About 18 years ago, when I worked for The Associated Press, I edited a story from the Mankato newspaper about a new “wildlife safari museum.” A local guy who enjoyed shooting exotic animals had filled a wing of his house with their stuffed carcasses. A leopard, a giraffe, a hippo, even an elephant (the front half, anyway, sliced like a ham) — some 25 animals, or parts of them, altogether. He threw in some African drums, spears and other artifacts and was charging $2 to $3 per visit.
Not that the story read like that. It was loaded with the kind of hunting euphemisms we’re seeing in the case of Cecil the lion and the Bloomington dentist. The Mankato man said he’d “collected” the African animals, as though he were picking up paintings at auction. He’d “bagged” them, “took” them, “harvested” them like potatoes.
There was no violence. There were no severed heads on the wall, no carcasses. Nothing had died. Nowhere did the writer say anyone had killed anything or even fired a shot.
So I did. In my edited version, I used plain, descriptive language and noted that elephants are internationally recognized as a threatened species. Readers would have asked: Is this legal? And I never suggested it wasn’t, just the facts: A man had traveled a long way and paid a lot of money to kill some of the most awe-inspiring and fast-disappearing creatures on Earth in order to display their dead bodies in Mankato.
The author was worried. He didn’t want to antagonize the man. By ditching the lingua franca of hunting, the story now made the man seem less like a generous local, sharing his “collection” to promote wildlife appreciation and conservation (the mission of the museum), and more like, well, a killer.
I felt bad. I believe the guy admired the animals he’d killed and hoped the species would survive. Indeed he believed his hunting would help.
But I’m no longer conflicted. There isn’t any sport in sport hunting. Not by the definition of sport: to compete against another for entertainment. Volleyball is sport. What the Flying Tomato does on his snowboard is sport. Cecil the lion did not know he was competing against anyone when he was allegedly lured out of his Zimbabwean sanctuary and killed.
In the last couple days, other hunters have risen from their pelt-covered armchairs to defend Cecil’s killer, Walter J. Palmer, as an honest and ethical man with a mere bow and arrow, as though he were shooting at leaves in the backyard with a stick on a rope, a suction cup at the end — not a weapon that the dentist could reportedly kill with from 100 yards away (though he allegedly used a bullet to assassinate Cecil, 40 hours after wounding him with an arrow).
A friend has come to Palmer’s defense, billed as a writer with a Harvard degree in Romance languages, as though “trophy hunting” were still the respectable pastime of pith-helmeted gentlemen. He and Palmer belong to a trophy-hunting club, a sporting organization unlike any other in that their competitors aren’t invited to join, except as heads on the wall. They have something called the North American Super Slam, which sounds like five days of tennis but is actually the deadly pursuit of 29 large mammals.
The friend has issued all the fuzzy hokum of big-game hunting. That these hunters are honorable and admirably skilled, could hit a grapefruit with an arrow at 100 yards, but would apparently rather kill animals. That these animals are dangerous, with claws and teeth and brains. All true. Like the brilliant swordsman in the first Indiana Jones movie, whirling his scimitar in the air — until Indy pulls out his gun and blows him away.
There’s the cliché about conservation. That hunters have a vested interest in seeing other species survive, so that they can continue to kill them. Which is true, except that many more people also want to see wildlife survive, including species that aren’t interesting to hunt. If Palmer was really concerned about protecting lions, whose population has recently fallen 50 percent, he could have given the $55,000 he reportedly paid for the privilege of killing one to a group that’s trying to keep them alive.
There’s the cliché about managing wildlife populations, the cliché about reverence for the animals.
But the most dangerous hokum might be what Palmer’s friend dropped like wisdom from atop a sedan chair: that we humans flatter ourselves by thinking we can outwit our fellow animals. Maybe in the 1970s we could still understandably have believed this, as I did growing up then, that we humans had our space and capacity for survival and all other species had theirs. But there are more than seven billion of us now, threatening almost everything else.
The truth is, we flatter ourselves that we’re kinder and gentler than we are. It took the killing of a lion with a name, a reputation and a collar to cause a moment of conscientious anger, even as the killings of many anonymous creatures go unnoticed — five endangered elephants just since Cecil’s demise.
One test of whether I made the right editorial decision, all those years ago, is if the story had been the other way around — if a lion, say, had killed a dentist. If I were to use the language we reserve for ourselves, I would have had to say it “harvested” him.
Tim Gihring is a former editor of Minnesota Monthly magazine. His reporting and essays have appeared in Best Food Writing, Fodor’s, Salon, and newspapers around the world. He authored the Star Tribune's Debut Dad blog last spring.