An army of stuffed animals are gathered outside of a dental office in Bloomington, Minnesota. These toys have been placed by various community members as they mourn Cecil the lion who was killed by hunter and dentist Dr. Walter Palmer. The now infamous lion-killer, however, is nowhere to be found. Instead of spending time debating the legality of Dr. Palmer’s actions, such as the controversy surrounding his luring of Cecil using bait, it might be worthwhile to explore the way in which the human community has responded to this animal’s tragic death.
There are hundreds of human interest stories that saturate the airwaves. Each story, of course, is depicted in a different way, with some sensationalized and others completely misunderstood. But the most common result of the breaking of any major news story is controversy. The content that the media decides to report on in and of itself is a form of revelation that exposes that which matters to society as a whole. The attention any story manages to attract thereby reveals its value, at least in the eyes of viewers.
Lack of media attention to those who are oppressed or unjustly treated is an all-too-familiar concern, with many individuals and their interests completely neglected. When media outlets do choose to shed light on those facing systematic injustices, the manner in which they are then depicted is also of significance worth noting. Whether media channels decide to portray and consider Black Lives Matter protestors, for instance, as “criminal thugs” or “social activists” reveals underlying attitudes that may elicit a spectrum of responses, as viewers try to come to terms with what their own feelings may be.
The story of Cecil’s brutal killing left many unnerved. Stories and instances of animal abuse have been garnering the attention of media for quite some time now, with reports occasionally surfacing regarding festivities that involve dog meat to the outrage against SeaWorld sparked by the documentary Blackfish. However, this certain news story has lasted longer than a shared Facebook post. It’s captured the nation’s attention, turning this devastating act of violence into an opportunity to finally discuss not only the barbarism of trophy hunting in general, but moreover, to hold meaningful dialogue surrounding our apparent “right” to take the life of another sentient being. I propose that this isn’t a unique case that emerges and then will fade away, but rather, will serve as a catalyst leading to the exposition of strings of other animal injustices imposed by humans.
Before stumbling into the territory of animal interests, it is worthwhile to address a very legitimate concern that has surfaced in the wake of this tragedy. This issue concerns Cecil’s death being nearly unanimously considered unjust, with thousands mourning for the killed lion, whereas many activists from other movements grow even more disgruntled with the lack of attention they have received for their causes. Furthermore, even when protestors, such as those in the Black Lives Matter movement, try to get the nation to seriously care about the waves of deaths occurring throughout the nation on a regular basis, the increasingly frustrating rhetoric of victim-blaming rears its ugly head, shifting the responsibility to the black individuals who were murdered, by painting them as morally bad characters, thereby only exposing the issue of racism that still permeates throughout society. Is it then morally wrong, or at least insulting, to take away from this movement to spend time discussing and mourning the death of Cecil, a lion? Yes and no. Let me explain.
This unanimous outcry is revealing. It exposes how difficult it is for people to overtly reveal their prejudice against a creature who does not even have the capacity to do moral wrong. It is, however, far easier, to accuse fellow humans of wrongdoing. Thus, the attention given to Cecil the lion does indeed expose America’s current uneasiness with truly dealing with modern-day racism. This does not mean that we should not be discussing Cecil’s death either though. Now that the spotlight has finally fallen on an animal, it is time to take this story and run with it, to use it as a chance to erect a platform for conversation.
After the killing, both the United States and the United Nations are planning to take action. This in and of itself reveals that the spread of this news story has produced concrete action that is being carried out. Furthermore, approximately $1-million were spent to, quite literally, “shed light” on this issue by projecting images of endangered species on the Empire State Building. The story of Cecil’s untimely death left many shaken, including late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel who almost broke down on camera while recounting the horrific story of his death. Cecil’s death has led to outrage and tears. But why exactly do we not mourn for all of the other animals, including humans, lost?
A recent article brilliantly explains the phenomenon of “charismatic megafauna,” the category of animals that people generally care about. These are the staple species that humans empathize with. They impress us. They’re large, like elephants or whales, they’re intelligent like chimpanzees and dolphins, they’re majestic like lions and tigers. Charismatic megafauna are the cisgender white straight men of the animal kingdom. We humans do in fact “discriminate” against a number, millions, of species on a regular basis. My goal here is not to morally scrutinize individuals, but rather to call attention to this occurrence, to recognize this as a commonly occurring but usually ignored phenomenon. Perhaps one day, Peter Singer’s now popularized term, speciesism, will be on par with other varieties of social discrimination: sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc.
I don’t know what Cecil’s death will necessarily lead to. There may be new legislation. There may be widespread media coverage. There may be a dentist who will be spending years behind bars. I’m not sure. What I do know is Cecil’s death, if anything, ought to prompt the socially conscious to begin to extend their concern, their compassion, to those who are being ticked off the face of the earth faster than ever before, all because of an arbitrarily and societally constructed boundary that we as humans have become all too familiar with.
This article was written by Amar Ojha, founder and writer at dusk magazine.