Just when you thought you could count on the transient nature of the countless non-events our culture obsesses over, to ensure they ended up as just another prosaic blip in history, they somehow manage to live on and on and on. In this case, it would appear that the soul of Cecil the lion was not as mortal as we first thought and, like a kind of cultural poltergeist, his presence is once again still knocking around our contemporary mood.
To refresh your memory, Cecil was a lion who lived in the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and, as part of a long-term study, he was being monitored by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University. On July 1, 2015 Walter Palmer, a dentist from Eden Prairie, MN, shot and killed Cecil after he was lured out of the park by his two safari guides. Palmer’s guides were arrested and fined, and there was a call for Palmer himself to be investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency so that, if need be, he could be extradited back to Zimbabwe to face poaching charges. Palmer maintained that he assumed the huge price he paid for the hunt covered all of the paperwork and permits he needed to legally hunt the lion. This is exactly what a subsequent investigation found, so no charges were filed, and the matter came to an end. To be fair, the circumstances under which Cecil was killed were less than ideal, Palmer’s hunting record was later shown to be less than stellar, and not every hunter believed that the tactics used on these kinds of trophy hunts are all that sporting. Nevertheless, it was the virulent backlash over Cecil’s death that made this story one of the more memorable events of 2015.
Palmer was hounded, shamed, and even threatened with death on social media, on news and talk shows and in person, upon his return to Minnesota. So much so, that he had to go into hiding for two months as throngs of protesters carried signs, hurled insults, and left vindictive messages at his dental office and home, for days on end. Some even dressed their kids up in lion costumes who held signs that said, “Don’t hunt me” or engaged in little morality plays with people wearing lion masks pretending to hunt down Palmer with Nerf guns. Nevertheless, at long last the protester’s ire ran out of steam and they apparently remembered that they had lives of their own to attend to, and they disbanded.
The Cecil Effect
Jump ahead to February 23 of this year, as the ghost of Cecil returned from obscurity in what is now being called the “Cecil Effect.” Due to the negative fallout following Cecil’s death, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of lions hunted in Zimbabwe- a good thing, right? After all that’s what the protesters wanted, wasn’t it?
Well as it turns out, as even the most amateur of hunters could have predicted, there are now too many lions (about 500 too many) in Zimbabwe’s parks. So many in fact, they are becoming dangerous to have around, as one tour guide found out when he was killed by one when, out of fear of the possible repercussions to his company’s reputation, he decided not to shoot at an oncoming lion.
So what is the Zimbabwe Conservancy proposing? Well, at first there was an attempt by conservation groups to raise money to relocate them. However, as you might have heard amid all the recriminations being bandied about at the time of Cecil’s death, the Zimbabweans aren’t all that fond of lions. Unlike the protesters who don’t live in Zimbabwe, the country’s residents actually fear them, since dozens of them are killed by lions every year. To say nothing of the fact that big game hunting and tourism are about the only viable jobs in one of the worst run countries in the world.
So needless to say there is not a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the locals to take in these stray cats. Thus, they are planning to take the same course of action used in this country when the most aggressive members of a predatory species become too numerous- hunting them down. The Conservancy estimates that it will need to cull as many as 200 lions- almost four times the amount killed during normal hunting conditions. This is obviously the last thing that the people who were up in arms over Cecil’s death would’ve wanted, but since they have an idealized view of nature which doesn’t always comport with reality, it should come as no surprise that they didn’t see it coming.
Forgetting Our Place in the World
While opinions will certainly differ as to whether or not killing a lion for the sake of a one-of-a-kind conversation piece is a virtuous act, this is not the real tragedy here. What is most disturbing about this whole debacle is how it highlights the fact that our culture has apparently, at long last, jettisoned the last vestiges of its Western traditions. From both an intellectual and spiritual point of view, the ghost of Cecil the lion continues to haunt our culture to that point that we are having a hard time remembering who we are anymore.
The long-accepted notion that humans are, because of their intellectual and moral capacities, the pinnacle of a created order, has been razed by our culture’s pathological obsession with criticism and equality. In its wake we are left with a two-dimensional world that is all length and width but no depth, where humans are seen as just another animal among many, no better, no worse- although some will emphasize the ‘worst’ part.
