Why Is Trophy Hunting So Disturbing?

Image courtesy of id-iom via Flickr

There’s very little that appears to disturb people more than trophy hunting.

This is evidenced by the vehement outrage expressed against the American dentist Walter Palmer, who paid $50,000 to shoot Cecil the lion, a protected and beloved celebrity cat from Zimbabwe. The cat was shot by Palmer with a crossbow after his guides lured him out of his sanctuary with bait.

The lion reportedly suffered a fatal gunshot 40 hours after the initial wound, then was skinned and beheaded (likely for mounting next to Palmer’s other trophies, which include a polar bear, mountain lion, buffalo, and 40 other kills). His body was left behind.

Studied and tracked by Oxford scientists since 1999, the friendly cat was a local favorite that attracted many tourists. Palmer allegedly believed the hunt to be legal and was unaware of Cecil’s status.

Though the issue of trophy hunting — and in this case, trophy hunting gone terribly wrong — is complicated, the response to this incident makes at least one thing clear: many people despise hunters that kill endangered species for sport.

Trophy hunting: Countering claims

In Cecil’s situation, there are few arguments in favor, since the hunt was deemed unlawful. But trophy hunting can indeed be conducted legally, and some will argue, beneficially and responsibly.

Advocates of trophy hunting claim the following:

  • The money paid to hunt, plus the meat left over from big game hunted, benefits local communities and economies or is donated for conservation
  • Targets are typically older (Cecil was 13) “surplus animals” that won’t reproduce or be missed, or else are predators that might have been be killed anyway for human protection
  • By their reckoning, creatures like elephants, rhinos, and lions are not endangered, and trophy hunting incentivizes conservation

Those against trophy hunting counter these claims:

  • Only 3 percent of money actually goes to local communities, which benefit exponentially more with animals kept alive for tourist appeal
  • Targets are large, majestic alpha males in their prime, a counter-evolutionary tactic that exacerbates populations (for example, lion cubs are typically killed by the slain cat’s predecessor)
  • Though some elephants, rhinos, and lions aren’t technically endangered, many are threatened and dwindling. Studies show hunting leads to steep declines in population, for big cats especially

Trophy hunting also sets a bad precedent, conservationists say: that only rich foreigners can hunt in places like Africa, making trophy appear reminiscent of colonialism. Critics say it’s motivated by conspicuous consumption and dominance: reducing beauty to possession.

There are an estimated 32,000 lions left in the wild, and about 600 are killed by trophy hunters a year (about 60 percent by American hunters.)

It is agreed upon, however, that illegal poaching is a much greater threat than trophy hunting. Advocates say that trophy hunting a necessary evil, without which land would taken away from wildlife to be used for farming, which could accelerate population loss even more.

Trophy hunting: International Response

Regardless of legality and even impact on conservation, what seems to disturb people is that anyone would kill exotic animals for enjoyment rather than survival, and pay exorbitant amounts of money to do so.

To the non-hunter (and actual hunters, too), photos of affluent men (and women) smiling with carcases comes off as deranged, gratuitous, and cowardly.

Emotions aside, responses have been tremendous:

The public outrage, true to form in its extremity, resulted in doxxing, death threats, and livid Yelp reviews.

What it all means

As happens often online, ethical concerns spiral out of control and branch out into different avenues of blame: how dare we mourn a lion, when black Americans are being killed, or fetuses aborted? How dare we mourn a lion, and deign to eat the meat of tortured animals?

Such claims do speak to the our society’s selective and short attention span, but err in their assumption that care for lions somehow subtracts from care for people and other animals. Further, such claims are politically motivated, pointed attacks that are more often than not completely besides the point.

Even so, a shared hatred of this magnitude reveals just how many people are united in the assumption that there is something inherently heinous about killing for fun.

Ironically, “killing for fun” is basically the mantra for actual cats.  It stands to reason, though, that human beings of all socioeconomic statuses would be held to a higher standard than a feline predator — if not by law, in the court of public opinion.

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Jennifer Markert