In the court of public opinion, Walter Palmer has already been convicted. Thousands of people around the globe, including some government officials and celebrities, have harangued the Minnesota dentist for allegedly shooting the well known lion.
In actual court, proceedings are also underway against Palmer. Zimbabwean officials say the American is facing poaching charges, along with his two local guides, who are already under arrest. American authorities are also looking for the dentist, but having trouble.
Lost in the uproar over Cecil’s death, however, is the much thornier debate over the ethics of the hunt.
So far, most of the heated global discussion has focused on how beloved the lion was. In his only public statements about the killing, Palmer claimed he didn’t realize his prey was practically sacred.
“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt,” Palmer said, adding that he thought the hunt was completely legal. “I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion.”
But were Palmer’s actions really “responsible”?
We asked a philosopher who has lectured on the ethics of hunting.
The short answer is no.
“The dentist himself was not really engaged,” said Marc Moffett, a philosophy professor at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). “He’s sort of coming into a hunt where the groundwork has been laid for him. There has been a lot of baiting. Shooting an animal over bait with an advance bow … is not necessarily a difficult thing.
“So there are, I think, questions about whether that was genuinely a fair chase,” Moffett told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “He wasn’t himself doing the whole process. He wasn’t taking advantage of his skills, his knowledge of the animals and the environment, to coax this lion into a position where he could dispatch it in a careful way.”
Many hunting clubs claim to practice “fair chase” policies. Palmer belonged to two prominent clubs that have boasted about their ethical hunting habits.
Now both the Pope & Young Club and Safari Club International say they are investigating whether Palmer broke “fair chase” rules.
Shortly after Palmer apologized and apparently went into hiding, Pope & Young posted its “Rules of Fair Chase” on Facebook:
The term “Fair Chase” SHALL NOT include the taking of animals under the following conditions:1 – Helpless in a trap, deep snow or water, or on ice.
2 – From any power vehicle or power boat.
3 – By “jacklighting” or shining at night.
4 – By the use of any tranquilizers or poisons.
5 – While inside escape-proof fenced enclosures.
6 – By the use of any power vehicle or power boats for herding or driving animals, including use of aircraft to land alongside or to communicate with or direct a hunter on the ground.
7 – By the use of electronic devices for attracting, locating or pursuing game or guiding the hunter to such game, or by the use of a bow or arrow to which any electronic device is attached with the exception of lighted nocks and recording devices that cast no light towards the target and do not aid in rangefinding, sighting or shooting the bow.
8 – Any other condition considered by the Board of Directors as unacceptable.
“The fair chase concept does, however, extend beyond the hunt itself,” Pope & Young says on its Web site. “It is an attitude and a way of life based in a deep-seated respect for wildlife, for the environment, and for other individuals who share the bounty of this vast continent’s natural resources.”
The club even offers a “fair chase” affidavit for members to sign.
But Moffett said the very idea of the “fair chase” is problematic.
“The general notion of ‘fair chase’ is a kind of stipulative definition put forth originally by the Boone and Crockett big game hunting guidelines,” said Moffett, who not only lectures on hunting but also practices the sport (with a bow) in his native New Mexico. “So it’s not written in stone what that means.”
“I think underlying that there is a kind of intuition that when we are dealing with animals, potentially taking their lives or hunting, we shouldn’t undue advantage of them by means of excessive technological innovation,” he said, such as using high-powered sniper rifles. “There is a general intuition that we should treat them fairly, but I don’t think there is a fixed definition of what ‘fair chase’ is.”
But there is a deeper “paradox” at the center of fair chase hunting, Moffett said.
There are “two separate, independent intuitions or feelings that we have about how we treat animals,” he said. “One of those is that we should give the animal a fair chance or we shouldn’t take undue advantage of them. The other is that we should not cause the animals unnecessary suffering.”
Those two goals often conflict, however.
“If you think of the notion of fair chase, you’re thinking the animal should be free-ranging, it shouldn’t be bound or otherwise coerced into being in a very predictable position,” Moffett said. “And that means the likelihood of injuring the animal or not having a clean kill is going to be higher than in a situation where the animal is actually restrained in some way.
