What’s with all the Cecil-the-Lion Outrage?

The hunt for a hunter is less about him than it is about us.

Let’s start with the key facts of the case. Some men go hunting, luring a helpless and innocent creature from safety then to a grisly death. Outrage erupts, with protests and petitions and moralising editorials condemning not just illegal hunting but all hunting, calling for it to be banned outright, and condemning all those who defend it as savages.

Next let’s look at the case of Cecil the Lion. Because that opening paragraph referred to the 1977 case of Emanuel Jacques, a 12 year-old Toronto shoeshine boy who was lured into a trap over a gay bathhouse, sexually assaulted, then murdered. The men were caught and brought to justice and, happily for us all, still sit in Canadian prisons. It was a heinous crime, the cry for justice was loud, and it got answered.

But at the time, there was a cry for much more than justice. There was a widespread condemnation of gay people, revulsion at men who went hunting for gay sex, and outrage over anyone then seeking to defend it.

What links these two cases, which on the face of it are completely unalike, is that the culprits became vessels for all our woes, scapegoats we want to destroy in a sort of ritual purification of  society’s ills. Seeking a purgatory cleansing of that evil, we seem to heap a disproportionate amount of opprobrium not only on the criminal, but on all those who resemble him in the slightest way.

None of that in any way lessens the actual crimes. But I do think is that we need to keep a sense of proportion, and not use incidents as Trojan horses into battles we have with our own demons. Walter the Dentist is a poacher with apparent manhood issues and seriously misplaced priorities. But laws exist to deal with him, and I hope he will be dealt with appropriately. However, to suppose that burning him at the metaphorical stake will solve the problem of poaching, let alone any of the other issues we’re facing as a society, is probably just a wee bit misplaced. As I see it, poaching is the problem it is because some people — those able to drop tens of thousands of dollars for the pleasure of pumping a bit of lead into an animal’s head or to pay someone else to rip them off a tusk or two — are too rich while others — those willing to neglect their ecosystem in order to harvest their wildlife for a few bucks — are too poor. If there were more jobs in Zimbabwe and less demand for elephant tusks and lion pelts in rich countries, the problem would become much less acute.

But those, admittedly, are vast and complex issues. I think I get where people who feel moved to words and action by the death of a beloved lion are coming from. In the face of a seeming tidal wave of problems and challenges, we grab onto the one tree we can hang onto until the tsunami passes. Stalin understood that one death was a tragedy while a hundred was a statistic. The case of a single lion is one we can hang onto and, if justice is served and some greater good is attained — say, an end to hunting — we can mount that as our own trophy: we made a difference.

Perhaps, but it won’t make a difference to poor Zimbabweans, and it probably therefore won’t bring an end to poaching and illegal hunting. My father has written a couple of really good books on witch-hunts (A Case of Witchcraft: The Trial of Urbain Grandier, and Witch Hunts: From Salem to Guantanamo Bay). This case seems to serve the same sociological purpose as the witch-hunts he analyses. Every once in a while, we deal with all our accumulated unfinished business by agreeing someone on who we can heap a lot of blame, and then go hunting for him (or her, as the case may be). Yes, Walter the Dentist should face his day in court. But let’s focus on dealing with the underlying issues that produce people like him rather than just search for some ‘Other’ we can heap all of our society’s evils onto. Because the truth is, we all have a part to play in the creation of this monster.

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