“If I come back to this earth, I’m coming back as an animal,” rock musician and television celebrity Ozzy Osbourne told Spin Magazine in 1986. “People in this world do far more good for animals than they do for people. If a guy is stuck up a tree, they’ll leave him there.”
Fast-forwarding nearly thirty years, an American dentist named Walter Palmer recently killed a 13-year-old protected lion for the sum of $55,000. A beloved member of the local community, Cecil was a major attraction at the Hwange National park in Matabelelland North in Zimbabwe. Prior to his demise, Cecil’s movements had been tracked by researchers from the University of Oxford as part of a larger study on animal behavior (attempts to destroy Cecil’s GPS tracking collar after decapitation were unsuccessful), and the hunters claimed his skin as a “trophy” following the hunt.
Dr. Palmer’s slaying of the cherished animal drew international media attention, sparking outrage among animal conservationists, politicians, businesses and celebrities. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel was moved to tears during his monologue, Piers Morgan suggested mounting Dr. Palmer’s head on a wall, and a cohort of airlines put a ban on transporting game trophies on their planes. The Zimbabwean government is seeking extradition for Dr. Palmer, as of this writing, and two other men have been prosecuted for the roles they played in planning and carrying out the hunt.
The consequences for Dr. Palmer’s actions have extended to within the borders of his home country. Recent acts of vigilantism evince a relentless urgency to condemn everything related to Dr. Palmer, his River Bluff Dental practice and his personal life. The practice’s Yelp page is swollen with negative reviews; Dr. Palmer’s credentials are the subject of online satire (“now kids are asking their dentists if they plan on murdering Bambi or the Easter Bunny”); cyber shaming threads continue to pile up on Reddit and Imgur news feeds; and persistent threats of physical violence have led to the removal of River Bluff’s Twitter and Facebook accounts (including one attempt at a temporarily renamed Facebook page).
Today, the River Buff Dental practice is closed and Dr. Palmer remains in seclusion, his only communication taking the form of a written statement of apology issued through a Minneapolis-based public relations firm. Crisis management experts have largely minimized their involvement in the case, however, for fear that the Internet backlash would soon pulverize their own livelihoods.
Whatever our individual views on hunting in general, there’s a lot to dislike when examining the intentions of Walter Palmer. There is no lens of logic through which the slaying of Cecil can be viewed as anything but gratuitously cruel. The lion was tracked for 40 hours and purposely led away from the sanctuary before he was beheaded and skinned, his corpse left to rot on the Zimbabwean landscape. Brutality is ugly business, and it’s not difficult to see how quickly escalation can occur via social media. One day we’re using the “#WeAreCecil” hashtag to generate support; the next, we’re issuing a public call for digital mob justice.
I'm personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.
— roxane gay (@rgay) July 29, 2015
Amid the #WeAreCecil vitriol, however, emerged a single tweet that perhaps served to embed a more reflective (if acerbic) viewpoint. Author Roxane Gay made it very clear what she meant when she announced on Twitter that “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.” In her op-ed piece for the New York Times, Ms. Gay forces us to consider an uncomfortable dichotomy, one that questions our ability to mourn the passing of human and non-human lives on equal terms:
Cecil the lion was a majestic creature and a great many people mourn his death, the brutality of it, the senselessness of it. Some people also mourn the deaths, most recently, of Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose, but this mourning doesn’t seem to carry the same emotional tenor. A late-night television host did not cry on camera this week for human lives that have been lost. He certainly doesn’t have to. He did, however, cry for a lion and that’s worth thinking about.
The human brain has a constant need to form order from disorder, to find patterns of logic where there are none. We search for signs of premeditated instigation in one instance, because it helps us to rationalize the fear we have against our fellow humans—especially those who look different from us. In another scenario, one in which a sole human is the evil-doer, we are able to mourn the senselessness of the tragedy without any such assurances. Ms. Gay suggests that while both events are tragic, only one appears to warrant the tears of a late-night talk show host.
— j r a b b i t (@jrabbitmusic) July 30, 2015
When we stand together against something generally agreed to be egregious (9/11 comes to mind), social media can be a conduit to emotional catharsis: an almost celebratory experience in human interaction. At its worst, however, social media is a vehicle for excessive cyber shaming; it devolves our capacity for etiquette, self-awareness and decorum when and where such reactions are appropriate. We prioritize our level of engagement according to our values at the moment of exposure, ready to erupt at the slightest impulse. It’s randomized empathy kept at a low boil.
Not many people know that Zimbabwe is currently facing a food shortage crisis, the result of a botched government intervention forcing experienced farmers to relocate to less fertile territory. Questionable land reform bills have similarly degraded the nation’s economy, leaving more than two-thirds of its population facing acute electricity and water shortages. Given the circumstances, Zimbabwe residents admit to being distracted by other problems than the unlawful killing of a wild animal. It’s not the sort of thing that generates a celebrity response on Twitter, perhaps, but to paraphrase Roxane Gay: we did at least cry for a lion and that’s worth thinking about.