The Martyrdom of Cecil the Lion

Earlier this year, I sit in the passenger seat of a land rover with my partner driving down a dusty dirt road. We’re traversing our way through Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. We’re camping, our little tent tilting in the Mara’s wind, lit by the most brilliant of stars, and visited by elephants and zebra and buffalo and lions in the night. We’ve wrecked nearly three tires on the roads, but every breakdown is an occasion to take in the wildness of the place.

When it comes to other human creatures, we are alone, hanging out occasionally with Kenyan Forest Service. There are false perceptions that ebola is in East Africa and that terrorism abounds, and the parks have emptied of the usual tourists and missionaries (tourists themselves, in the neocolonial sense).

askbadgeWilliam and I pack up the tent for the night and we get up early, go for a morning drive, as is our usual custom (he grew up here). The morning breeze whipping by the windows is a kind of relief for the afternoon, which we know will be hot. We are driving down through a fairly empty area of the Mara, the road curves around a mound to the left ahead, when a figure—larger and larger, closer and closer—works its way towards us. We stop the car.

The male lion, left side of his face scarred, walks down the road. He walks calmly three feet away from the rover, stops for a good few minutes, breathes deeply, and keeps walking. A chill runs down your spine at this encounter—there is nothing more awe-inspiring and terrifying than a lion’s confidence. (Some of you may recall the incredible photograph Atif Saeed recently took.)

Anything can happen between a wild animal and a human in the Anthropocene—it’s not surprising that gods and kings took the beast as the metaphors and symbols of their sovereign rule.

The memory of that passing moment came rushing back to me yesterday as social networks filled up with the news that Cecil the lion’s killer had been identified. Earlier, I heard reports that the beloved thirteen-year-old lion, with its beautiful, distinctive black mane, had been murdered and decapitated. Yet no one seemed to know exact facts beyond that.

What makes this event particularly scandalous is where Cecil’s corpse was found, just outside of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. While permitted lion hunting is allowed in Zimbabwe, such actions are forbidden inside the park. The lion, known to visitors and locals alike, had been baited (and questions of illegality abound here) out of the park.

The story broke yesterday that a Minnesota dentist, Walter Palmer had paid nearly $55,000 to hunt a lion, which turned out to be Cecil, in Zimbabwe. Palmer hired guides and supposedly acquired permits for the sake of bow hunting. His hunting exploits are well-documented, tens of animals (some endangered). He’s apparently been in trouble for permits before as well. More of Palmer’s backstory and the charges that they may face can be found at The Telegraph here

Palmer shot Cecil with a bow. Cecil lived for forty more hours until they could track him. As Cecil was collared and part of a scientific study, they removed his collar and proceeded the grueling process of cutting through his flesh, removing his head, and skinning him for a trophy. Let’s be clear here: forty hours isn’t a humane way for anything to die, especially an animal already precariously in the balance of ecological care.

Like many others, I find the sport hunting of such animals morally and spiritually offensive. Public sparks of outrage often follow high-profile hunting events like these. Jimmy Kimmel nearly broke into tears on his show describing the event. Recognizing the pop-value of the news, Buzzfeed tracked all the reactions to Palmer’s story.

The outrage is often directed (in some ways rightly) toward an individual. The events often make news due to the “celebrity” status of large animals like lions. Last year the press picked up the controversies surrounding nineteen-year-old Kendall Jones as she posted pictures of animals she’d killed in Africa. Last year Corey Knowlton bid $350,000 to hunt an endangered black rhino in Namibia. To defend themselves, both twistedly argued that the hunts were for the sake of conservation efforts.

But these hunting-acts are just high-profile features in a much deeper, insidious lineage; hunting-acts like these fall within a larger theological history of environmental, gendered, and colonial injustice.

Zimbabwe is home to what are often referred to as the “Big Five” in Africa. The African elephant, the Cape buffalo, the African leopard, the rhinoceros, and, of course, the African lion compose the celebrity group of animals for the hunter. They each made this list not because of size or rarity, but because of the danger supposedly involved in hunting them on foot. Each of these can be quite ferocious to a human being endangering them.

The term “Big Five” came into being during Africa’s colonial and neocolonial periods, with Western hunters traveling to East Africa in particular to collect their trophies, tales of epic spiritual and natural struggle, and human conquest. A distinctively American form of Big Game hunting can be traced as well. Famously, Teddy Roosevelt headed to East Africa in the name of science (and Western Masculinity, I would add) to bag the Big Five for himself. The term morphed into use for the tourist industry, safari-goers paying big bucks for guides to track down the five.

