The killing in Zimbabwe of a magnificent lion named Cecil has ignited worldwide outrage and disgust. It should. In my view, hunting for sport is murder.
The perpetrator was Walter Palmer, a small-town dentist from Minnesota with a record of killing large animals with a bow and high-powered rifles. A little man from a two-by nothing town who made himself feel big by murdering animals. He was apparently on probation for illegally killing a black bear and who knows what else.
This vile man has overnight become public enemy number one.
Lions, like elephants, are an endangered species. They have been hunted to the edge of extinction both by local farmers and foreign hunters. These glorious creatures have been the symbol of strength, courage and nobility since the dawn of our not very civilized civilization.
There were an estimated 50,000 lions left in Africa during the 1950’s. Today, hunting, starvation and disease has cut their number to only 20,000. They have joined the elephant and rhino as Africa’s leading endangered species. The only way to hunt is with a camera.
One hundred elephants are being killed each day by gangs of poachers seeking their ivory. Rhinos are close to extinction. The situation in southeast Asia is almost as grim. Tigers and other large forest animals are in grave peril.
I am a lover of felines, large and small. In truth, there is very little difference between lions and domestic companion cats. Our household tabbies are miniature versions of wild lions. The only major difference is that domestic cats do not live in prides, as do lions. Also, in Africa, male lions spend much of the day relaxing while sending out their harem of females to do all the hunting, and then bring home dinner.
One day while walking in Rome, I abruptly turned a corner and came upon a small street filled with a score of feral cats. They scattered and hid under parked cars. Lions, in order to survive, had shrunken in size to our familiar cats. It’s a pity elephants could not do the same. I live with five little cat-lions.
One day in Botswana, I left my safari camp – against orders not to – and decided to walk on foot through the lion’s hunting grounds, wanting to experience what primitive man felt at the dawn of time. I was armed with nothing but a long stick and incredible folly.
I walked close to prides of lions for two hours. They stared at me quizzically. Fortunately for me, it was about two pm and intensely hot. The lions and lionesses were feeling lethargic and sleepy. I spoke to them and got a few lions rumbles back.
Walking among the lions was a thrilling, once in a lifetime experience: exhilarating, terrifying, heart-pounding, and yet, curiously, serene. Yet not one to be repeated again. I’d used up all my nine lives in one afternoon. My composure abruptly broke when a very large hippo roared out at me as I passed a clump of bushes. I scooted back to camp. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal.
The camp rangers were livid. If I’d been killed by the lions they would have lost their license. They thought I was crazy. I probably was.
Back to the killer dentist. He and his two Zimbabwean guides apparently used scraps of food to lure Cecil from his protected reserve. Then the dentist shot Cecil with an arrow. Wounded and suffering, Cecil dragged himself away, only to be stalked for two whole days until Dr. Palmer shot him to death with a high-powered rifle. The hunters then cut off Cecil’s dead, with its splendid black mane, and skinned him. The corpse of this beautiful animal was left to rot in the sun.
Palmer, who reportedly paid $55,000 for the trophy kill, claimed to believe massacring and butchering an endangered animal was legal and ok. Who knows? Maybe under Zimbabwe’s loosey-goosey laws it is. Zimbabwe is dead broke and desperate for US dollars.
But murdering animals for sport cannot be allowed in civilized societies. It’s medieval and barbarous. I used to like and admire the former king of Spain, Juan Carlos – until he snuck off to Botswana and murdered an elephant and two buffalo for sport. And he was the honorary chair of Spain’s World Wildlife Fund! Spaniards were rightly outraged. Juan Carlos subsequently abdicated.
The major problem here is that there are Dr. Palmers and Juan Carlos’ all over southern Africa. Botswana and South Africa have numerous “hunting camps” where Americans and Europeans go to murder penned big game. Fees can run up to $100,000 is some cases. Such camps also exist in North America.
The hunters who kill for pleasure are usually well-to-do men pretending they are dashing big game hunters. In reality, many are fat, big-bellied Neanderthals without culture or education. They revel in impressing their similarly backwards neighbors by their murderous prowess.
Frankly, I’d like to see all hunters hunted. I’ve helped finance bush rangers in Kenya who protect elephants from poachers seeking their tusks. When a mother elephant is killed, its children can die of grief and shock within 24 hours. The Sheldrick Foundation of Nairobi helps rescue these little orphans. Alas, half die within a day.
We should ban all sport hunting. Come fall, North America’s woods are filled with beer-swilling louts trying to kill deer, moose and ducks. Many American Republicans seem to believe there is something macho or aristocratic about blasting helpless animals with high-power rifles or shotguns. President Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and Dick Cheney were example of men filled with self-doubt about their masculinity trying to prove their maleness by murdering animals.
As I always say to hunters, if you want to prove what a man you are, go fight a bear with a Swiss Army knife.
Let’s make the horrifying murder of Cecil the Lion a symbol to end hunting and to help guide us to civilized behavior.