Cecil the lion’s death scratches surface of deeper debate

Walter Palmer provoked more anger than most skilful PETA campaign could ever hope for

Do big-game hunters consider what they do to be sport? It was a question that bounced around in the background of the international condemnation of Minnesotan dentist Walter Palmer's assassination of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe earlier this month. Piers Morgan, the notorious big-game slayer of celebrity reputations during his days of tabloid editorship, was the most vocal of an unlikely cast of outraged public figures: everyone from Newt Gingrich to Cara Delevingne were sufficiently moved to take to their smartphones and tweet messages of outrage. Piers, though, took it further, declaring that he would "love to go hunting for killer dentist Walter Palmer so I can stuff him on my office wall".

Bit harsh? Lest we forget, this is the man who came up with headline “Achtung Surrender” before an England-Germany football match. Understatement has never been his thing.

The details emerging this week about the killing of the lion are so pathetic that the outrage was inevitable. It has been admitted that the guides who assisted Dr Walter on his quest had to lure the creature out of the sanctuary of the national park by tying meat to the back of a truck. Once the lion was off rez, Dr Walter had his opportunity to test himself against nature in his chosen way – which was shoot the animal to death with a bow and arrow, pose for photographs and finally skin and behead his kill, presumably for mounting on some wood-panelled wall in the American Midwest to be saluted with a single-malt.

Wildlife gets hunted down all the time. Dr Walter has provoked more anger in the space of 24 hours than the most skilful PETA campaign could hope to do in a year. So why has this kill provoked such outrage? Dr Walter probably has to be believed when he claims that he didn’t realise he was killing a lion which was effectively under the protection of the Zimbabwean government and had acquired a degree of fame. Too late, he realised that this wasn’t just any old lion.


Circulated the globe

Put a name on a wild creature and it joins the world of animation and fable and childhood. And ‘Cecil’ is an unusually pacifistic name for a lion. As the pictures which have circulated the globe this week demonstrated, it turns out that he was a particularly handsome example of his species: imperious and solemn and all the stuff you’d expect but he also looked curiously . . . sound. As lions go, Cecil didn’t look like he’d harm a fly.

So Dr Walter immediately had all that going against him. The other thing going against him was the fact that Dr Walter himself seems like someone the Coen brothers wished they had dreamed up, with his enhanced smile that can only be described as piercing and the montage of boastful photographs featuring him grinning, sometimes bare-chested and always self-satisfied, over a series of spectacular big-five animals he has killed on his hunting sprees.

Stress and monotony

The fact that he’s a dentist hasn’t helped either. People aren’t kindly disposed to the thought of dentists at the best of times and so the knowledge that one of their number relieves the stress and monotony of staring into cavities for eight hours a day by slaughtering lions and rhino and bears serves to deepen a lot of prejudices.

And the thought of the creature being effectively tricked into the open range makes this killing seem particularly low. The lion’s years on the reservation had reportedly made him unusually receptive to interaction with humans. He probably didn’t know he was in danger. It wasn’t even a ‘hunt’, just a trap. Cecil’s final thought might well have run along the lines of: who is that honcho and what the f**k’s with his teeth?

So the disparity between the general nobility with which Cecil carried himself through the world and the buffoonish entitlement with which Dr Walter made his periodic raids on the natural world struck a nerve in a whole range of animal lovers. The photographs of Dr Walter with his slain trophies offered the perfect visual support of the famous observation by Edward Abbey, the environmentalist and writer: “Whenever I see a photograph of some sportsman grinning over his kill, I am always impressed by the striking moral and aesthetic superiority of the dead animal to the live one.”

Since details of this particular kill emerged, Dr Walter has been getting it in the neck: his dental practice under siege; plans afoot to extradite him to Zimbabwe; derision on late-night talk shows and general agreement that he is the most reprehensible man in America. Even the pro-hunting lobby have been meek thus far in their defence of his action. No doubt this is one hunt that he regrets.

The outcry over the killing has led to a counter-reaction in which people have expressed discomfort with the extreme condemnation generated by the killing of an innocent animal compared to the general indifference to any number of instances in which innocent people are killed. It has led to the question as to whether people care more about animals than they do their fellow man. To which the answer, is: in many instances, yes. And the contempt flung at Dr Walter can be hard to square with the overwhelming incuriosity with which most people regard the origins of the meat on their plate.

Perhaps the most interesting perspective on hunting was that of Jonathan Young, editor of The Field, who wondered in a Daily Telegraph comment piece whether Dr Walter’s many critics would condemn the killing in 1926 of the leopard of Rudraprayag after it had killed an estimated 125 people in the locality? No, is the obvious answer, in that the creature was preying on people and its killing saved lives. But Young’s argument is that the trophy hunting of big game can help finance the conservation of the species under threat from poaching.


The normal sports – archery with ringed boards for targets rather than lions or elephants, for instance – are too safe and bloodless for liking of Dr Palmer and his ilk. Instead they seek a taste of old 20th century adventure; the tracking, the danger and the self reliance and the thrill of the kill. It is all hokum of course: the expensive weaponry, the guides and, best of all, the getaway jeep ensure it is never a fair fight between man and beast. That, finally, must have been what so many found reprehensible about the killing.

Old Cecil never stood a chance. Like Dr Walter must have said to thousands of patients in his Minnesotan surgery: this is going to hurt a little bit.