Much Ado About Cecil

My good friend Karen and her partner Jamie just returned from three weeks in Africa where they went to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, whose mission is to rescue elephants. Mostly they rescue babies who are orphaned because their parents are hunted for their ivory and then left to die with the babies also left there, witnessing the whole thing. And, if you know anything about the recent research regarding elephant intelligence and social bonding, you know what this means for these babies. Upon her return, she shared the details about the situation regarding elephants throughout Africa and beyond – one is killed every 15 minutes somewhere in the world (see www.iworry.org for more information).

Shortly after her return Cecil the Lion was killed by Dr. Walter Palmer, a Twin Cities dentist and big game hunter. Two days after the news broke Karen joined 250 other people protesting at his office, effectively shutting it down for two weeks. As the furor over Cecil was shared globally and nationally some interesting dynamics arose, the most common of which was a critique that went something like this: “With all of the incredibly important and substantial issues both globally and locally, isn’t it odd that we are caring this much for one lion? How many people starve every day on this planet? Or, how many men of color are killed by the police every year in the U.S.? Aren’t those more important issues?” Another friend’s priest offered up this exact critique from the pulpit just a few Sundays ago.

To be sure the range of pressing needs domestically and globally are substantial. And, in comparison to the horrors many folks trying to migrate to Europe face, the ongoing systematic murder of Black and Brown folks by structures of power in the U.S., the concerns regarding climate change, and the economic reality that by 2016 1% of the world’s population will hold more wealth than the rest of the entire world (see Oxfam International’s report “Wealth: Having it All and Wanting More“), Cecil’s death as an isolated incident can seem almost trivial. And yet, while we hold in balance the magnitude of need for our human community, it seems problematic to dismiss out of hand the concern regarding Cecil. I say this because for me the issues surrounding Cecil connect to so many of these other issues demanding our attention, and thus his death (as well as the inevitable death of his six pups that the new alpha male will kill to establish his dominance, meaning that Dr. Palmer actually killed seven lions that day) can serve as a vehicle for a more deeply and broadly interconnected conversation and analysis of our global reality. After all, this is fundamental to our work as social justice educators – unpacking siloed content to make connections to the many intersections and interdependencies found with systems of oppression. And in that spirit I’d like to share a few thoughts about Cecil.

First, let’s interrogate the thinking behind the death of Cecil. It should not be lost on anyone that Walter Palmer is a White, U.S. male with substantial economic access. Thus the meaning of a man with these social identities and resources, heading to Africa and knowingly poaching in order to obtain his sporting desire is one of countless examples of the hubris and disregard fostered by White, Western, imperialist hegemonic ideologies. I say Walter Palmer knowingly poached, because he cannot simultaneously assert that he is “an expert big game hunter and always hunts within the bounds of the law” and suggest that he did not know they were poaching or breaking the law. And so, in reality this is one small example of the broader scope of 500 years of Western countries running roughshod over the lives, laws and lands of Africa and people of African descent. I’m not saying Dr. Palmer was intentionally coming from this space. What I am saying is that the arrogance that made him think he could do it and get away with it, and the very notion that the laws of Zimbabwe or of nature do not apply to him, make him one of endless manifestations of the ethos of Western colonialism and imperialism. This is the conversation I would like to be having with respect to Cecil the Lion’s murder. Why not talk about the fact that Western, market-driven, neo-liberal and neo-colonial forces are in play with the extermination of Cecil and countless species on this planet and that human actions are fundamentally threatening this planet’s ecological balance? Why are we not talking about the ideologies of dominance that support Dr. Palmer’s actions and make his worldview normative to so many in the West? This, I think, would make the death of Cecil and his cubs at least not be in vain.

Second, to suggest that the conversation about Cecil is somehow separate from other social issues belies the deep and complicated interconnectivity of so many of today’s major social concerns. For example, part of the reason those two guides were knowingly breaking the law was that they were facing difficult economic times and needed Dr. Palmer’s money – money they would get if he in turn got what he wanted. You just have to take one step back to then connect issues of poverty and the way the wealthy West (and increasingly in recent pan-African history, China) has used its economic, political and social resources to maintain an economic hold on so many parts of the continent and thereby brazenly absconded with so many of its resources. It takes only one more step back to see how this poverty has arisen in part from the IMF and World Bank, and the neo-liberal economic systems they represent, which have forced countless nations in Africa, Central America (and more recently in Europe) to cleave to consumptive, “developed”, and tiered economic policies and programs which inevitably lead to systems of “have’s” and “have not’s”. One more step back will then locate how these long-standing economic realities impact women and children, inform the AIDS epidemic throughout the continent, shaped the world’s lethargic response to the Ebola crisis, informed Europe’s reaction to the massive waves of migrants attempting to enter, and shaped an overall paternalistic and dehumanizing approach by the West to Africa for the last 500 years. In this way, the death of Cecil could have helped us all go more deeply into a conversation about the profound interconnectivity of various issues as opposed to placing them in competition with each other. Pope Francis demonstrated the former disposition in his recent encyclical when he made direct connections between climate change and poverty, the trafficking of women and children, and mass migration (thereby demanding a deep reevaluation of immigration law). All social justice issues are related and we would do well as educators and activists to remember that and work harder to make those connections. There is room for everyone and every movement, and we will be most effective when we stay connected.

Third, Cecil’s death can help us all consider our relationship to the natural world. His being hunted as trophy and “sport” is emblematic of Westerners’ view of the natural world as a whole – that nature is meant to be dominated, controlled, and is there simply for the use of humanity. This idea is not new, but Dr. Palmer’s approach to big game hunting as a whole echoes this brazen arrogance toward the natural world. Shortly after the story broke he mentioned that he does not talk about his big game hunting with his dental patients because it is often a controversial and emotionally charged issue. Unfortunately, that realization did not give Dr. Palmer reason to consider whether what he was doing was right, it just made him do it less overtly. Similarly, the carbon industry has known for decades that the climate scientists are completely correct in their assessment of what increased CO2 will do to this planet, and yet instead of ceasing or reworking their industry, they simply become less and less public about the destruction they are wreaking. Short-term financial gains (and the subsequent destruction of the planet) strongly outweigh the long-term consequences. Similarly, the short-term desires of Dr. Palmer hugely outweighed any chance at conscience, humility or accountability that might have helped him see the absurdity of what he was doing.

There are still other points to be gleaned from this case but I do not want to belabor the point. Simply put, Cecil the Lion’s death could have served as a touch-point not only for animal conservation but an incredible range of other topics and issues, all of which demand our attention and resources. Unfortunately, mainstream corporate media chose not to address these connections and instead kept his death as a siloed issue, replete with drama and sensationalism, but devoid of depth and complexity. The onus, therefore, is on all of us to not let any incident such as this be reduced to its barest of meaning and instead seek out complexity and connections so that we can strengthen all of our social justice work.

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