Probably most of you have read or heard about the recent incident of the rich, white, American hunter who killed (closer to butchered) a lion in Zimbabwe. The lion, a particularly beautiful animal named Cecil, was lured out of his government protected area by some sneaky ruse, then shot with an arrow. The arrow only wounded the lion, and it took 40 hours for the big, brave lion-slayer to track him down and finish him off with a rifle.
After this daring exploit the hunter (a Minnesota dentist named William Palmer), cut off the lion’s head and left the body to rot.
In case you’re wondering, the reason this lion has/had a name was because, along with others in the dwindling lion population in Africa, he was wearing a special collar and had been part of a six year study by zoologists at Oxford University. Cecil was known and admired by a lot of people, and not just scientists; those who had toured the preserve over the years, or seen pictures of him and his particularly distinctive black mane. It’s because this lion was so well known that there has been such international outrage—what is even more outrageous is that this kind of thing happens regularly to many other, “non-celebrity” wild creatures and relatively few people have been aware of it up until now.
B’wana Palmer has, in his time, killed 43 different “big game” animals, including a polar bear, a walrus, a black bear (for which he was arrested and charged with a felony), an elk, and many other rare and vanishing species of wild life. I guess, when it comes to sex appeal, drilling and filling cavities and doing root canals have their limits. This, at least, clearly needs more challenging “sport.”
I suppose I’m not alone in wishing that Dr. Palmer should be dropped naked and unarmed into an African game preserve to fend for himself. We could even put an electronic collar on him and study his movements—all for research purposes, of course; otherwise it would be gratuitously sadistic, right?
This kind of deliberately murderous and essentially cowardly behavior by Palmer and his trophy hunting pals cause one to question the true meaning of the words “civilized” and “wild”.
Here’s a question for you: Is William Palmer civilized?
According one on-line dictionary, these are some of the meanings of the word, “civilized”:
- Having an advanced or humane culture, society, etc.
- Polite; well-bred; refined.
- Of or relating to civilized people
1) Lacking supervision or restraint.
2) Disorderly; unruly.
3) Characterized by a lack of moral restraint; dissolute or licentious.
(A free, ten thousand dollar value, big-game, African hunting trip goes to the person who gets the right answer.)
I’m thinking of the many 19th century writers and adventurers who used the term, “untamed wilderness”. Untamed? Who asked human beings to “tame” anything? Nobody—they just took upon themselves to whip nature into order.
Maybe that’s just a natural human instinct—ordering and civilizing whatever appears to wild and untamed. And maybe that worked until there were several billion people on the planet who needed food and fuel and space to live—now this taming and ordering of nature has gotten so out of control that every living thing on the planet is in dire jeopardy. The slaughter of this lion is perfectly symbolic of this kind of mindless, ultimately suicidal, consumption and destruction. But maybe it’s all inevitable—part of some great, unknowable cycle that has to run its course.
…When I was on Sirius radio and talked about hunting in extremely unflattering terms, I’d get all sorts of angry calls from various parts of the country telling me that I was an ignorant city dweller who had no concept of the noble nature or the beauty and benefits of hunting. Hunting is an old tradition, they explained, passed down from father to son (and now daughter as well); it had its roots in man’s basic, collective DNA and, further, can actually be beneficial to various species if done right, protects the environment from overpopulation by certain species and protects livestock from predators.
Well I’m sure a lot of this is true. And really, what do I know about hunting, either as a tradition, or as a necessity? I’m a city kid and the only “wildlife” I was familiar with was in the cemetery behind my house or whatever was in my backyard or populated the sewers, vacant lots and alleys in my neighborhood. But in Queens, hunting was not one of the old traditions passed down from father to son and there was really no necessity to protect the children and women folk from predators (at least not four-legged ones).
In the past, and not so long ago historically, hunting was obviously a matter of survival, and there still may be a few places in this country where it still is.
So there may be—probably are—justifiable reasons for hunting. And yes, there is even a justifiable reason advanced by trophy hunters and their supporters for what they do—and that makes the current story and others like it more complex (if not less stomach-turning).
