Justice for Cecil?

Unless you have been living in a state of self-imposed isolation, you are no doubt aware of the big news: On 1 July, just outside Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, an American dentist killed a lion.

Cecil, Hwange National Park’s most famous lion, was one of (initially) 62 lions being studied by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University. Cecil was particularly popular because he seemed to be accustomed to humans, and often allowed vehicles within ten metres of him to take photographs.

Walter Palmer is an American dentist and recreational hunter, who paid $50,000 to a professional hunter and guide to enable him to kill a lion. Zimbabwean authorities have declared that the permit purchased by Palmer was illegitimate and has declared the hunt illegal. The guide and the landowner of the farm on which Cecil was killed have both been arrested and criminally charged, and Zimbabwean authorities have formally requested that Palmer be extradited to face charges.

The killing did not attract immediate widespread attention, but when Palmer was positively identified as the hunter, animal rights activists, conservationists, politicians, celebrities and the general international public expressed outrage. Activists obtained and made public Palmer’s personal contact details. The outrage was such that Palmer was forced to close his practice, deactivate social media channels, and go into hiding. His house and holiday home have been vandalised and many have joined in the call to have him extradited. Police have even investigated death threats against the dentist.

Internationally, Cecil’s death became the top trending story across various social networks. A Google search for “Cecil the lion” returns (at the time of writing) some 122 million results. Meanwhile, back at the Zimbabwean ranch, Cecil’s demise went largely unnoticed. Even as his story was making headlines across the world, Zimbabwe’s acting information minister, Prisca Mupfumira, when asked for comment on the deceased lion, responded, “What lion?” In an article titled, “Cecil: what’s going on?” Kennedy Mavhumashava, assistant editor of Zimbabwe’s The Chronicle, wrote, “It is not an overstatement that almost 99.99 percent of Zimbabweans didn’t know about this animal until Monday. Now we have just learnt, thanks to the British media, that we had Africa’s most famous lion all along, an icon!” And when a Zimbabwean student studying in America received condolences over the death of Cecil, his reaction was, “Cecil who?”

The story has received a great deal of attention, and it will doubtless receive a great deal more. Thinking Christians have some interesting questions to face: How should we think about the killing of God’s animals? What is the biblical perspective on trophy hunting? Should we support calls for an American dentist to be extradited to Zimbabwe, a nation notorious for injustice, in order to face criminal charges and to receive justice for a slain lion?

These are all important questions, but my real concern in this post is about the international outrage, which has amounted to a form of mob justice. Angered activists are baying for blood, and have turned to social media to express their opinions. These opinions have not been without effect; as noted, Palmer has lost his practice, faced all sorts of threats, and has gone into hiding. How should we think about these things?

The first thing that needs to be said is that the Bible does not outright condemn the practice of killing animals. Humans are uniquely created in the image of God and human life is therefore exponentially more valuable than animal life. In the biblical worldview, the killing of an animal does not amount to murder. Palmer, by this action, is not a murderer, and should not face charges as one. In fact, far from calling for a murderer’s punishment for a hunter, the Bible in fact calls for a murderer’s punishment for animals who take human life (Genesis 9:5). This serves to highlight the value that God places on human life over animal life.

Of course, it must be said that the taking of animal life in Bible times was rarely for sport. Hunters hunted and farmers farmed for food. Priests killed animals for sacrifice. The closest statement in the Bible to trophy hunting is perhaps Proverbs 12:27, which reads, “Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth.” The one who kills but does not eat is here described as “slothful,” but the emphasis is on those who kill for food but are just too lazy to prepare it, not only those who hunt for sport.

While humans have dominion over animals, and while animals were created for human enjoyment and benefit, humans were given stewardship of animals. God cares about his creation and does not smile on the thoughtless destruction of his creatures. At the same time, there seems to be little, if anything, in the Bible that frowns upon hunting. If the hunter hunts because he takes delight in watching animals suffer, God is surely not pleased. But hunters who find sport in tracking and weaponry rarely leave animals to suffer in that way.

Sadly, many of the activists in this particular instance appear to be displaying a clear preference for animal life over human life. That is, they seem to value Cecil’s life higher than Palmer’s. Little thought has been given to destroying his property and livelihood. No respect has been shown for his privacy. Hateful words have flowed, even suggesting that Palmer should “rot in hell.” Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, went so far as to suggest that the dentist “needs to be extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged.” And all the while Cecil is mourned.

Further, while the world has expressed outrage over the killing of a single lion, where is the outrage over the murder and displacement of thousands of Zimbabwean citizens—human beings!—over the past thirty years? As the aforementioned Zimbabwean student in America observes, “We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.” There is much in Zimbabwe that warrants international attention; the hunting of one lion is probably not one of those things.

The outrage, of course, has not affected Palmer alone. His current lack of income surely has an impact on his family, and the closed offices means that his employees are likewise out of work. A Reddit suggestion that “his employees are better off working elsewhere” has garnered almost 1,500 votes of approval, though it is doubtful that any of those 1,500 supporters has offered employment to those affected.

In addition to its sheer callousness, another major problem with the mob mentality is that it is highly selective in its expression. While the killing of Cecil was the most talked-about story internationally when it broke, the poaching of five elephants in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park went largely unnoticed. For whatever reasons—the hunter was more unlikeable? the hunted was more likeable?—Cecil warranted international outrage, while the slain elephants did not. There is nothing objective about this form of mob justice.

Biblically, the exercise of justice—when it is actually required—is given into the hands of appointed officials (Romans 13:1–7). The Bible does not condone mob justice or vigilantism. For this reason, it is probably ill-advised for Christians to join the call for Palmer’s head. We would do far better to heed the words of Exodus 23:2: “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice.”

Should Walter Palmer receive justice for the killing of Cecil the lion? If the hunt was indeed illegal, then perhaps he should. But threats, vandalism and the pressurised closure of the dentist’s business at the hands of an Internet mob are not justice.

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