Cecil the Lion and the Meanings of Animals

When news of Cecil the lion’s illegal killing by an American trophy hunter hit my Twitter feed, I found the news sad but unsurprising. White American men hunting African mammals as a means to assert their white American manliness has a long history in American culture (think Theodore Roosevelt, Hemingway’s public persona, Carl Akeley, and so on). Far more shocking than the fact of Cecil’s death was the public reaction that followed. In addition to major news outlets providing fresh commentary and updates every day since Cecil’s death first made headlines, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer’s office has been overrun by Cecil mourners, Palmer’s business’s Yelp page has been thoroughly trashed (when I first viewed the page it had over 6000 negative, Cecil-related reviews; at the time of this writing the staff at Yelp seems to have wrangled that number down to a cool 400+), and the #CecilTheLion hashtag features a staggering number of enraged, even threatening, cries of outrage from the public.

Ernest Hemingway and hunted lion
Ernest Hemingway and a lion he hunted and killed; photo from TomorrowStarted.com

I am not going to discuss whether some public responses to Cecil’s death were more “valid” than others. What I will consider is what the unexpected, dare I say bizarre widespread investment in the killing of Cecil the lion can tell us about the cultural value(s) of animals and how their existence becomes meaningful to large numbers of people.

The so-called “perfect storm” of variables that made Cecil a mournable animal has something instructive to tell animal advocates. In contrast to one writer who suggests that generating consensus about the immorality of Cecil’s death was “easy,” public outrage over the deaths of animals is highly unusual. Typically, even animals with names (ever heard of Satao? He was a “famous” bull elephant poached for his ivory last year) don’t garner much if any attention when they are abused and/or killed. Public interest in named animals is only slightly more prevalent than objections to, say, the nine billion unnamed animals killed every year in U.S. factory farms. The closest, recent event of an animal’s death that incited even a fraction of Cecil-level outrage that I can remember is Marius the giraffe. If you’ll recall, Marius was a captive, healthy young giraffe killed by Copenhagen zoo officials because his genes were well-represented by other giraffes in the zoo system.

The public didn’t care for the death of Marius. Knowing what we know about the rarity of large-scale interest in the death of an animal, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Marius and Cecil share some characteristics that make them sympathetic and, by extension, mournable. They both had names, of course, a feature important to their recognition as individuals. What if Cecil was not “Cecil” but “lion no. 281”? More important than names, perhaps, is the two animals’ status as charismatic megafauna. Both Marius and Cecil were members of species that are large, interesting, and, frankly, visually attractive. (Side note: the very features that made Cecil such a charismatic creature also made him a prized target for trophy hunters. He was a big, beautiful male lion, and that he’s a male lion is important: his symbolic value as kingly, regal, proud, brave, you get the idea, are the very attributes that make his victimization all the more pronounced. Would a female lion—no fluffy mane, no attendant associations with royalty, a member of the sex often coded as “weaker” even in animals!—inspire the same public outcry?) One researcher even called Cecil the “ultimate lion,” a feature which makes him, in my view, all the more ripe for symbolic and affective investment. Despite their similarities, the differences between Marius and Cecil are easy to spot. Marius lived in a zoo; Cecil lived on a protected reserve. Marius was killed for the sake of population management; Cecil was killed for the hell of it.

But wait: that Marius died for the sake of population management echoes a strain of thought that also contributed to Cecil’s death: the idea that people can kill certain “unnecessary” animals for the betterment of many animals. As it manifested in Cecil’s situation, the “kill one for the good of the many” idea suggests that trophy hunting–what Walter Palmer spent $55,000 to do–works as a tool for conservation. In the U.S., the formalization of hunting-equals-conservation dates back to, you guessed it! Theodore Roosevelt and like-minded sportsmen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some modern-day conservationists continue to argue that, beyond fun for hunters, trophy hunting may be good for wildlife, that killing some males of a species (like Cecil) will make room for up-and-coming males to spread their genes. Problems with this logic persist, of course, problems beyond the icky paradox of killing-in-the-name-of-conservation. Problems like the fact that, for all the money hunters shell out to kill an animal, a family in Zimbabwe will probably only receive $1-3 a year for allowing hunts to take place on their land. Moreover, while money from sports hunting does fund conservation efforts, making a single lion into a trophy doesn’t mean that only one lion will die as part of the bargain. As one of the researchers involved in the project studying Cecil attested in an interview, Cecil’s death will affect his pride and likely lead to the deaths of more lions, Cecil’s cubs being most at risk:

