The killing of Cecil the lion at the Hwange National Park on July 1, was of course tragic. However, the public response to his death reflects a deeper tendency for humans to want to humanize animals. Because we ascribe human-like appearances and behaviours to them – what’s known as anthropomorphism – conservation movements’ are more easily able to recruit people to their cause on the back of it. Similar in principle to the concept of corporate environmental Greenwashing, conservation movements’, whether intentional or not, tend to focus their resources on areas where there exists the human compulsion to empathize with animals that we perceive to be cuddly or cute to the detriment of other species (1).
I don’t want to make any excuses for people who kill wild animals for fun. I think recreational big game hunters like the American Walter Palmer are the pits and I disagree fundamentally with the concept of killing animals in the wild. I personally find this kind of activity and the people who engage in and enjoy it, as repugnant as those who engage in, and enjoy say, bullfighting or fox hunting.
In the sad case of Cecil, he was lured by Palmer with food. Palmer proceeded to kill him with a cross bow from relatively close range compared with the more common use of a telescopic rifle from afar. In that sense, Palmer’s actions could reasonably be construed as being more dangerous for him, therefore paradoxically increasing the chances of Cecil surviving.
The hypocrisy of many of those who condemned Palmer cannot be overlooked. On the day that Cecil died, Cameron was demonizing humans at Calais by describing them as a “swarm” and a Palestinian baby was murdered by Jewish extremist fanatics. But the plight of an animal gets most of the media’s attention. The vast majority of the public will think nothing of eating animals that would have arrived at their plate after having been slaughtered in an industrial fashion on mass by agribusinesses.
Many of these animals would have died in worse circumstances and had a worse life than Cecil. Unlike, for example, the said beast who we have collectively ascribed a name to, an anonymous cow prior to being slaughtered in a slaughter house would have been artificially inseminated and forcibly crammed into a lorry along with other cows having spent most of it’s life in a cage.
Sometimes the level of hypocrisy can be astounding. I heard a self-confessed carnivore and angler on the radio the other evening spitting with rage at the actions of Palmer. Apparently, it hadn’t crossed his mind that the hobby he undertakes on a regular basis – luring fish with food for fun – is essentially no different from the actions of somebody like Palmer who lured poor Cecil with food for fun as the precursor to his killing. In both cases, living things are killed or maimed for fun.
The moral equivalent here is that for those who participate in both pursuits the basis for their participation is one of enjoyment as opposed to necessity. The aspect that tends to get people upset is that as opposed to nameless and indistinct fish, Cecil was given a name and looked like a cuddly stuffed child’s toy. But both live in the wild and both are lured from their natural habitat for the enjoyment of humans.