Category Archives: endangered

The Heart of Freedom – Cecil the Lion

All around the world, people are outraged by the trophy killing of Cecil the lion, and not simply because he suffered needlessly for days, or because lions are charismatic animals, or even because a rich white American killed a much-loved member of a national park halfway around the world in the African nation of Zimbabwe. Why has Cecil reached our hearts when so many other animals are poached (and, animal advocates remind us, so many other animals suffer every day)? Why is everyone – from animal advocates to hunters to talk show hosts to the New York Times and the Guardian – so horrified by this brutal killing? The answer lies in freedom.

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Cecil’s right to life and his right to be undisturbed were violated. But we were also violated in a key way. Cecil, a 13-year old lion, lived safe in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe under legal protection. But he was unfairly lured out of his refuge, tricked by poachers who tied a dead animal carcass to the back of a truck. Father to many cubs (who will likely now die), Cecil was an easy target while eating. Minnesota dentist and trophy-hunter Walter James Palmer then shot Cecil with an arrow. But Cecil suffered for 40 hours before he was tracked down, killed with a rifle, beheaded, and skinned. His body was left to rot in the sun.

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Cecil’s head—with its distinctive (and incriminating for the trophy-killer) black mane is missing, as is the now notorious Walter Palmer. Cecil wore a GPS tracking collar, as part of an Oxford University research project. Ironically, Oxford’s study challenges the ridiculous notion that killing animals incentivizes the public to conserve them (and conserve them for more killing, i.e. “hunting”). So it is simply beyond reason to believe Palmer didn’t notice that collar when he shot Cecil, twice, once using a crossbow scope and 40 hours later using a rifle scope, or when Palmer later skinned and decapitated the lion. Palmer is a marksman with at least 43 large game animals on his killing resume (according to the Safari Club International, who has now revoked Palmer’s membership), including a rhino, a lion previous to Cecil, a cougar, a leopard, a polar bear, and an illegally killed black bear (for which he Palmer was convicted). Damage to Cecil’s collar suggests someone tried to destroy and hide the evidence of yet another of his crimes.

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And so, lions lost a key individual of a highly threatened species (only 20,000 wild lions remain). Members of the nation of Zimbabwe lost a natural tourist attraction, and frankly an animal much loved by locals. And Oxford University lost a key subject in its long-standing research of lions. But that still doesn’t explain why the rest of us feel such grief and betrayal at this treacherous act. Every time someone kills an animal for fun, every time someone breaks poaching and national park laws, every time a human betrays and undercuts our wildlife and wilderness laws, we all lose a bit more of our freedom.

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Our right to freedom, and to a place in the world where legally protected wilderness and wildlife remain safe, was also desecrated by Palmer’s cruel greed. There is no consent—the consent characteristic of a democratic society—in the violation of anti-poaching laws, and it is not just Cecil’s lack of consent, but ours too. We are disgraced by transgression of moral law, by the loss of sanctuary, and by the bloodlust of leaving a privileged human community with the sole purpose of entering a wild community around the world to needlessly slaughter its magnificent alpha male. (This video shows Cecil with his cubs at the national park).

In doing so, this sport-killing dentist has left a morally repugnant graffiti upon a wild canvas. Like the graffiti left in Joshua Tree National Park by André Saraiva or the myriad defacements of an attention seeker who foolishly shared her vandalism at more than ten national parks on her social media accounts. The selfishness of killing, of vandalism, of littering are at the heart of our disgust. As much as littering in the forest is a trespass of a right to a wilderness free of human influence, so too is trophy hunting, and poaching of a lion in a sanctuary, a trespass of our right to biodiversity, to an asylum of wild that is free from human debauchery and brutality.

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Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

So our horror at this tragedy is that there are places and animals who should be left alone – and the majority of us have made that moral contract through international laws and cross-cultural understandings. That is our consent – we will not kill endangered animals for fun, and we will leave that which is wild alone, for all our sakes.

