Cecil the lion, Walter Palmer, and emotions gone wild
Headlines in the Star Tribune and other media outlets scream “global firestorm” and “worldwide fury” about Cecil the lion. A Minnesota congresswoman calls for a federal investigation. Local talk radio howls from dusk to dawn with two-bit shock jocks and underworked callers bashing a fellow citizen. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel gets choked up on the topic. Protestors pile plush animals – including, oddly, several tigers – at the dental practice of Public Enemy No. 1. The venom and eagerness to destroy a man’s livelihood, maybe his life, represents nothing more than a good old-fashioned lynching circa 2015.
Walter Palmer lives in the Twin Cities metro area and probably runs in some of the same conservation circles as me, though I’ve never met him. He has some past, concerning brushes with the law, but he’s paid his fines. Palmer spends his disposable income on big-game hunting around the world, a recreational pursuit that is completely legal and benefits local communities and the environment in ways most of his critics likely can’t fathom.
Yes, someone behaved horribly during Palmer’s recent Zimbabwean lion hunt outside Hwange National Park. In doing so, they created the worst publicity and media frenzy surrounding hunting in years, maybe decades.
Based on media accounts, the details of this incident are at best revolting. Luring a semi-tame beast out of a national park with an animal carcass strapped atop a vehicle? To then kill it on private property? If those reports are accurate, it violates every conceivable tenet of fair chase. That’s probably why Safari Club International properly imposed immediate emergency membership suspensions of both the hunter and his guide/professional hunter. In a release earlier today, SCI said the suspensions will remain in place pending the outcome of an investigation.
We can argue the morality of this specific incident, but what’s relevant is whether Palmer’s actions were illegal. Though the court of public opinion already has convicted everyone anywhere near the situation, the professional hunter and landowner have pleaded not guilty to poaching charges levied by Zimbabwean authorities. Palmer says he regrets shooting the lion but trusted his professional hunter and guides to place him in a lawful hunting situation.
It reminds me of another case Outdoor News reported on U.S. soil 17 years ago. Back in 1998, retired Minnesota Viking coach Bud Grant received a citation for hunting snow geese over bait. Even though Grant knew nothing about corn in the Nebraska field where he hunted, the “strict liability” provision of federal baiting law held him and several other hunters as responsible as their guide. Eventually, the prosecutor in that case dismissed the charges against everyone except the guide.
We’re talking about a different country with a different set of rules, and I won’t pretend to understand whether Palmer violated any laws in Zimbabwe. I’m not interested in trophy hunting for lions, and even if I was, I don’t have $50,000 to finance such an excursion. But for $50K, I’d sure as hell like to think I’m paying for some peace of mind that my actions won’t land me in a Zimbabwean prison.
The bigger picture here is the media and general public’s terribly disturbing rush to judgement. Listen to talk radio or talking heads on the 24-hour news channels endlessly repeating the same thin, tired “facts” of the case. The social media firestorm of the past 36 hours has roared like a fire through a tinder-dry Western forest in July. Normally calm citizens toss out libelous names and death threats based on incomplete news accounts and sound bites they read or view on Twitter or Facebook. From grandmas to pro athletes to late-night talk show hosts, character assassination of a fellow citizen has erupted into priority No. 1.
Though social media certainly accelerates the lynch mob effect of a story like this, it’s not the first time we’ve seen a hunter blamed for all of society’s ills. I remember the terribly foul, incendiary remarks people made toward young Eric Ness in the 1990s. Ness requested that the Make-A-Wish Foundation fulfill his wish of a bear hunting trip with his dad. That was years before Facebook and Twitter, but the disgusting comments and hatred toward Eric still burst quickly and violently into the public discourse. Both stories expose the darkest, most primitive human impulses that too easily transform sensible humans into malevolent mobs.
And they don’t stop at simple, albeit mean, borderline libelous 140-character threats. A friend, Jamie Verbrugge, is the city manager for Bloomington, Minn. He received messages today from around the world demanding that he revoke Palmer’s business license. His office of course has no role in licensing issues for a dental practice, but nonetheless, he was getting emails from Italy, Germany, France, Los Angeles, and undisclosed locations demanding he and his staff “do something.”
Perspective, people. An alleged poached lion by a licensed hunter and his guides who potentially screwed up is unfortunate, and if they violated the law, they should be prosecuted. Know what’s worse? How about the wholesale of destruction of a prairie ecosystem between Minneapolis and the Black Hills the past decade? Prefer charismatic megafauna? How about industrialized poaching of African elephants by organized crime? How about the dozen people who died in drug-fueled violence worldwide since I started writing this blog?
Too complicated? Well then at least allow the justice system to run its course before smacking Walter Palmer and his family with scarlet letters.
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