Donald Clarke: From Walter the Dentist to Conan the Barbarian

Furore over killing of Cecil the lion a sharp reminder of hypocrisy on animal cruelty

Protesters gather outside Dr Walter James Palmer’s dental office in Bloomington, Minnesota, after Palmer reportedly paid $50,000 to track and kill Cecil, a black-maned lion, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Photograph: Reuters

Yes, of course, the furore surrounding Walter Palmer, killer of Cecil the Zimbabwean lion, highlights hypocrisies in our attitude to animal cruelty. Over the last week, the airwaves have been alive with tirades from people who rarely comment on the continuing slaughter – much of it inhumane – in domestic abattoirs.

Poor Cecil looks to have died slowly, but, up to that point, he lived as full a life as a lion can lead. Compare his fate with that of the millions of chickens raised in furiously claustrophic conditions before being processed into shaped protein for deep frying. It’s tricky for anybody who eats meat to get all that angry about the killing of one wild animal.

True, lions are a vulnerable species. National Geographic estimates that, since the 1940s, the worldwide population has declined from 450,000 to 20,000. But Palmer's habitual slaughter of animals more beautiful than himself has had a negligible effect on populations. Once he becomes the answer to a question in a 2010s trivia compendium, attention will move elsewhere and human conurbations will continue to encroach on lion habitats. Try and turn that into a glib tweet.

Pathetic apology

Palmer, a dentist from Minneapolis, had the misfortune of killing a lion that had a name and a public persona. (The fact that the animal was named after colonialist


Cecil Rhodes

, founder of Rhodesia, has been glossed over.) Indeed, in his pathetic apology, Palmer more or less acknowledged that his real sin was killing a celebrity. “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favourite,” he said.

I imagine Palmer is well known in his corner of Minnesota. Firing an arrow through his shiny bald forehead (I'm allowed) would, by this logic, be a more serious matter than murdering somebody who doesn't have commercials for cosmetic dentistry on Minnosotan bus stops.

Stretching our search for context further, we might note how much more attention has been paid to Cecil than to most humans who have died in tragic and suspicious circumstances over the last month. The news nudged talk of Sandra Bland – found dead in a Texan jail after being arrested for a minor traffic offence – off the trending columns and into the amnesia trough. Suddenly the whole world was behaving as if Cecil the lion lived at the bottom of its collective garden.

So, we must accept that a sense of proportion has been lost. Before ranting too forcefully about the slaughter of this one lion, the recreational fulminator might like to contribute (as chat show host Jimmy Kimmel suggested during his monologue on the subject) to The Wildlife Conservation Unit, the body that tagged Cecil for research. Consider the continuing systematic exploitation of animals. Ponder vegetarianism as an option.

Have you done all that? Have you placed the sad death of Cecil in its wider context? Yes? Thank goodness. Now, we can move on to numbering the ways in which Walter Palmer comes across a pillock of the highest order.

The dentist's case is very different to those of momentarily misguided dopes who, without thinking, post something unlovely on Twitter and bring down an unending firestorm of protest. Over the past few years, he has spent thousands of dollars travelling the world to kill animals that would have been better left unmolested. Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, reckons that Palmer paid about $55,000 to arrange the killing of Cecil. It seems that the creature was lured from a national park and shot with a bow and arrow. The wound was not fatal and Cecil took 40 hours to die.

It shouldn't need to be said that those calling for Palmer to be hunted down in similar fashion only play into the dental surgeon's big scary hands. Happily, most commentators have – rather than identifying Palmer as evil – had fun pointing out what a pathetic git he seems (unparliamentary language is essential here). "There are so many ways to be a f**king idiot in the modern world," the director Judd Apatow commented.

Suburban dweebs

Ridicule is the preferred weapon when dealing with people like Palmer. He did not intend to eat Cecil. He was not protecting himself from danger. This modern big-game hunt is an exercise in self-aggrandisement that sees suburban dweebs seeking to cloak themselves in Cro-Magnon masculinity.

Palmer cradles the corpses of leopards while stripped to the waist. He uses a bow and arrow because that’s, like, way cooler than a gun. It’s all about self-image. His hunting trips transform him (in his own mind) from Walter the Dentist to Conan the Barbarian. Every opportunity should be taken to point out that, for most sensible people, the pose has quite the opposite effect.

You, sir, look like a jerk.