In violating those explicit and implicit agreements to leave wildlife alone, we destroy ecosystems and biodiversity that will not be there for future generations. This trophy-hunter dentist has deprived us of real freedom, and left a tainted tyranny from which we cannot escape. In many ways, these wild places we hold sacred, these safe havens for wildlife, are fundamental to a truly free world and a human right to have them. And that is what he transgressed by taking Cecil’s life in such a callous, and torturous way.

And in many ways this dentist is symptomatic of the worst excesses and tyrannies of our American culture – and the ways our democracy is thwarted by those who disrespect the freedom of others. Palmer is symptomatic of a culture that celebrates unmitigated human power and dominance, qualities that are inherently problematic to a free democratic society.

Palmer with a lion he killed before Cecil.

Palmer with a lion he killed before Cecil.

There are those who believe all land, animals, and humans are for “use,” and that laws which limit the destruction of wildlife prohibit their own personal “freedom.” But what they really mean by freedom is “power.” This dentist simply wanted to kill whatever he wanted to kill, and that isn’t freedom. It’s doing what he wants to do, regardless of the impact it has on others. Palmer, the trophy-hunting lion killer, already had a felony conviction for illegally killing a black bear, another charge for fishing without a license, and a $120,000+ settlement to a woman who accused him of repeated sexual harassment. Palmer exhibits no sense of moral duty to follow the laws that are our social contract with each other, or respect the freedoms of others that he violates when he chooses to do whatever he wants to do, no matter what.

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And that’s why we – and animals like Cecil – need serious wildlife protection laws if we want a truly free society. By protecting the sanctity of places that are free from human domination, we protect our own ability to be free. So what legal repercussions does Palmer face when he finds to courage to come out of hiding, lured out by the law? (nearly one million people have signed a petition demanding justice for Cecil, and more than 120,000 have asked Delta to stop allowing trophy-hunters to bring back their spoils on American flights). Animal Legal Defense Fund experts tell us:

  • He could possibly be extradited to Zimbabwe and face charges under their laws. The U.S. has an extradition treaty with Zimbabwe, and 150,000 people have signed a petition asking the U.S. to extradite the trophy hunter.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could hold Palmer accountable for importing wildlife taken in violation of foreign law. Palmer claims he didn’t realize he was breaking laws (unlikely given his expertise and the circumstances of the lion’s collar and being lured out of the park). But it doesn’t matter, because Palmer should have known, and can be liable for a fine of $10,000 minimum under the Lacey Act.
  • Racketeering charges, under the “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).” If Palmer, who has already been convicted in the U.S. of felony poaching, in any way convinced his hunting guides to lure Cecil out of the park and destroy the collar, Palmer could be charged with racketeering.

Read here for more legal background from ALDF experts on the charges Palmer could face.

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One thing is clear: it is time for U.S. Fish and Wildlife to fast-track the listing of lions as an endangered species (100,000 people have signed a petition asking for that) and prohibit the import of lions, and lion parts, which would squash the boastful urges of people like Palmer, who enjoy killing wild and rare animals in other countries and bringing their body parts back to the U.S. as showpieces of deep-seeded disregard for freedom.

As the Center for Biological Diversity’s new report shows, The Politics of Extinction, Republicans have increased their attacks on Endangered Species laws in the last five years by 600%.

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By killing an animal who belonged to all of us by not belonging to any of us, this power-hungry trophy hunter put each of us in a cage, where no matter what far ends of the earth, an American can pay to kill the wildest of animals even in a place designated as safe refuge. Is there nowhere for nonhuman animals to simply be left alone?

So as we mourn Cecil, we mourn all the animals cruelly harmed, and the wild places torn asunder by greed. Cecil represents a wounded, crowded planet violated by a greed that sees freedom as power, not consent. Without spaces free from the influence of those who would kill endangered animals – itself a violation of our right to a diverse and profound wild – none of us are free. We recognize that intuitively and we are outraged. We know that killing threatened and endangered animals (or imprisoning them in zoos) isn’t conservation. It’s just killing and exploitation.

