A Western lesson from Cecil the lion: trophy seekers aren't hunters

 

Various news reports described Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed the legendary Zimbabwean lion called "Cecil," as a "hunter." But this man, who was only interested in capturing Cecil's giant head for a wall mount, was no hunter, and it insults real hunters to call him one. Calling him a "sportsman" is more accurate.

Edward Abbey, a Western writer who was also a hunter, made a useful distinction between the two terms: "A hunter pursues wild game in order to provide ... for himself, kin and kith (and) this is ... honorable. A sportsman kills for the sake of pleasure, or what he calls 'sport.' Hunting for sport always appears in ... socially stratified, over-refined cultures. It is a reliable indicator of privilege, hierarchy and moral decay."

Assuming that he knew that the lion lived in a protected reserve -- and it is difficult to believe that he did not know -- Palmer showed no regard for the role the animal played in its pride and in the park ecosystem as well. Palmer was also untroubled by killing an animal that was part of a scientific study; Cecil was clearly wearing a GPS tracking collar. Cecil, a mighty and photogenic beast with a mane streaked black, was well known and had become a magnet for tourists. Finally, Palmer apparently never cared that he caused the lion pain and suffering when he first wounded it with an arrow. By my lights, that makes Palmer a man on a mission to bag a trophy no matter what.

More than six decades ago, the hunter and founder of the modern environmental movement, Aldo Leopold, was harsh in his estimation of sportsmen: "The disquieting thing ... is the trophy hunter who never grows up ...To enjoy he must possess, invade, appropriate. Hence the wilderness he cannot personally see has no value to him. ..."

Whatever you call him, Palmer does not represent the majority of hunters. For many hunters, the pleasure of the chase comes from learning everything they can about the animals they hunt and then spending time in the natural world. As early as the 19th century, some hunters have also been at the forefront of protecting wildlife and the wild areas they need in order to survive.

For example, the hunter and wildlife biologist Victor Van Ballenberghe, who is an outspoken critics of Alaska's wolf-killing campaign, defines a successful hunt in terms of the total experience. He says one of his fondest memories of hunting in Alaska occurred after he'd shot a moose and was able to pack only some of it out. He heard wolves howling throughout the night, and when he got back to his animal, he found that "wolves had eaten eight or ten pounds of moose meat -- which I was willing to share for the experience of hearing them howl." That hunt, he says, "stands out in my memory as one of the greatest times that I ever had." Hunting is not really about the killing, he adds, because a large percentage of the time "you don't come home with anything, and yet it's satisfying."

Hunters who rely on skill have little respect for sportsmen. About the Zimbabwean hunt, Van Ballenberghe says, "Deliberately baiting a lion habituated to humans out of a protected area to kill it is a serious breach of hunting ethics and should be denounced by concerned hunters everywhere." The Wyoming hunter and author, David Zoby, adds, "Palmer and his ilk would most likely perish if left alone in the African wilds. They have no skill, no local knowledge, no understanding of the species they are there to collect. These 'trophies' are simply objects that wealthy sportsmen feel entitled to once their checks have been cashed."

Although it may be late in the day for Dr. Palmer to follow Leopold's advice and "grow up," many people like him have been able to move beyond the materialistic goals of killing wildlife. As a young man, for example, Theodore Roosevelt's response to what appeared to be the likely extinction of the American bison was to hire a guide and kill one. In his later years, however, Roosevelt took bold action that led to saving species.

Aldo Leopold is another man who learned from experience. In the 1920s, he advocated eradicating wolves and mountain lions from the Southwest. By the 1940s, he had become aware of the role that apex predators play in ecosystems, and he maintained that these species had the right and also the need to exist.

Let's face it: The sportsman's quest for a trophy hasn't much to do with hunting, but it does constitute a threat to endangered species, wilderness, indigenous hunters and ecotourism.

Alex Simon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is associate professor of sociology and environmental studies at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah.

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