However, because we are not animals who have an instinctual nature to fall back on, when our culture decides to renege on its demand that we act in accordance with our rational and moral capacities, we don’t become more animal-like. We actually become something much worse, and end up regressing to the human equivalent of instinct- our passions. These passions, which we used to be wary of because we believed or at least accepted that they were weighted down by a fallen nature, are now given full reign because they are seen as a means to a more compassionate and fulfilling life.
Thus at the same time we were witnessing the actions of those who allowed their passions (rather than their reason) to dictate how they viewed the killing of a wild animal whom they had anthropomorphized, there were a lot of other people who watched those same events unfold who were just not “feeling the love”. The utter contempt the protesters (some of whom held signs that actually said they were Cecil) had for Palmer, was comparable to the kind usually reserved for a rapist or child murderer.
It was precisely that kind of acrimony that made me realize how far our culture had regressed, to the point where it now has the same kind of attitudes about nature that our pagans ancestors did. This naturalistic worldview, unlike the idealized dreck portrayed in movies like Avatar, certainly looked at the world with a sense of wonderment, but not out of reverence. The sense of awe they had for nature, had more to do with a desire to hedge their bets against a mysterious and hostile world whose inhabitants endured lives of hardship and uncertainty. This ongoing sense of apprehension engendered in the minds of those pagans a desire to deify and thus worship the unseen forces of nature, while at the same time modeling the behavior they witnessed in it.
This is why when we look at how they really behaved in their lives, we can see how they had what appeared to be a reverence for nature, while at the same time being both suspicious and utterly disdainful of the lives of other people- life was cheap, because that’s the way it was and is, in nature. It is this same mindset that we see today in the actions of those who were angered over the death of Cecil the lion.
An Appetite for Destruction
Do you find this hard to believe? Is it so hard to think that underneath the protester’s signs and platitudes about respecting animals or nature, lies an abstract love of humaneness while paradoxically hating humanity? If you think that is hyperbole, then ask yourself how any of the following events could have occurred in a world that has a rational understanding of the value of human life versus that of an animal.
A woman who stood outside of Walker’s practice held a sign that said he “Illegally Murdered Lions for Fun…Justice for Zimbabwe.” Apparently, she felt that “justice” was something that was owed to a entire nation, on behalf of a dead animal, rather than to individual persons who feared being killed by lions, or who had to live under a brutal dictatorship.
Jimmy Kimmel, who was obviously conflating the sadness he felt over the death of Mufasa in the movie, The Lion King, with the death of Cecil, choked up before millions of people for an animal that he had never met and that would’ve tore him to pieces if he did.
Piers Morgan, the self-appointed defender of child victims of gun violence, wrote about how he wanted to hunt Palmer himself by shooting “a few arrows into his limbs to render him incapable of movement” and then “calmly walk over, skin him alive, cut his head from his neck, and took a bunch of photos of us all grinning inanely at his quivering flesh.”
Radio talk-show host Dennis Prager who has over the years, asked one question over and over again to his audiences: if you saw your favorite pet and a stranger drowning at the same time and you could only save one, who would you save? About a third the human, a third the pet, and a third said they didn’t know.
If this doesn’t demonstrate how our culture has reached the point where we are, as St. Paul says, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (Ro 1:23), then I don’t what will.
Putting Things Back Where They Belong
The time has come for all of us to reclaim, both literally and figuratively, our birthright, and to put our cultural heritage back together again. We can do this first by acting according to the nature for which we were created, and as a Christian, I understand this to mean that God has commanded us to,
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:28).
Moreover, as a Catholic (personally speaking), I know that that commission is supposed to be tempered by His other commandments. In this case it would be the seventh commandment, which Catechism of the Catholic Church expands upon the definition of “stealing” to include (emphasis added),
“Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.” (#2415)
What we see with these two injunctions, is a sort of virtuous mean between rank materialism that sees everything in nature as a means to an end, and the kind of environmentalism that ascribes a sort of sentience to nature that makes it the master and us the minions. In short, it is what most people call Conservation, i.e. the belief that only by recognizing our unique position in creation, can we fully understand that we have been blessed with a very special gift that we have a divine duty to care for.
“Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
This is what it means to fully recognize our true human nature, to accept our proper place in the world, and to seek the grace to have our nature and efforts perfected, not just for the benefit of the planet and all its inhabitants, but also in order to give glory to God. Its just that simple, and I for one am hoping that our culture will exorcise the ghost of Cecil once and for all, and to listening to the promptings of a different Spirit altogether.