Trophy hunters who pay huge sums for special licenses to hunt rare animals point out that this money goes to financing animal preserves and fighting poachers. And poaching, along with destruction of animals habitats, is the main reason that a lot of the wild populations are disappearing. Poaching is a 20 billion dollar industry and, sadly—between corruption and lack of funds, most governments in African countries don’t have the money to adequately protect the animals. So in step the rich trophy hunters, paying millions of dollars a year for the privilege of indulging in their “sport” and at the same time, helping to preserve rare animals. So the killers create a protected breeding ground for what they intend to kill—a strange and sad situation.
…Trophy hunting. It’s like “trophy wife” or buying a two hundred foot yacht or a five million diamond… Who needs such trophies; what great psychological compulsion drives someone to covet and acquire something rare and beautiful, then show it off to the whole world (and, occasionally, destroy it in the process)? This kind of behavior inevitably summons up the petulant, grandiose visage of Donald Trump. For the record, Trump has said publicly that he supports whatever his sons do but he, personally, doesn’t like hunting.
…Another thing that seems (at least to me) impossible to ignore is the racial/racist component to this sordid story; big white hunter arrives in darkest Africa, and guided by faithful black hunter/guides, tracks down and slays the elusive wild beast.
When I was a kid there were dozens of old black and white (and newer, Technicolor) Hollywood movies about great white hunters—most of them British upper-class types. There were the occasional evil louts, of course, but generally the white hunters were handsome, decent, moral and brave—real gentlemen… And the black people in the movies were child-like, surly, superstitious and cowardly. They didn’t even smoke pipes while camping out in the jungle—a sure sign of uncivilized behavior!
And to seal the racist deal—at least in Movie terms—if some animals were in danger, the only one with the guts to step and save them was a white man! Tarzan, lord of the jungle, who was, of course, born to the English nobility. Clearly, these movies and books were telling you, there was no way most natives could understand the immorality of trophy hunting, let alone summon up the manly courage to do anything about it. But even if they all found it a vicious and wasteful practice, they were keeping their mouths shut. Otherwise, in fiction (and based on real life) they’d run straight into the police or the army—either white colonials or a native force run by white colonials.
And that was, I think (and still is), one of elements at the bottom of this current hunting story.
Obviously I had no idea about any of this when I was a kid, but the books and movies I read and watched all had their origin in the behavior and “philosophy” of the white colonial empires that conquered Africa and other, “uncivilized” places, carried on the slave trade, committed mass murder and stole (and continued to steal) just about anything valuable these countries possessed. The innate “superiority” of the white man was the explanation for it all… I think men like William Palmer are really modern day versions of the old colonial masters who did what they liked and justified it by claiming they had an innate, god given superiority to anyone of color.
However, it’s only fair to point out that most of this current trophy hunting, at least in Africa, would be impossible without the cooperation of local black hunters and guides. And almost all the poaching is carried on by black residents of these countries.
In the end, this trophy hunting (no matter that the huge sums paid may be going to preserve certain vanishing species) is about power, dominance, the strong vanquishing the weak…
Is this just some lingering masculine inheritance from hundreds of thousands of years ago, some ancient atavistic impulse? Maybe, but if it is, it’s not something that only rests in the dim past of humankind; the strong dominating the week is really the story of human history and continues all over the world right up until the present time. Just look at the news every day—wars, torture, kidnapping, rape and murder.
What were the Nazis all about except the strong conquering and, ultimately, eliminating the weak?
And speaking of Nazis… I think there will come a time when, between the massive poaching and the trophy hunting, and when humans have hunted and killed all the wild animals—the ones that haven’t died just because their habitats were destroyed—that humans will start hunting other humans. Licenses will be auctioned off by the government to hunt and kill the old, infirm, mentally ill, and perhaps people with “dangerous” or unpalatable political ideas…
What never seems to be understood by the mass of humanity is that everything and everyone on the planet is connected. You kill one lion, you kill every wild animal; you destroy the habitat of/and kill every wild animal and ultimately you destroy the planet and every living thing on it. But what are the odds humans will choose any kind of preservation (even of themselves) against the need to consume everything on the planet?
As for Dr. Walter Palmer… let’s let Mark Twain have the last word:
“Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.”
** For another point of view about the issue of killing lions (from a man from Zimbabwe), please see this powerful op-ed piece that appeared in a recent issue of The New York Times.