Baying For Blood
When I first became aware of the media whirlwind that sprung up after the killing of the lion named “Cecil” two questions came into my mind. And I have resisted answering them for a long time, namely due to the “50 Shades” level of furore this case has aroused. I found it easy to accuse myself of jumping on the bandwagon, as the expression goes (it is ironic that one of the first documented uses of this phrase was in a letter sent by President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the great pioneers on national parks and conservation in America). But these questions grew louder and louder – in direct proportion with the amount of social media memes and pseudo-environmentalist comments that arose world-wide – and finally I had to succumb.
The first, perhaps more obvious question, that arose was the following: what’s the fuss? What was it about this particular killing that stirred up such a frenzy? What makes Dr. Walter Palmer different to Melissa Bachman, Kendall Jones, Donald Trump Jr., Ernest Hemingway and hundreds of other trophy hunters? Maybe it was the nature of the killing itself. The fact that lion was lured out of the national park borders (where it is illegal to hunt game) and then shot with a crossbow and left wounded for over two days before it was finally found, shot and slaughtered. It certainly has the rings of intentional cruelty to it. Could it also be the popularity that Cecil the lion had enjoyed prior to his killing? Cecil was a regular, iconic feature in the Hwenge National Park, loved by tourists and rangers, and he was also being tracked by GPS collar by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of Oxford University. So Dr. Walter Palmer, essentially, killed the equivalent of Yogi Bear of Africa.
So this might explain why the killing of Cecil has reached fever pitch in all the world media. But still it does not add up and here, we begin to reveal certain hypocrisies innate in our culture and, in those people who are all of a sudden nature-warriors and are baying for blood, Dr. Palmer’s blood.
In the 1950’s the population of lions in the wild was close to half a million individuals, around 400, 000. In 2002 – 2004 there was an estimate of a maximum of 47, 000 lions in the wild. That is a drop of around 350, 000 lions in just 50 years. Most of the decline is due to human interaction, diseases, and in no small part to trophy hunting. To make the point in a different way: Dr. Walter Palmer is no Napoleon, he is but a soldier in his vast army. And let us do the unthinkable, let us make the case for the defence of Dr. Palmer – as illogical as we might initially find it.
Now of course Cecil is far from being Dr. Palmer’s first or most noticeable victim. He has been known to shoot rhinos, bears and other game all over the world. But what, thus far, has been his reaction since his shooting of Cecil? He has stated that he was deeply sorry for the death of Cecil and claimed he did not know the entire venture was an illegal one. He has closed down his dental practice in Minnesota and even handed himself over to authorities in America. Hardly the image of the typical macho hunter. (Also don’t let’s associate this kind of hunting with men anymore, look up the internet, see the amount of women posting with dead giraffes and lions, this is a unisex trend.)
Whilst I do find it hard defending a man who kills animals purely for sport, I am almost tempted to feel sympathy for him when I see the type of comments and vilification he has received by saintly celebrities who are now suddenly God’s gift to conservation. Here is just a sample.
Sharon Osbourne (such a great moral light): When he dies, I hope someone mounts his ugly ass head to the wall. #WalterPalmer is a COWARD.
Debra Messing of long-ago Will And Grace fame: SHAME ON HIM! I want them to take his citizenship away. I’m ashamed and horrified by what he did. #CecilTheLion
Newt Gingrich a Republican politician and Christian apologetic: The entire team that killed the lion cecil should go to jail including the Minneapolis dentist.
The British model Carla Delevingne: This #WalterPalmer is a poor excuse of a human being!
And of course one can imagine the kind of abuse he has received from the general, social-media-addicted public. The hate mail Dr. Walter Palmer must be receiving are comparable to what Pol Pot would have received had he been around in the internet age. Is this outrage justified?
Yes, it is of course justified. But even so, it remains hypocritical and long overdue.
As a footnote to this, the only celebrity who has been consistent over these issues of animal rights and conservation, and thus is justified and sincere in commenting about the killing of Cecil the lion is Ricky Gervais. Even before this killing he has led an all-out media campaign to out and shame trophy hunters around the world. Prior to this what have the likes of Sharon Osbourne or Debra Messing contributed to conservation? Very little, probably even less than most people in the general public who are scandalized by the killing of Cecil without having been aware that this is a normal and legal affair that happens all over the world.
But cynicism temporarily aside, the second question I asked myself was more logical and a more natural one: Why is this trophy-hunting wrong?
It is of course wrong but it is never enough to claim something right or wrong without providing reasons or evidence for your position – otherwise you will be arguing on blind faith and gut instinct.