The consequence of killing one male — whether legally or illegally — is that it weakens the male coalition he was part of, often a brotherhood. A larger, stronger coalition comes in and usurps them, often leading to the death of the surviving brothers. The incoming males will generally kill the cubs of the incumbents. A simple-minded approach might have thought one less lion is one less lion. The reality is that one less lion can lead to the deaths of many other lions, as well as a reshuffling of their local spatial organization and society.

Do advocates for hunting-as-conservation measure this ripple effect?

The outrage surrounding Cecil’s death reminds us of the particular wild lives that make up the aggregating term “wildlife.” Such outrage over an individual animal’s death should encourage the animal advocacy organizations that seek to reintroduce the public to animals frequently understood as abstractions (I’m thinking of Farm Sanctuary and The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy). Cecil became mournable, became meaningful, for members of the public because they recognized him as an individual–a someone rather than a something–a status humans typically reserve only for pets. In contrast, conservation initiatives typically think about animals as part of populations, as contributing genetic diversity or reproductive vitality to an abstraction we call species. What we have, then, is a conflict of definition: are animals “individuals” or sets of genes? Are they irreplaceable and singular or renewable, natural resources?

T.C. Boyle’s 2011 novel When the Killing’s Done provides a bit of guidance. The novel features two protagonists who care a lot of about animals—a wildlife biologist and an animal rights activist—and uses a “based on a true story” conflict about invasive species to expose the gulf that separates the biologist’s and the activist’s respective understandings of animals. While Alma the biologist argues that all the invasive species should be poisoned and, later in the book, hunted and shot, Dave the activist argues in contrast that the invasives should be left alone (with the implication, of course, that humans are the most invasive invasive species of them all).

Western gulls on Anacapa Island, one of the islands featured in the environmental drama of Boyle's novel. Photo credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times
Western gulls on Anacapa Island, one of the islands featured in the environmental drama of Boyle’s novel. Photo credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

Despite their ongoing feud, Dave and Alma have a lot to learn from each other. Late in the novel, Dave introduces two nonnative raccoons to an island’s delicate ecosystem to both exact revenge on Alma and because he misguidedly thinks the raccoons would thrive there. And maybe they will, but at what expense to the ecosystem/other animals? In another standout moment in the novel, Alma receives insight into Dave’s perspective on animals: she has an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with one of the wild, invasive boars shot per her mandate. During that encounter, Alma experiences an unexpected and disorienting sorrow. Detailing the dead pig’s individual features, she sees the boar not as one of the hundreds of its invasive kin to be destroyed, but as a particular, and as she says, “perfect” creature. Standing before the dead animal, Alma “feels the sorrow in the back of her throat, the sorrow of existence,” and she struggles to keep in mind the logic that guides the pig cull: that “[t]hese animals have to be eliminated and if you stop to see them as individuals you’re done” (304). Alma’s perception of the boar as an individual temporarily weakens her resolve that all the boars require extermination.

Is thinking about animals as singular beings really irreconcilable with the goals of wildlife biology as Alma fears? Or, can the possibility of regarding each animal as an individual with desires, projects, preferences, and habits motivate ethical, creative conservation strategies that avoid rather than legitimate killing? Thinking about Cecil as simply a set of genes feels like a violation of his singularity. At the same time, thinking about Cecil in isolation obscures his immersion in a network composed of his fellow lions, environment, and other nonhumans. Cecil may not have even thought of himself as an individual in the same way that humans tend to think of each other as particular, autonomous selves. As Boyle’s novel helps us realize, then, animal activists and wildlife biologists should derive insight from each other’s understanding of what makes animals significant. Neither “side” provides a complete view of what animals mean to us, themselves, each other, and their environments. We need (as Cecil and countless other nonhumans needed and continue to need) collaborations among people who work and think with animals to promote not just the growth of populations, but attention to the many ways animals mean.