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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.