For Cecil, the suddenly world-famous lion who was illegally shot and killed this week, rest has come suddenly and brutally at the hands of his greatest enemy, man. Having survived epic battles with major rivals and subsequently establishing his own pride of some 22 members, the lion sleeps tonight, no longer part of this complex environment we call life on earth.
The reaction to this event has been immediate and overwhelming. People from around the world have expressed outrage and sadness over the death of a lion. Calls for criminal prosecution, extradition of the shooter, changes in law governing big game hunting and significant fundraising for animal protection have all occurred within days. The anger and frustration over the death of this lion has been extraordinary.
And so has my perplexity. I count myself among those who dislike the entire perspective of big game hunting. I felt the same sadness and revulsion as others upon hearing of the unsportsmanlike slaughter of the lion. But I am also bewildered at the relative lack of care about the people who share space with other big game of the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. As beloved as the lion may have been, there are other magnificent creatures in the area, not the least of which are people. And despite the dire circumstances in which these human creatures find themselves, we seem to have a hard time generating much outrage or empathy for them. Certainly, not even close to the tsunami of reaction engendered by the death of a single lion.
What are we to make of that? Do we somehow harbor feelings of greater admiration and value for lions than fellow humans? Is there a difference in reaction because the lion was a known subject of research and the masses are faceless and nameless “others?” What are the factors that permit us to all but ignore the plight of millions of people?
I suspect that those factors have something to do with the anonymity of the populace in need. Talk to me about the plight of tens of thousands of people and I move away, too overwhelmed by the numbers and the belief that I could never solve problems of such magnitude. But describe the killing of a single lion, lured from a protected zone, and I can become emotional about that.
Or maybe it has to do with a name. Most lions don’t have names, but Cecil did. The lion was personified. His personality was well-documented. He was identifiable and we knew something about him as an individual. Even the name itself contributed to a connection with this lion. (Older adults may still recall a favorite animated TV series from their childhoods, Beanie and Cecil. Those of a younger generation might simply see the name Cecil as a sort of antiquated and “nerdy” name deserving of an emotional cuddle.) A name provides an identity.
Whatever psychological science lies behind the Cecil phenomenon, there’s a greater sadness and tragedy in this story that is too important to miss. As beautiful and symbolic as Cecil may have been, his loss pales in comparison to the excruciating and largely unnecessary losses of human lives in Zimbabwe (and elsewhere in the world). Unless we do, in fact, value lions’ lives over those of human beings, there is an absence of both logic and emotion in the needless conditions of Cecil’s human neighbors that we simply do not acknowledge.
Imagine yourself as the parent of a newborn child who lacks for adequate food and water for survival, and wondering how the world’s attention could so dramatically rally at the death of an animal when the life of your precious son or daughter literally hangs in the balance. For you, the ignominy of being forgotten is further magnified by the world’s outcry on behalf of a slain animal.
As an outdoors aficionado, I will miss Cecil. His loss diminishes us both actually and symbolically, which perhaps offers yet another explanation for the world’s indignity at the story. “We need the tonic of the wilderness” wrote Thoreau, and especially the fantastic creatures which inhabit it. But as we grieve the loss of one such wonder, let’s not lose perspective. The lion may sleep tonight, but an anxious mother in Zimbabwe lies awake, in wonder and fear about the source of tomorrow’s needs, and worried about her greatest threats, invisibility from you and me….