Looks like it’s hunting season again, and not just for big game. On the 1st of July, Cecil the lion was shot in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, prompting outrage from politicians, celebrities and members of the public alike. After some investigation, the culprit was discovered to be Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota. Cecil had been part of a study by Oxford University since 1999, and was most certainly off-limits to hunters. Now Palmer’s practice has been forced to close amid the Internet storm, and there are plans for him to be extradited back to Zimbabwe to face charges, along with his co-conspirators.
The practice of hunting is morally dubious at best. I, for one, don’t agree with it, particularly when we’re shooting an endangered animal that has been lured to within 20 paces so some tourist can stick a high-velocity arrow in its face, leave it for a few hours to groan, then shoot it with a rifle and cut its head off. To this end, I can understand the worldwide indignation at the actions of Palmer and co.
What I can’t understand is the relentless posturing about the animal itself. Personally, I care that some guy shot a lion. I don’t care that the lion in question had a name. I don’t care that it had a ‘distinctive black mane’ or that it was part of a study. I care that there are fewer than 20,000 left in Africa and that number has decreased by one. But Cecil’s wikipedia page was only created after his death. I don’t believe that he had captured the hearts of the millions who are now baying for Palmer’s blood before they heard what he’d done. He and those who facilitated him did something morally and ecologically repugnant and they deserve to be kept awake at night evaluating their life choices.
But I can’t make them do that. Neither can the angry Americans petitioning Palmer’s practice or ranting on Twitter. The fact that Cecil’s killing was illegal doesn’t change the morality one bit in my mind, but it does add another dimension. The issue is that the people holding up signs demanding ‘Justice for Cecil’ don’t quite understand their role in that dimension. The legality is for the Zimbabwean courts to decide, not the American public. Their relentless attacks might seem like righteous punishment now, but could later be revealed to have destroyed the life and livelihood of a man who, by his own account, thought the whole business was kosher. He’s certainly not the only one to have paid to hunt big game, and is unlikely to be the last. The Independent noted that five elephants were killed in Kenya with no ceremony while the world was busy forcing Palmer into hiding.
If found guilty he will serve his time in a prison system likely far more brutal than the ones back home and hopefully never kill again. That’s why legal systems exist. They consider facts and come to reasoned judgements about the correct punishment. They’re not meant to be accompanied by a lynch mob that runs throughout the whole proceedings, particularly not when the lynch mob will just as quickly move on to the next scapegoat as soon as someone else does something a bit stupid. For once I find myself agreeing with Ricky Gervais: at least he has been publicly against hunting for a good while. And in their defence, there are many who are using Cecil as a figurehead for wider protests against hunting. As for those who didn’t give a damn until the brutally murdered animal in question had a cute name, I expect we’ll be seeing them back on Twitter in a few months. I wonder if they’ve got the placards prepared already.