Sparing A Thought For Cecil The Lion


Sometimes it’s nice not to think too hard about something you care about. The death of Cecil the lion triggered strong emotions in the public. The emotional reaction is understandable. Unfortunately, a world of happy lions requires thinking.

It is not hard to understand the outrage. ‘Rich dentist kills endangered lion with crossbow for $100,000’ is a fairly hideous sentence. There is the bespoke cruelty of using a medieval weapon. The mixture of colonialism and individualism displayed by taking a communal good, a magnificent lion, and planting it in on the wall of his home in the US of A.

Then there is our natural suspicion of people who harm animals for fun. If Walter Palmer tortured a cat in his backyard he would be considered an apprentice serial killer and given an appropriate criminal sentence. Pay $100,000 to bleed a bigger cat to death in a developing country and it’s a “sport”.

Soon after peak outrage, the engage your brain crowd stepped in for some counter-outrage. Leading from the front, animal rights activists declared they were tired of hearing about cruelty to animals from people who eat chicken. Endless think pieces were assembled, lecturing people on how factory farming was the cruelest thing you could imagine.

Vegetarians make good points, but are really annoying. In their eagerness to profess the purity of their faith, animal rights activists usually miss a chance to share parts of it.

The counter-outrage is easy to understand. Cecil’s death reached peak outrage. The dentist’s name and address were published, and a few iconoclasts dutifully dispatched themselves to his dentistry carrying “I am Cecil the Lion” placards.

An Animal psychic in the US claimed to have spoken to Cecil. Who else would Cecil reach out to from the dead, than an American in Washington State seeking to grow her animal medium business?

Jimmy Kimmel cried. It was really weird. Cecil wasn’t even a friend of the program.

However, as an on again off again vegetarian/pescatarian, I would have thought people that eat barrels of fried chicken are exactly who you want to hear from on animal rights. Those people are, if you are an animal rights activist, the problem.

The animating idea motivating Cecil outrage – that animals feel pain and should not suffer unnecessarily – is the starting point for re-thinking your participation in factory farming.

That thinking is uncomfortable. The production of both meat and dairy can involve some cruelty to animals. Cheese and meat are delicious. All I suggest to lovers of Cecil is give it some thought.

You might decide to go vegan. You might decide to only eat organically farmed meat. You might decide to only eat meat on Friday. For animal rights activists any of these choices are a win, as it would mean less cruelty.

You might not care. Good for you. As a moderately hopeless vegetarian I cannot judge. I’ve got exceptions for fresh water fish, and bad days. I always eat meat if I accidentally order it or someone serves it at an event. I’m polite before pious. I’m really only a vegetarian in theory. In practice I’m confused.

You might decide that this is about endangered species and safari hunts should be banned. If you do, your thinking is not done.

The Age in an editorial so earnest I suspect it was written by a latte come to life, argued for a ban safari hunts. Counter-intuitively such a position might be bad for lions. In The Conversation, Niki Rust and Diogo Verissimo point out that conservation costs money. Tourism money does not cut it. In Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, and Tanzania game hunting revenue is critical to conservation.

Sadly, dentists like Walter Palmer are unlikely to donate $100,000 to preserve Lion’s habitats. He’s not going to hang some thank you letter above his fireplace. He’s more likely to donate it to some Presidential candidate who wants to shut down the tax office, or buy some species of yacht. Unless the readers of The Age have a plan to bankroll conservation (maybe a kick-starter), letting rich folk kill them might be the price of preservation. Yes, thinking, depressing.

The killing of a lion understandably gets us worked up. The story is relatable, we all know a selfish rich git like Walter Palmer, and most people have seen/endured the Lion King stage play. Self-righteous lectures about people’s right to care about Cecil seem misplaced. Caring about it is a mark of empathy.

However, if you do care don’t be empathetic in vain. There are plenty of things you can do to make the world slightly happier for our animal friends. This can include getting a dog, but come on, aim higher. Do it for Cecil. Think about how Cecil would feel if all the good that came from his death was Walter Palmer having a bad day, Jimmy Kimmel looking silly, and an animal psychic sold a few more books? Give it an hour of thought.

Mathew Kenneally is a stand up comedian who moonlights as a lawyer. He's a regular new Matilda columnist and is the co-author with Toby Halligan of the satirical blog Diary Leaks. He is also the co-founder of the topical comedy room Political Asylum.