Here is a quote by 18th century philosopher John Stuart Mill:
“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”
This is the Utilitarianism position which I believe is the best philosophical and ethical position has taken unto itself since the overthrowing of religious morality. It is the best moral philosophers have had to offer us after thousands of years of Torahs and Commandments. And on this argument doing something purely for your own pleasure is not justifiable if it involves reducing the overall happiness and inflicting pain on other living beings. And I have not yet heard one argument in favour of trophy hunting that does not involve self-seeking pleasure and commercialism. Some argue that hunting helps to keep wild populations in check. This in itself is a horribly arrogant and even Christian (man was given dominion over the earth by God) position and if it were true there are rangers and experts who can decide what and how many animals to cull not trigger-happy wealthy white Americans.
It is interesting that a lot of hunters fight their corner by using a paradox: we hunt because we love nature. And I can believe this. Having to immerse yourself in the terrain, forcing yourself to think like your quarry, being alone in the wild – these are all sensations that are in-built into us. This is Biophilia, man’s innate desire to immerse himself in the natural environment. And talking about it in this way makes me ask myself: why don’t I go hunting in Africa? But soon the answer makes itself clear: because it would be an unethical thing to do. When pleasure involves causing pain to other living beings it is by definition unethical. Especially when my pleasure brings no added benefit. The mathematics does not add up. To inflict pain on something you proclaim to love is the essence of masochism.
We live in a world which is just waking up on the realities of animal rights. Even enlightened thinkers like Descartes claimed that animals were mere clockwork thus they could not feel any suffering. And many obscene games lived on until quite recently such as head-butting cats nailed to a pole, clubbing pigs, baiting bears and watching cats burn to death. It does not seem innate in our civilization – and most others around the world – that animal suffering is a real phenomenon. The modern science of neurology makes such arguments Medieval.
“ In addition, we know that these animals have nervous systems very like ours, which respond physiologically like ours do when the animal is in circumstances in which we would feel pain: an initial rise of blood pressure, dilated pupils, perspiration, an increased pulse rate, and, if the stimulus continues, a fall in blood pressure. Although human beings have a more developed cerebral cortex than other animals, this part of the brain is concerned with thinking functions rather than with basic impulses, emotions, and feelings. These impulses, emotions, and feelings are located in the diencephalon, which is well developed in many other species of animals, especially mammals and birds.” (Peter Singer – Do Animals Feel Pain? Excerpted from Animal Liberation, 2nd edition, New York: Avon Books, 1990, pp. 10-12, 14-15)
So of course animals do feel pain, Cecil certainly felt the pain of the bows for those two days before he died and all that Dr. Palmer got in return was a trophy and a fleeting moment of pride and joy. Is that beaming pride and joy morally equivalent to the pain Cecil was forced to endure? It is the mark of a great and ethical civilization that says no and that pleasure alone is not reason enough to inflict pain on other animals. Besides, there is something dark and sinister in a psyche that requires hunting and killing to get its kicks.
That latter was much easier to answer than the first. And yet the first question (what’s the fuss?) keeps lingering on in my mind. Why must trophy hunting remain a norm in so many countries around the world? Dr. Palmer claimed that he believed he was acting within the remit of the law – and arguably it might be true that he thought so. Hunting in most of Africa is legal, although subject to regulations, and even importing hunted games into countries like the US and Canada is also legal. The only difference between hunting and poaching is a license. A license bereft of ethical justifications. What does an animal care if the human shooting it has a license or not. Of course there are economic implications and financial nuances to take into consideration: a hunting trip can set you back around 50, 000 dollars. And that is 50, 000 dollars that is, presumably, going into the hands of an impoverished African economy. But what will that African economy do when all its lions and big game are hunted to extinction? If there are economic justifications to be made they are short-sighted and unimaginative.
What’s more, what will we tell our children if, in the future they want to go see, say, the real Mufasa, and all we can tell them is: sorry kid, just watch the film? Let’s hope that some good does come out of the Cecil affair. It is up to us, ironically, to make his death ethical. If his death can help save the lives of other lions such as himself, then his suffering will be worthwhile in that it can preserve other animals from similar suffering and thus the scales are balanced. We can only hope that this hypocritical storm of media attention will not die out like the ALS ice-bucket challenge and many others like it have. Let’s hope the lazy hypocrites can, this time, make an honest difference.
In addition the admirable posts that Ricky Gervais put up on Cecil and other animals that have been killed, I would like to end by reproducing a part of Jane Goodall’s statement.
Only one good thing comes out of this – thousands of people have read the story and have also been shocked. Their eyes opened to the dark side of human nature. Surely they will now be more prepared to fight for the protection of wild animals and the wild places where they live. Therein lies the hope.