Cecil the Lion and America's Broken Outrage Meter

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One of the joys of the digital age, at least to many, is the thrill of discovering a new World’s Most Despicable Person. You know the drill: First, some poor sap says or does something dumb or politically incorrect. Next, mobs of wild-eyed, unhinged keyboard cops swoop in to judge, shame, excoriate, and issue over-the-top condemnations. Finally, if they’re lucky, the Mean Typing League might even manage to destroy a life or a reputation or a business or two, not to mention everyone’s general faith in humanity.

After performing this ritual cleansing, one assumes, those involved feel slightly better about themselves. This sense of inner peace and superiority has not yet been scientifically measured, but it lasts, alas, for only a few fleeting days. That’s when it’s time to find a new World’s Most Despicable Person.

This week, that person is Dr. Walter James Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota with the unfortunate habit of paying copious amounts of money to kill large, exotic animals around the globe. Earlier in July, as the world discovered this week, Palmer messed with the wrong large, exotic animal: Cecil the Lion, one of Africa’s most beloved and famous lions, a favorite of wildlife researchers, and the “star attraction” of Zimbabwe’s Hwagne National Park. 

I, like most of humanity, had never heard of Cecil the Lion until this week—thanks to the Internet, he now has approximately five million devoted new best friends, who had also, oddly, never heard of him until now—but there are several videos of him circulating online. He seems like a nice enough lion, I guess, if you like sexist oppressor male kings of the jungle.

I kid, I kid!  Sort of.  Alas, the truth about Cecil’s links to the patriarchy is all on YouTube for the world to see: the roaring and biting at those born without male privilege; the casual, utter disregard for female lion self-esteem; the skulking around like a half-hungry Marlon Brando trapped in a Mafia pizza parlor. This is because he was a wild animal, of course, and not a cartoon character. Regardless, let’s move on. 

Cecil lived on nationally protected land in Zimbabwe, but Dr. Palmer’s apparently shady and unscrupulous guides—for whom he paid a whopping $54,000—lured the unsuspecting lion off his nature preserve. There, Palmer shot him with a crossbow. That didn’t do the trick, so a fatal rifle shot came next, but only after tracking the wounded, suffering lion for nearly 40 hours. This was followed by the beheading and skinning of poor Cecil, who certainly didn’t deserve such a cruel fate, but who also, just as a friendly, safety-related reminder, would probably happily eat you in a casual and relaxed fashion if he had the chance.

This week, Cecil’s story exploded, inciting batten-down-the-hatches outrage. Animal rights group PETA, for instance, declared that Dr. Palmer should be “extradited, charged, and preferably hanged” for killing such a beloved creature. In a heated op-ed, former CNN host Piers Morgan proposed a new sport, “Big Human Hunting,” in which he would kill Dr. Palmer with a crossbow, torture him, and skin him alive, which sounds normal if you just had a brain transplant from, say, Jeffrey Dahmer. 

Actress Debra Messing argued for revoking Dr. Palmer’s citizenship; Sharon Osborne, who is married to a man who once bit the head off a bat, called for the eradication of Palmer’s home, business, and money. On Tuesday night, an emotional Jimmy Kimmel questioned Dr. Palmer’s erectile abilities before a chortling television audience, called him “vomitous” and “the most hated man in America who never advertised Jell-O pudding on television,” and then helpfully noted that we probably shouldn’t “start a witch hunt for the guy.” Oh. Okay. We’ll just ignore those first parts, broadcast to millions!

Dr. Palmer, meanwhile, is in hiding. His business is closed, piled with threats and hate mail. Cecil’s killing, the embattled dentist declared in a statement, was a terrible mistake: “I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt." This may or may not be true; Dr. Palmer may or may not be an unsavory and unethical character. It’s a sad situation; we’ll have to wait and see. One thing, however, seems indisputable: The world is, as is its eternal wont—and here I shall quote an eminent showbiz bat-biter—going off the rails on a crazy train.

Paying $54,000 to kill a wild, beautiful animal seems like a strange and questionable hobby at best; at worst, it seems downright cruel. On the other hand, some conservationists applaud the practice, at least when it’s done legally. What’s telling, however, is that the great Cecil conflagration of 2015 occurred on the same day undercover operatives released the third in a series of graphic, disturbing Planned Parenthood videos. This video, unlike the former two, featured body parts. Tiny body parts. Detailed, well formed, and unmistakably human.

But never mind. Let’s talk about Cecil, a lion that has emerged as a benevolent, finely sketched cartoon creature in the global moral imagination, setting our hyperactive but wildly misfiring outrage meter into a wild, chaotic spin. He’s a lot more fun to think about than unborn baby humans, apparently. The villains in his case are certainly more dramatically drawn. And really: Who doesn’t like cartoons better than reality?t

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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