Tamed | Untamed

What Cecil the lion’s death represents to us

Cecil the lion was illegally shot with a crossbow in Zimbabwe by a US hunter named Walter Palmer.
Andy Loveridge/Wildlife Conservation Research Unit
Cecil the lion was illegally shot with a crossbow in Zimbabwe by a US hunter named Walter Palmer.

During these last weeks we’ve seen reports about the lion named Cecil who was illegally shot with a crossbow in Zimbabwe by a US hunter named Walter Palmer. This caused such international fury that the president of Zimbabwe called Palmer a poacher, and President Obama has received more than 160,000 signatures petitioning that Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, be extradited to Zimbabwe for trial.

In contrast, a television commentator told viewers that more than 100 lions have been killed just this year in Zimbabwe and this is OK because big-game hunting produces a meaningful amount of the national income. According to the pundit, the reason Americans are so excited about this particular lion is because he had a name.

I don’t think so. As for the national income, hunting does indeed contribute, if not nearly as much as tourism for the purpose of seeing wild animals. Palmer allegedly paid $50,000 for the privilege of killing a lion, a normal price for big-game hunters, but usually such money goes to safari companies owned by white expatriates who organize the hunts and serve as guides.


And as for public sentiment, we weren’t told about 100 lions, only about one. We were shown a video of a dying lion — possibly a different lion — lying on his side trying to breathe, his eyes open and searching, surrounded by those who shot him taking photos of him, and we were outraged that people took pleasure in such a disaster. And by the way, Palmer gets no credit for using a bow and arrow — a modern crossbow used for hunting big game is a powerful, complicated machine that fires a large steel arrow, perfectly capable of killing a lion slowly and painfully, with no resemblance to what an ordinary archer might use.

/Kathy Willens/Associated Press
A lion’s head and skin from an East African safari expedition, donated circa 1908-10 by former President Theodore Roosevelt, a big-game hunter and conservationist, decorates the trophy room of The Explorers Club in New York.
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But maybe the lion’s name is important. Most animals — the vertebrates anyway — don’t look like us or behave as we do or communicate in ways we understand, which is why we see them as lowly and different. Perhaps a name makes them seem more important or, in other words, more like us.

This gives a more accurate impression because in every way that matters, such as having consciousness, memory, thoughts, and emotions, animals are almost exactly like us, which isn’t surprising because we are animals too.

At the time of this writing, comments on the lion’s killing are still circulating on Twitter and other social media, including comments by people who criticize those who mourn for the lion “because children are starving,” they say. But it’s entirely possible to feel concern for all animals of all ages, young or old, human or otherwise, especially if you don’t consider the other animals as things. And this particular event involved an intelligent, sentient being much like ourselves with a family and responsibilities. Those who mourn the lion understand this and those who criticize the mourners don’t.

An important book by Carl Safina, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” was published in July (Henry Holt and Co.). Safina, who is highly respected for his intensive field work, presents detailed, mind-blowing accounts of what he’s actually seen animals doing, displaying their consciousness, their reasoning, their knowledge, their memory, and their emotions. His accounts are exact and convincing, suggesting that all who still believe that animals lack these qualities know significantly less about animals than animals know about them.


Perhaps shooting elephants and lions makes their killers feel powerful. But they’re wussies compared to our ancestors, savanna hunter-gatherers who lived with lions but did not hunt them. Nor did the lions hunt the people. About 60 years ago it was my privilege to live with Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia when an encampment of people and a pride of lions were the owners of every source of water. The people moved about by day and the lions moved about by night, hunting the same game in much the same way, using the same water, and keeping a truce that had pertained for hundreds of years to the benefit of all and arose because the two species knew and understood each other.

Once when I was in Etosha Park, Namibia, taking part in an elephant study, I was sitting on the ground, fixing something inside a small fenced enclosure made to protect the park wardens who patrolled on horseback. On the other side of the fence a lioness was watching me work. I yawned. She yawned too. Amazed, I waited a moment and yawned again. She yawned again. She did this several times, stopping when she saw I was messing with her. But she had been watching me with empathy (very different from sympathy). She wanted to know what about me was like her. Since we were pretty much the same, we both found yawning catching. It’s is how animals study animals. If we did the same, we’d find better ways of spending $50,000.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is a naturalist and the author of several books, including “The Hidden Life of Dogs,” and “The Old Way.” Send questions about animals to syandlizletters@