Something deep and profound lies beneath the intense sadness and rage masses of people are feeling in reaction to the killing of Cecil the lion. I was taken aback by the intensity of my own extreme anger that fueled sadistic fantasies aimed at the hunter, Dr. Walter Palmer. I am curious why so many animal-loving people like myself want to inflict torturous revenge on the dentist.
An American dentist and recreational game hunter, Walter Palmer, paid $50,000 to a Zimbabwean guide to kill a lion. Cecil was illegally lured out of Hwange National Park, a protected game reserve. Using a crossbow, Palmer gravely wounded Cecil with an arrow. The suffering lion was tracked for 40 hours, then Palmer killed him with a rifle. Cecil was skinned and beheaded for Palmer’s trophy room. An attempt was made to destroy the lion’s tracking collar, but it was found by Zimbabwe park investigators. Palmer claims he didn’t know he was doing anything illegal.
Why get so riled up about the death of one lion in a world filled with suffering and killing of millions of fellow humans and other animals? Zimbabwe residents are bewildered by the international coverage and outrage. In a San Francisco Chronicle report, Eunice Vhunise, a Harare resident said, “It’s so cruel, but I don’t understand the whole fuss, there are so many pressing issues in Zimbabwe — we have water shortages, no electricity and no jobs — yet people are making noise about a lion?”
It is true—the death of one lion is dwarfed by the world’s other injustices, but that is exactly what compelled me to try and understand why I feel so much anger about what happened to Cecil the lion. Talking with friends and reading social media, I know I am not alone in my outrage. From government leaders to international media, the world is demanding justice. I wondered what touched us so deeply? What was it about the killing of one lion that caused steam to shoot out of the collective ears of humanity?
My forthcoming book, The Weaving Web, is about Big History—from the Big Bang through the evolution of the galaxies, stars, biological life on Earth, and human cultures. Big History is not just a way to understand the past, but a way to shed light on the present by putting it into a larger context.
Human’s journey from Hyper Vigilant Vegetarians to Tentative Scavengers to Fierce Predators
For millions of years, humans were more cat food than predator. Scavenger was our original niche. Until recently, humans were in the middle of the food chain. That is central to grasping humankind’s psychology and history. It wasn’t until 400,000 years ago that some species of Homo began hunting larger animals, and just the last 100,000 years that Homo sapiens catapulted to the top of the food chain.
That dizzying leap from the middle to the top of the food chain had tremendous ramifications. Other predators at the top, like lions and tigers, slowly evolved into that lofty position over millions of years. Such gradual development allowed the ecosystem to balance the skills of the prey and predator, so hunters don’t wreak too much havoc. In contrast, humans escalated to the top so rapidly that the ecosystem didn’t have enough time to adjust. Also, people didn’t adjust. Most of the top predators are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with confidence. Not that long ago, humans were one of the underdogs of the savannah. Now, humans are more like a propped up third world dictator, full of insecurities and anxieties over our recent ascension, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.
A lion killing an eland is an essential part of nature’s balancing act. Even though their killing is bloody, predators usually pick off a weak or injured animal. A hungry lion eats and feeds its family, while the eland species is strengthened by the weeding out of a weak member, balancing the population of both elands and lions in the wild.
Compare the nobility of the lion’s hunting with the shameful behavior of the Minnesota dentist. Cecil was lured from his sanctuary, shot with a crossbow and left for 40 hours to bleed and suffer, until he was shot dead, beheaded, and skinned.
There was nothing noble about Walter Palmer’s killing Cecil. The hunt wasn’t to feed a hungry Palmer family. It wasn’t sport. The protected lion was lured from his sanctuary, tortured, and decapitated. Dr. Palmer’s trophy room isn’t a symbol of courage and skill, but a shameful display of humankind’s cruelty.
In ancient Judaism, a goat was ritually outcast into the desert, symbolically removing people’s sins. In ancient Greece, the scapegoat was an unsavory person who was expelled from the community. The group evil is projected onto a scapegoat who is banished, thus restoring social order and providing psychological relief for the group.
The dentist enacted the repulsive human shadow on the world stage and now we want to feed him to the lions. We cleanse the stench off our souls by projecting our shadow onto him, self-righteously destroying him in the court of social media, thus allowing us to once again feel good about ourselves.
Human beings have the free will to be altruistically compassionate or engage in cruel atrocities. Even though there are many individuals who perform random acts of kindness, recycle, and are good people, the disconcerting truth is that, as a species, humans are similar to Dr. Palmer.
Humans are dominating nature for our own benefit. There is a shadow to our domination. Our collective behaviors are polluting the water and air, the climate is changing, resources are becoming scarce, and we are endangering many species (including our own).
As a part of humanity, I feel sadness, anger, and shame at what we are doing to the Earth, animals, and humans. Those very same feelings I have about Cecil’s slaughter. It is a lot easier to scapegoat a dentist than to deal with the havoc we are creating in the world. The inhumanity of a single heinous act is easier to deal with than the impotence we feel about the damage we are inflicting on nature.
Sure, Dr. Palmer should stand trial for his actions, but that’s not the bigger issue. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the dentist and he is us.
A lion is naturally noble, humans have a choice.
Brilliant, Spencer! How are lions naturally noble though? Humans are often ignoble, but anthropomorphizing animals doesn’t make them any less animalistic. Still, they don’t kill people and put their heads up in their dens. That is disgusting.
Thank you Marilyn.
Lions are noble in that their killing is part of a whole ecology, nature’s balancing act. But, I don’t mean to idealize … nature can be harsh.
Great article Spencer. It’s amazing how easy it is to psychologically fall into the trap of scapegoating. It’s much easier to want to dismember the Dentist than to deal with our own shadow!
Yes, what compelled me to write the blog was the intensity of my rage at the dentist.
Well said, Spencer. Thanks for writing this.