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In part because of poaching like this (and in part because of animal agriculture and enormous human population growth) lions will likely be extinct in the wild in our lifetimes. Future generations will not know a Cecil, or any other of his kin. Here, in this moment, we recognize Cecil was not an individual’s to kill but rather ours to value. His refuge was our refuge, and his ability to be left alone a measure of our ability to be left alone. People are outraged because he represented real freedom, now and for the future.

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As our human population continues to expand exponentially, far beyond the resources the planet provides us, large mammals like lions will become even more vulnerable. Already, lions are reproducing more slowly than the rate at which they will be poached (despite Ted Nugent’s idiotic claims to the contrary). Because of population growth, climate change, industrial agriculture, and aggressive poaching like this, future generations will probably never have the privilege of living in a free world with wild lions.

Who are the people we want to make up our society? Are they greedy, bloodthirsty, power-driven trophy-hunting killers (like Palmer and Nugent) with an unquenchable desire to deprive the rest of us (including future generations) of the freedom of the wild? If we value freedom we must value wilderness and wildness, and our wildlife trafficking, poaching, and trophy-hunting laws must reflect that.

When Mountain Lions Live Under the House

When we take away wild places for wild animals, those animals find ways of showing up in our backyard. Because it was their backyard first … When that animal is a predator, all hell breaks loose, suburban-wild style.

The anti-predator myth is exemplified by this week’s hysterical reaction to a mountain lion under a house that borders Griffith Park. It illustrates a cultural paranoia we must conquer if we are going to coexist with wild animals. We don’t have wolves to demonize here in California (other than OR-7, vacationing with his family in Southwest Oregon). We have mountain lions.

In the past 30 years, three people out of more than 30 million have been fatally injured by a mountain lion; less than a dozen fatalities in 125 years (a handful more if you add Canada and Mexico). California Fish & Wildlife estimates a person is 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a mountain lion. So why are we so afraid?

Very few people ever see a mountain lion. Coming “eyeball to eyeball” with the lion known as “P-22” in a crawlspace, a worker installing a security system had the surprise of a lifetime this week. But journalists exploited this drama. With apparent glee, they treated this wildcat nap like a car chase or a hostage crisis. Reporters were licking their lips waiting for the armed cult leader to finally drive off the road or open fire on children. Or crawl out from under the house.

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Department of Fish & Wildlife photo

Wildlife officials poked that dang varmint with a stick, they shot beanbags at him, hell they even shot tennis balls at him. But that sucker was resistant. In a safe,dark place, he stayed put, while firefighters, wildlife officials, and reporters went nuts. CA Fish & Wildlife finally realized that (as any owner of a cat can tell you) the best way to get him to come out is to leave him alone.

And when they did, he left. So the news that obsessed media for a day was that a wild animal crawled under a house that borders a 4,300 acre park (5x larger than Central Park) where the animal lives. Why is this news? Because of the myth and the lore that surrounds apex predators.

Suburban sprawl into wild areas guarantees some overlap with wild animals. That’s why we must talk about protecting native animals by protecting their land and leaving them alone. Instead, there was only panic about the dangers of wild animals and a demonizing of predators.

Mountain lion attacks are extremely rare. Even seeing one is unusual. Mountain lions—aka cougars, pumas, or panthers—are shy, solitary, and stealthy apex predators. They are the ninjas of the California animal world—and they want to be left alone. Lions are not often seen skipping down the mountainside, being goofy, like dogs and coyotes. Mountain lions are, after all, cats. Only in exceptional cases do they allow humans to see them. Mostly, mountain lions are there only when you have no idea they’re there.

