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The dentist and the lion

02:07 AM August 10, 2015

EARLY IN July, American dentist and longtime hunter Walter J. Palmer reportedly shot dead a 13-year-old lion named Cecil in the plains of Zimbabwe. According to news reports, Palmer had initially hit the lion with an arrow, but it was not enough to kill him, and Palmer and his team had to track him down for almost two days before the fatal shot. The lion was then decapitated and skinned.

Cecil, it turned out, was a famous lion in Western Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, and had even worn a tracking collar since 2008 as part of a scientific study. News reports have suggested that he was lured away from the park before getting shot, and that the entire act was clearly illegal, as neither Theo Bronkhorst, the local hunter to whom Palmer had allegedly paid $50,0000, nor Honest Ndlovu, the landowner of the property where Cecil was shot, had the permit for a lion hunt.

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The outrage came swiftly. Within hours of his identification as the hunter, a Facebook page was set up to “name and shame Walter J Palmer, the ridiculous human being who shot and killed Cecil the Lion.” His clinic had to be closed, and people set up a makeshift memorial made of stuffed lions in front of it, commemorating the lion that he had killed. Former US Speaker Newt Gingrich demanded that the 55-year-old dentist be jailed while novelist Neil Gaiman tweeted: “If you feel you will make the world a better place by being angry at a dentist, why not support the Lion Conservation Fund instead (or as well)?”

Palmer very soon apologized. “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt,” he was quoted as saying. “I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”

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The global furor over the death of an animal has several precedents in recent memory. In 2014, despite a 20,000-strong online petition opposing the move, a 2-year-old giraffe named Marius was killed at the Copenhagen Zoo and its meat fed to the lions. The zoo keepers insisted that the move was to combat inbreeding among the giraffes, and was actually for the good of the population. Even so, the public reaction was mostly negative, and the zoo keepers even received death threats.

Last May, Texas hunter Corey Knowlton killed a black rhino in Namibia after bidding $350,000 to earn the right for the hunt—drawing parallels with Palmer’s own payment of $50,000 for the lion. These fees raise questions of whether the privilege of wealth can cause ethical concerns for the killing of animals to be waived.

Big game hunting advocates have argued that the big fines are helping conservation work, and that regulated and responsible hunting is actually a deterrent against illegal hunting. Others also point out that hunting is providing thousands of jobs in Africa. Finally, there are those who suggest that hunting helps weed out weak animals in a world where “survival of the fittest” is the rule.

On the other hand, the growing controversy that big game hunting has acquired in recent years speak of the rise of the animal rights movement, which is informed by the philosophical view that nonhuman animals, just like humans, have moral rights, including the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and freedom from torture. Of course, there is also a wider global community of animal lovers who, while not philosophically committed to the idea that animals in general should not be eaten or killed, do believe that endangered species should be protected. In the case of Cecil the lion, this spectrum of views finds common ground.

Moreover, on top of the moral discourse of animal rights, there is also a political subtext in this particular case. The Facebook images of Palmer, a Westerner, posing with a slaughtered lion, a symbol of Africa, resonate with lingering postcolonial suspicions of white men’s interventions in the global South.

Finally, there is something about Cecil himself that has helped catalyze the global outrage. Would there have been the same reaction had it been a wildebeest or a hyena that was killed? The lion is enshrined in our cultures: in our night sky as the constellation Leo, and in our childhood imagination as Simba in Disney’s “Lion King.” We speak of “lionizing” people even as we try to “humanize” the way we deal with animals.

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But given the fact that there are only 20,000 lions left in the wild, there is a strong case for being particularly concerned about the fate of these great animals.

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Aside from making sense of the outrage itself, there is also something to be learned in the way it was mediated by, in the words of a Washington Post article, a “vengeful Internet.” The backlash that Palmer has received speaks of the emergence of a new kind of accountability, facilitated by websites like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp, which can radically transform the reputation of persons—i.e., from obscurity to infamy. This powerful, novel way of fomenting and channeling global outrage can deal a decisive blow to questionable practices like big game hunting. Even in African countries where wildlife rules can sometimes be contravened, the threat of a social media backlash may be a defense that can save lions—and other animals—from sharing Cecil’s unfortunate fate.

However, one man’s spectacular and swift downfall—from dentist to marked man—should also give us pause with this new power of online shaming that social media has enabled. What are the rules of this hunt?

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.

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