the true hunter. Displaying the preserved heads of big-game animals in one’s library underscores the fantasy of today’s hunt.

Not that those who have risen up in vehement judgment are any less fantastical. Most of what we know about animals comes from books and movies, television shows and even cartoons. We have a distinctly Disneyfied understanding of the natural world as a place apart, a place for recreation and contemplation of the beauties of nature, a world of peace where no harm comes to humans. Tourists at American national parks roll down their windows, sometimes even get out of their cars, to snap a picture of buffalo or grizzly bears to post to social media, occasionally to their eternal regret.

Cecil is an interesting case in point. He was a favorite of tourists to the park. He wore a radio collar so scientists could track him, in the fond belief that more scientific knowledge of lion behavior would somehow save lions from extinction. Giving him a name humanized him, though it is unlikely he was aware he had a name (his brother’s name is Jericho, by the way), but it is important to remember that having a name did not in fact make him to any degree human, did not in any way tame him. It is a fairy tale to believe that we twee urbanites can “commune” with nature or with a lion named Cecil.

The scientists studying Cecil say that, with Cecil’s death, Jericho, his brother and co-ruler of two prides, will be unable to retain his dominance, with the inevitable result: competing male lions will drive Jericho off, kill his and Cecil’s offspring, and take over the prides. It is said that such infanticide brings the lionesses back into heat, allowing the victors the opportunity to sire their own genetic heirs—at least until they too are deposed. A few weeks ago, a young American woman traveled to South Africa to help with wildlife conservation. Family and friends describe her as kind, adventurous, and passionate. While taking photos of a lion pride through an open car window, she was attacked and killed by one of the lions.

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