As apex predators they are vital to our environment. Destroying mountain lions, by usurping their habitat, destroys entire ecosystems. And that’s just what we’re doing. There are only 4-5,000 mountain lions in California.

Culturally, we love identifying with predators, becoming them, temporarily as mascots and embodying them in tattoos: wildcats, lions, tigers, wolverines, bears. Unfortunately, people also like shooting them too—the combination of desire and fear is the attraction we feel when we don their likeness in symbolic ways to harness their mythological power. Yet we are terrified of coexisting with predators. That is the suburban mystique: we long for the wild within, yet massacre the wild without.

This cougar is ready for his closeup – famous photo of P-22 captured by National Geographic photographer Steve Winter (Hollywood sign in background)

We need to stop mythologizing animals and instead respect them by leaving them alone, and protecting their legal rights, lands, and lives. Coexisting—as anyone with roommates and teenage family members knows—is usually about leaving each other alone. We must make our decisions as a balance between science, ecology, and the highest common good, which includes the interests of animals and the Earth.

What’s the Law?

On June 5, 1990, Californian voters approved Proposition 117 – the Mountain Lion Initiative – (called the “People’s Initiative” after Mountain Lion Foundation volunteers gathered more than 680,000 signatures to put it on the ballot). Prop 117 did two important things: it banned trophy hunting and it helped save land for mountain lions to stay wild.

Prop 117 created a Habitat Conservation Fund of $1 million a year until 2020 to “acquire, enhance, restore” wild lands for wildlife. That Proposition also changed mountain lions from “game” hunted for “sport” to “specially protected mammals” who aren’t allowed to be killed for fun.

A property owner can kill a mountain lion who threatens humans or animals only with a depredation permit. This permit is required by law and even with this permit a person is prohibited from the use of “poison, leg-hold or metal-jawed traps and snares.” Breaking this law can lead to criminal charges.

What is usually shared when discussing predators is what to do when you encounter one; people are given a tip sheet for resolving confrontation at an individual level. What is not discussed is how to prevent and avoid confrontation at a socio-cultural level, because that would involve doing things we don’t want to do, like not treating the Earth like a parking lot, not acting on all opportunities for suburban development, and not thinking only of our own immediate interests.

That being said, for the benefit of animals, wild and domestic, here are some precautions to avoid the conflict with native animals like mountain lions in the first place:

Facts for Staying Safe and Protecting Mountain Lions

  • Mountain lions try very hard to avoid people, but often coexist around us, unseen and unheard.
  • Mountain lions are found where deer are found; deer are their primary food.
  • Mountain lions are especially found in the foothills and mountains.
  • Mountain lions who reveal themselves to humans may suffer rabies or be desperately starving.
  • Mountain lions who threaten humans are immediately killed – about 100 are killed every year: they can’t be moved (due to conflicts with other lions and revisiting issues).

Use Nonlethal Control

  • Don’t feed or attract deer – it attracts mountain lions and it’s against the law.
  • Don’t feed raccoons and other mountain lion prey: don’t leave pet food outside.
  • Not attracting deer means avoiding plants deer like to eat.
  • Not attracting a lion means trimming hedges that offer hiding places.
  • Don’t leave children and pets outdoors, especially at dawn, twilight, and night.
  • Don’t leave yourself outdoors alone on a borderland jogging or hiking path, at dawn, twilight, and night.
  • Make sure animals are protected with covered shelters.
  • Protect your perimeters with motion-sensor lights outside your home.

What if you’ve done all this and still see a mountain lion?

  • Do not, under any circumstances, get closer.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, run.
  • Do not pop a squat, crouch, or lose eye contact.
  • Do pick up small children.
  • Do make yourself look bigger and noisier.

What Does the Fox Say?

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In the past weeks, Yosemite biologists had the wild fortune to see the rare Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) in the northern alpine wilderness of the park. California’s Sierra Nevada red fox is a rare critter. There may be less than 50 such foxes remaining in the wild and they haven’t been seen in nearly a century. How much are we encroaching on wild spaces–how has our landscape changed–that the species is endangered? What can we learn?

