The story of the killing of Cecil the lion tells us a lot about our country and the West, but not necessarily what we would like to know.
If you’ve been living under a rock the past month, Cecil was a majestic lion that was killed in Zimbabwe under disputed circumstances by an American dentist from Minnesota. Cecil lived in an animal preserve but was allegedly wooed off the preserve and then killed.
It is said that Cecil was well known and deeply beloved. He apparently had a tracking device from Oxford University and that made him a tourist attraction for some. Though these claims should be viewed with some skepticism as, for the most part, people in Africa find the prospect of lions entering their villages highly disruptive and very dangerous. They are lions, not kittens.
Today he is certainly beloved in memory. Jimmy Kimmel tears up when talking about him. He has millions of followers and friends on social media. Mia Farrow thought it a good idea to tweet out the address of the Minnesota hunter’s dental practice — the better to dispense with the legal niceties and just send the vigilantes to get him.
It is possible the dentist broke a law in Zimbabwe. He claims he paid over $50,000 to bag a lion and relied on the local guides to set it up as a legal hunt. It is also true that laws are broken all the time in Zimbabwe — not least by Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, whose most recent birthday party included him eating the meat of a baby elephant.
There are several laws that may have been broken related both to enticing an animal to leave a preserve and permit allocations to shoot lions on private land — beyond this, it is unclear what a foreign tourist is expected to know about Zimbabwe law.
The whole outcry reminds one of nothing as much as the emotional outpouring in England over the death of Princess Diana and, especially, the contrast between the public reaction around her funeral and that of a world historical figure such as Winston Churchill. The contrast did not persuade us that society had advanced during the 32 years between the two events.
There is a kind of silly sentimentality that overcomes our civilization in which the public discourse gets diverted from substantive matters to the passion of the moment.
First, the enormous attention paid to the death of Cecil tells us that our citizenry is now focused on what can only be seen as aesthetic revulsion. There are loads of lions being killed every year in places such as the Sudan, but barely a word is heard because we would actually have to do something to solve that problem — such as invade the Sudan. With Cecil, people can just be passionate and emotional, but not have to do anything or sacrifice anything. As long as the problem is not thrown in their face, people turn the other way.
Second, many are not inclined to actually solve any problems but just want to feel morally superior. So they enjoy noting that the dentist/hunter is a horrible person and should be severely punished, even killed, but few are inclined to actually propose policies that would deal with the issue at hand. In fact, it is impossible to find a coherent point in all the lamentations. Are they urging that the killing of animals be banned — so no more meat or leather? Or is it just killing for sport that is the problem, so killing lions is OK if one butchers them into steaks and makes sure those are eaten. Or is it that uniquely, lions or, possibly, just male lions, are especially majestic and they cannot be hunted. Or is it just particular lions that are especially good looking or that have attracted attention that should be protected?
Every year we have to stop printing our magazines because hunting season opens and all the guys on the press take off for a week. There is just zero indication that the media types who feed this moral outrage know or care that lots of people go hunting right here in America.
Third, it is well known in the conservation community that encouraging activities such as hunting by rich westerners actually encourages conservation. Setting aside land for conservation, having rangers patrolling the land, etc., etc., all costs a lot of money both in direct outlays and in opportunity costs. The only way poor communities support such efforts is if they can profit from doing all this. Eco-tourism, photo-safaris and, yes, wild game hunting are the mechanisms that make local communities willing and able to sustain conservation efforts.
The dentist/hunter has been chastised for spending over $50,000 on this hunt; the implication is that he was doing something seedy, yet, in fact, it is the willingness of people to spend money like this that sustains conservation efforts. The indication on social media and in the press that these are complicated issues and that legal changes may have unintended consequences has been almost non-existent. If the prosecution of this dentist scares away 1,000 other hunts, that is fifty million dollars to very poor countries. That is a life-changing amount of money.
Fourth, it is quite interesting that all this is transpiring at a time when Donald Trump has been leading the polls for the Republican Presidential nomination. Mr. Trump’s sons, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., are famously hunters of wild game and, even more interesting, famously non-apologetic for doing so. Mark Cuban has said that Donald Trump’s appeal has little to do with his policy positions but, rather, with a sense that he speaks his mind and is not desperately calculating his responses to avoid giving insult or to coordinate with received opinion of the day. This seems to imply there is some portion of the population that has come to feel that this propensity for political correctness, this enormous hesitation to offend, is no longer serving the country by promoting community but is, instead, making it difficult for the country to address real problems.
Fifth, most of the outrage seems to focus on supposed ethical lapses by the dentist. Others have mentioned the weak enforcement of laws in Zimbabwe. Completely ignored is the role that capitalism could play in protecting wildlife and in determining the appropriate amounts to spend on protecting wildlife. After all, there is an oddity at the heart of the story we have been told of Cecil the lion. On the one hand, we are told that this particular lion was uniquely valuable and beloved. On the other hand, we are told he lived in an unfenced game preserve. The dentist is blamed for wooing Cecil outside the preserve with meat, but Cecil could have just as well walked out of the preserve or been enticed by food that got there naturally whether it was game running by or humans having a barbeque.
In addition, as a lion in the preserve Cecil was not protected from other lions, crocodiles, injury, etc. Let us suppose that the story had the same ending — a dead Cecil — but he died because another lion challenged him for leadership of the pride and won. Injured in that fight, Cecil is banished from the pride as often happens. Then, as a lone, injured lion, he is killed by a pack of hyenas.
The logical ways to protect something of value is to make sure someone owns it. If ownership is clearly established, then those who own things generally protect them. This might be an individual lion or it might be the whole game preserve. It is when things are owned by everyone that nobody spends the money to protect them.
Yet, in the end we doubt that Cecil the lion was actually the point. If the issue is really that the death of Cecil is such a loss, then the loss would be just as great whether we lose Cecil due to hyenas or to a hunter. Yet it is almost certainly true that had Cecil died via hyena, very few people would have heard about it or cared about Cecil’s demise.
So in the end, this is not about Cecil the lion, but about people wanting to feel good about themselves, so they can experience this situation as an expression of their moral superiority over the Minneapolis dentist. This has become an all too common trend in society.
We wrote here about how retailers ran away from a blueberry operation in Michigan that was alleged to have used child labor. The retailers were reflecting their customers’ aesthetic revulsion to the plight of poor parents working in the field who might bring their children with them. Yet abandoning this grower didn’t help the poor parents or their children. The retailers didn’t offer to put the poor kids in summer camp. The retailers didn’t offer to pay the parents more so the pickers could hire babysitters.
They were not actually solving the problem; they were just catering to the aesthetic sense of consumers that they didn’t want to be associated with ugly things. We see the same going on regarding consumer attitudes toward migrant farm workers here or in Mexico. There is a lot of outrage but very little in the way of solutions. And even when companies announce they are part of the solution — as Ahold did recently with its announcement that it would join the CIW “Fair Food” program, there is little notion of addressing whether such efforts actually help at all, much less whether the intended population winds up a net beneficiary. After all, when the price of labor rises in one place, it disadvantages that production source thus leading business to migrate elsewhere.
But that is not the point. And that is the problem. Instead of addressing real problems in serious ways, we are neglecting real problems to be emotional extroverts about fallen princesses and dead lions. It may make us feel better, but we won’t be better. That is an immense problem.