There are lots of reasons why the public imagination has been so thoroughly captured by the killing of Cecil the lion by dentist Walter Palmer and his hired hands. Here are some of the factors that came together.
1. Charismatic megafauna
I learned about “charismatic megafauna” back in the 1970s, when I was first trying to figure out how to attract more public attention for environmental issues. Arousing concern about endangered habitat was a lost cause, I discovered. Even endangered species were hard to get people excited about if the species at risk was small and ordinary-looking (or a plant). But endangered big mammals were newsworthy. So polar bears have become a crucial tool for climate change activists. And a dead lion is a golden opportunity for advocates of animal rights and animal welfare.
And not just any dead lion: a dead lion with a name and a backstory. Cecil personifies the anti-hunting position better than anyone or anything since Bambi.
2. Class warfare
A major problem with anti-hunting advocacy generally is that hunters tend to be working class people – and overt animus against the hobbies of working class people comes across as effete. It’s all too easy to stereotype PETA activists as privileged kids with too much time on their hands.
But it’s always open season on rich people who hunt. In the U.K., aristocratic fox hunters have been a popular target. The closest analogue in the U.S. is the wealthy plutocrat (or in this case the successful professional) who pays big bucks to go big game hunting in far-off places.
Walter Palmer was poaching. He shot his lion in a place where lions weren’t permitted to be shot, thereby breaking Zimbabwean law. Dr. Palmer’s claim that he was hoodwinked by his guides is weakened by the evidence that he had done something similar while bear-hunting in Wisconsin back in 2006. He’s a recidivist poacher.
The aura of cheating goes deeper. Stories about Dr. Palmer’s adventure have emphasized what a set-up it was. Assistants lured Cecil out of Hwange National Park so Palmer could shoot him with a crossbow. The shot wounded the lion, so he had to be tracked – by assistants, presumably – for some 40 hours until Palmer could shoot him again, this time with a rifle, and this time killing him. Then Cecil was skinned, his head removed for a trophy and his headless skeleton left behind (minus his tracking collar). The price for all that was reportedly $50,000 USD.
Even to many who like hunting, this sort of hunting seems more grandiose than sporting.
4. Social media
In the pre-Internet age, it would have been hard for anti-hunting activists to learn about Walter Palmer and Cecil, and harder still for them to spread the word widely. Without a chance for Cecil to go viral, Dr. Palmer would still be practicing dentistry in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
But social media aren’t just a way for millions of people to learn about Cecil’s killing. Thanks to social media, those millions can involve themselves personally (albeit shallowly) in the story. They can tweet and retweet about it. They can share fellow-feeling about it with people they will never meet, building on each other’s outrage. Or they can debate about it, also with people they will never meet, building on each other’s animosity. If so inclined they can safely make anonymous death threats against Walter Palmer, against anyone who ever had anything to do with him, against anyone who dares to defend him.
Before social media, being an activist took work. You could give money and get back literature in return, but that was unsatisfyingly impersonal. Or you could go to meetings and get seriously involved. Now, with no work at all, anyone can be temporarily committed, a real activist for a few days.
5. Projecting the bloodlust … safely
For the dedicated, the anti-hunting cause is far from a temporary entertainment. It is an issue of visceral, emotional, and intellectual importance, an issue they work on day after day, year after year. For them, obviously, Cecil’s death at Dr. Palmer’s hands is both a horrible offense and a wonderful outreach opportunity.
But for many others, Cecil’s death is an opportunity of a different sort: an opportunity to express extreme outrage safely about something far away. We’ve seen these near-instantaneous upwellings of online outrage all too often, not just in social media but also on affiliation-based extremist websites.
In the case of Cecil and Dr. Palmer, the parallel is obvious. In relative safety, the dentist hunted his prey and killed him; now in similar safety the mob hunts its prey and ruins his life, while disavowing any similarities between its bloodthirstiness and his. The online dentist-hunters project their vicious instincts onto the recreational lion-hunter and believe their own bloodlust is running clean. [Note 1.]
Millions who have never made animals a priority before, and very likely never will again, are outraged at Dr. Palmer on Cecil’s behalf. Why Dr. Palmer? Why not poverty, disease, war, injustice, tyranny? Maybe the big issues are too divisive, too complex, and too unmanageable. Maybe it’s safer to displace all that outrage onto online attacks on a rich dentist who broke the law when he bagged a noble beast.
Note 1. My wife and colleague Jody Lanard contributed this observation. After I had already sent my email to Jennifer Bjorhus, she added another layer of projection. At some level, she pointed out, people may resent their dentists. So a legitimate opportunity to inflict pain on a dentist may be more seductive than if Walter Palmer had been, say, a florist.
Copyright © 2015 by Peter M. Sandman