If you’ve turned on your television, listened to the radio, hopped on social media, or checked out any news site in the past week, you know one thing for certain — everyone is mourning Cecil the Lion.
The 13-year-old lion from Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe has become a symbol of the way we treat animals the world over, while the man who hunted him, American dentist Walter Palmer, has become a pariah.
Cecil has been mentioned over 600,000 times in social media posts over the last week. Many of those posts are vilifying Cecil’s killer and calling for an end to hunting animals. In fact, nearly 200,000 people have signed a White House petition to have Palmer extradited to Zimbabwe to face criminal charges.
If you signed this petition, or gave money in Cecil’s honor, you’re nowhere close to alone. In fact, according to anecdotal evidence, people are more likely to give to animal charities than they are to those benefiting humans.
So why is it that we seemingly care more about Cecil the Lion than the countless people around the world facing immeasurable struggle? According to some experts, it’s all in the name.
“Most of the animals that we give names to, they fall into a very important category, which is pets,” Dr. Hal Herzog, professor and author of “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals,” told Opposing Views.
Herzog believes that through anthropomorphizing Cecil, humans have built a deeper connection with his story.
He additionally explained that Cecil belongs to a very special group of animals called “charismatic megafauna,” or large animals with popular appeal like elephants, whales, giraffes and of course, lions.
“There are many millions of species on earth,” Herzog said, “but the fact is that humans only care about a relative handful of them and a large proportion of those are these charismatic megafauna.”
But even that category, Herzog said, is still too small for what Cecil really was, and continues to be, to the public, noting that “he fell into the category of charismatic megafauna, but he himself is charismatic.”
And while we know for certain that Cecil was a majestic creature, we might not actually be so sure about our own feelings on how he died.
Humans have a long, twisted and morally complex history with animals. Few people understand that more than Dr. Jack Levin, a professor emeritus at Northeastern University and co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict.
“I don't think it’s about the animals; I think it’s about someone or something that is vulnerable and helpless,” Levin told Opposing Views on why he thinks the story of Cecil has garnered such immense attention.
In 2013, Levin and his research partner Arnold Arluke presented at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association with their study on whether humans really do care more about animals than other humans.
For their study, Levin and Arluke asked 240 students at Northeastern University to read one of four fictitious news stories. One depicted a 30-year-old human being severely beaten with a baseball bat. The other three depicted the same crime happening to a human infant, a dog and a puppy. The participants were then asked to rate how much sympathy and distress they felt for each of the assault victims.
"Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component,” Levin said while presenting at the meeting, Phys.org reported.
According to their study’s findings, humans care least about other adult humans. They care second least about adult dogs, second most about puppies and most about human infants.
“The bottom line is, we feel that 35-year-old adults can pretty much take care of themselves, but that’s not true of pets and infants and puppies, and they need help and we have more empathy,” Levin said.
Levin noted that the same kind of empathy is now being shown to Cecil.
“It’s the suffering, the vulnerability, the idea that Cecil was not just a wild animal even if he was in the wild,” he said.
Levin also echoed Herzog’s belief that often times the animals we feel most deeply connected to are those we anthropomorphize.
But while we may feel what happened to Cecil is wrong, had he been fairly hunted we might not have ever heard about this lion in the first place.
“People are often oblivious to the inconsistencies in their own moral world,” Herzog noted, adding that “the vast majority of people that are upset about Cecil probably approve of hunting.”
Herzog’s thesis may be correct. According to The National Shooting Sports Foundation’s 2013 report, 79 percent of Americans approve of hunting, marking the highest level of support for hunting since 1995.
And Palmer isn’t the first American hunter to head overseas to kill big game. According to The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, trophy-hunting tourists legally kill around 600 lions each year.
Bloomberg additionally reported that Zimbabwe’s elephant-hunting industry generates $14 million a year. Lion hunts in Zimbabwe can run upwards of $50,000 for a 10-day hunt, similar to the one Palmer went on.
However, just because it’s legal to hunt these megafauna does not mean they aren’t suffering in numbers.
According to the 2012 assessment of the African lion population, there are just 32,000 lions left in the wild there, down from 100,000 just 50 years ago.
But perhaps Cecil’s death will change that.
“There are some events which change the nature of the discourse,” Herzog said, noting examples like the film “Blackfish,” which created a major change in the way people think about orcas in captivity.
“I think Cecil may cause a rethinking of trophy hunting,” he said, adding that maybe “this will be the big one that gives trophy hunting a sufficiently bad name.”
Photo Credit: Wikicommons