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Foxes have been congregating in the creek alongside my property. The wails of a native gray vixen (or a nonnative red), are not the beautiful yips and huffy songs of canis latrans, her coyote cousin, or canis lupus, her more distant cousin, the wolf. Hearing a fox for the first time—especially a red fox—can be a disturbing experience. Hearing a fox in my creek, a friend’s eyes widened as she asked, “what is that?!” Where the cry of a gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) sounds like a haunted whisper: “help!” the scream of a nonnative red fox (Vulpes vulpes) sounds like a banshee (from the Irish: bean sí, a spirit woman who rides the outskirts of twilight, warning of coming danger, and death).

Like coyotes, foxes are hunted as “pests.” My friend’s response to hearing a fox was concern: is a child being strangled in the bushes? Or is perhaps a wounded animal crying for help? Unfortunately, others respond by wanting to shoot foxes, even though nonlethal methods of coexisting abound, and shooting them usually increases, rather than decreases, their reproduction rates. They are also killed for their fur (on fur farms they are kept in horrific confinement, then electrocuted and skinned alive—very few if any laws protect them).

And if that’s not bad enough, foxes are “cool” and “cute,” so they are becoming the “new” trendy hipster accessory. People are trying to raise (or import) foxes as pets. They are so playful (the foxes, not the hipsters), even goofy like dogs. But why must we “tame” the wild? Why must we put our human paw prints on everything? Owning wildlife is a terrible idea—international trafficking in exotic animals is a multi-billion dollar, cruel industry.

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Smug hipster fox was cool before hipsters were cool

But it also points toward a desired disruption of the border between wild without and wild within. We want wildness within so much we will wear it without, or cage it in our backyard. As is the case with “puppy mills,” where dogs are bred like machines and kept in small boxes for people who want to buy, rather than adopt, an animal, wanting a pet fox means condemning thousands of other foxes to life in a cage as it becomes a pet industry.

We want to touch, and yet fear so much, beings that are wild. Even with my injured leg, I’ve limped through the darkness, standing still with a darkened flashlight in hand, hoping to catch sight of my nocturnal neighbor. But, foxes upset birders by hunting small mammals and birds, some endangered. And they madden farmers, who raise chickens and lambs for slaughter. I live in a borderland of crisis between farmed animals and wild animals; between humans and wilderness.

My country lane is lined with farms, surrounded by vineyards, on the border of a shrinking wilderness. At dawn, I hear cows, chickens, horses, pigs—and there are donkeys, llamas, and goats. In the daytime, I see jackrabbits, quail, hawks, vultures, crows, and other birds. In the dead of night, I hear owls, coyotes, foxes, and I know there are  many more creatures in that mysterious wild.

This winter, I’ve had a mouse under my bed, a tarantula in my windowsill, a bird in the garage, a bat in the attic, a snake in the grass, a lizard in the pantry, a quail in the driveway, a bunny in the backyard, raccoons on my doorstep, vultures devouring a chicken by my well, feral cats in my creek, and coyotes, foxes, hawks, other birds, squirrels, and the wild turkeys who conjugate down the road. I welcome the presence of the ones outside the house, as long as they are outside the house. I haven’t quite resolved myself to accept their presence inside. Yet all of us are shaded by the slopes of the Mayacamas, dreaming of a space where once we were more wild and perhaps more free.

Foxes, like coyotes, have adapted—and thrived—in urban spaces (like the coyotes who’ve set up shop in downtown Chicago). But do we really want them to? What Does the Fox Say?(by a Norwegian comedy duo) has nearly 500 million views online. A better question may be — what do we say about foxes? We call women vixens, foxes; we say we were outfoxed; we say, with some admiration and irritation that someone is as sly as a fox. Culturally, our language coexists. So why can’t we?