Such activities, for sport, usually served to demonstrate the God-given “dominion” of human beings over the “chaotic” and “morally dubious” wilderness of the natural world, women, other cultures, and queer bodies. In that narrative, Western rationality conquers and colonizes nature and “civilizes” the African continent. The violence committed towards human and nonhuman life alike occurs together.

As my friend and colleague Peter Anthony Mena wrote yesterday:

The murder of this amazing creature is as much a symptom of white wealth and privilege that seeks to perpetuate false ideas of domination and violence, as the racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist ideologies that undergird the murders of minoritized, marginalized, and oppressed people. In other words, this heinous act, is as much a part of the problems many of us must be troubled by and concerned with.

We need to recognize that big game hunting is not a one-time event. Western game hunters will always claim they hold the “right permits” or that this hunt was a “once in a lifetime thing” or, as I mentioned earlier, worse, that they believe their hunting actually contributes to ecological management. The vast majority of hunters never study actual wildlife management, taken a course in forest or ecological systems, or remotely comprehend the ramifications of the killing they plan to undertake. Like colonizers before them, they step over cultures they neither appreciate nor can navigate.

By killing Cecil, Palmer’s actions likely also sentenced Cecil’s twelve cubs to death by a rival lion. A new male leader in a pride usually means the death of all cubs fathered by the former male. That’s hardly a small ecological impact.

Beyond Palmer, there is a longer theological history to human and lion interactions. In her book, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals (Baylor University Press, 2010), Laura Hobgood-Oster unfolds the connections between theological histories of these animals, hunting, and sport. She observes that in a number of apocryphal stories, lions and Christians (usually women) are thrown into the arena for the entertainment of the Roman Empire. Hunting, executions, and fights used animals and human others for the sake of gruesome entertainment.

In many of these stories, the animals refuse to kill the martyr, thereby witnessing to their faith and innocence. But the games reinforced the dominance of the Empire, left bodies behind, and depleted biodiversity in their wake. Such events displayed masculinity and imperial power over their “wild” subjects. Animals and humans become martyrs and witnesses of counterimperial power.

Sometimes that counterimperial witness gets lost. Sometimes traditions forget the potentials for animal and ecological justice nascent within them. Today, Christian hunting and safari organizations abound, arguing that sport hunting justly exercises God-given “dominion.” Neocolonial logics abound.

But other lion stories exist in Judaism and Christianity. Daniel is spared in the lions’ den. So is Thecla. C. S. Lewis’ Aslan does theological work. Saint Jerome lived with a companion lion. In one of my favorite Arthurian Romances, the 12th century French poet Chrétien de Troyes writes of the knight Yvain (you may know him as Gawain) traveling with a companion lion who he saved from a serpent. They have gallant adventures together.

None of these stories is unambiguously ecologically good. They weren’t meant to be. Maybe these stories are nostalgic or idealistic in the care they express between humans and wild animals. Imagining wild animals as cute, innocent companions isn’t helpful. Hunting them down as a display of masculinity or spiritual fulfillment is evil. But the different relations they imagine between human and other animals may open up sources of compassion and solidarity as well. These stories, in their strange entanglements of human and animal life, cause us to look differently on the animals we encounter on a day-to-day basis.

And that everydayness is precisely where the stories of these big game hunts and lions should lead us. We may not ever experience a lion walking down the road, sheer magnificence and power, but we do traverse a wilderness of a world where we encounter other animals daily. Whether wild or domestic or somewhere in between, we might think about our own attempts to order the wildness of life, human and nonhuman. We might think about our own practices of food and how those practices impact animal life. We might think more deeply and inquire into how wildlife is managed and how that same wildlife confronts us in our own ecological habitats.

Palmer is the villain in this story, but in the midst of a sixth great extinction, human-caused, the rest of us (especially in carbon-sucking countries) are not entirely free of culpability either. Perhaps the be best response to violence is to regard Cecil as a martyr, a witness that charges us to ask how we interact with, treat, respond to other creatures on a day-to-day basis.

Perhaps, like Jamie Lorimer does in his most recent book Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation After Nature (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), “think of the wild as the commons, the everyday affective site of human-nonhuman entanglement.” The wild we encounter daily in city streets and forest floors messes with our neat and false divisions of “nature” and “culture.” Our earth becomes a deeply political, feeling, and everyday space of relationsip.

Our lives are irreducibly entangled with other creatures. We feel them, we see them, they play with us, we choose not to see them, we’re seen by them. We remember them. They remember us.

Sometimes our interactions become the sites of violence and public mourning.

In the vast and beautiful commons that is this earth we share together, how might we celebrate, adapt, and build ecological civilizations? That bright black mane urges us to look at ourselves, to channel our rage into ecological care and justice. There are other Cecils in our wake. We must mourn them and seek justice for them as well.