“The more freedom you give them, the more likely it is that you’re going to harm them in a way that causes greater suffering,” he added. “The more restrained they are, the easier it is to kill them.”
Moffett said he wasn’t an expert on Palmer’s particular case. However, he said he saw several potential problems with the dentist’s Zimbabwean safari.
The first is the use of bait. Zimbabwean officials have said Palmer’s guides used bait to draw the lion out of a protected national park onto private land, where it was killed.
As Lion Aid has pointed out, it’s not illegal to either bait a lion or to kill it — even if it has a radio collar — on private land. Palmer’s legal problems stem from the fact that the owner of the private land where he killed the lion did not have a permit for the kill, authorities said.
But Moffett said the use of bait in this case was questionable.
“It’s not a clear-cut that just using bait in and of itself impinges upon fair chase or otherwise makes the hunting situation compromised,” he said. “It’s less than ideal but it’s not obviously unethical as a strategy for hunting.”
What is clear to Moffett, however, is that trophy hunters who parachute into places like Zimbabwe and rely on local guides to put their target on a pedestal aren’t practicing “fair chase” principles.
“These are people often not making use of any skills, woodsmanship skills, hunting skills,” he said. “They are making use of the knowledge of the local individuals and they simply have one skill, which is to fire their weapon at an animal at close range.”
Moffett said he was dismayed that most of the media attention surrounding Cecil’s killing has focused on the animal’s celebrity status and not the actual ethics of the hunt or hunting more generally.
“There is the killing of this well known, highly regarded, high profile kind of quasi-celebrity animal and that has understandably got people upset,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the main issue involved.
“If the animal had not been well known, not had this celebrity status, and even if it had not been poached – I don’t know if there was anything illegal done or not – I think there are ethical problems with the nature of the hunt that this person was engaged in.
“Some of the media attention on the celebrity side of Cecil the lion kind of detracts from the fact that it sort of the nature of the setup, this kind of canned hunting, hunting over bait, is problematic in and of itself regardless of whether it’s a lion or something else.”
Moffett said that Cecil’s slaying fits into a broader pattern of the public selectively reacting to the killing of “charismatic megafauna” (read: big, handsome animals we see movies like “The Lion King”) and shying away from trickier ethical issues.
The philosophy professor said he hopes the Cecil headlines will get people thinking and talking about hunting ethics, instead of reflexively painting all hunters as evil.
“I’m a hunter,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with killing animals for certain purposes. But if it’s sort of done in a way that I think is not really justifiable with respect to some of the basic principles of our treatment of animals with fairly high cognitive sophistication,” that’s another story.
But Moffett also said that when the uproar over Cecil dies down — as other poaching controversies have in the past — hunting will still face a hard sell to the American people.
“What has actually gone on with respect to hunting in this country is that fewer and fewer people are actually engaged in wilderness activities overall,” he said. “So when people are not living in rural communities, when they are not living by hunting and getting their meals that way, there becomes a sort of disconnect with the sort of meaning of hunting. And as our population becomes more urban and less rural over time, there is sort of a natural consequence of that is people have less of an affinity for hunting and will likely think that it’s not a viable pastime.
“I think that’s actually problematic. There are reasons for actually promoting something like hunting in our country. Obviously that’s going to be controversial. Some people think that hunting in and of itself is unethical in all its forms.
“But assuming that you are not on that far end of the spectrum, I think there are reasons for thinking that hunting is a good thing for our society: teaching people where things come from, where our food actually comes from.
“It’s not simply packaged in the grocery.”
Ultimately, Moffett said he hopes to spur a more “rational” debate about hunting in America.
“When you name something, when you call this lion Cecil… there is a kind of anthropomorphism — or a projection onto what your pets are like — that tends to drive the emotional side of the debate versus thinking carefully about what’s involved ethically,” he said.
“Hunting is obviously a sport that the death of animals, it involves a certain amount of the suffering of animals, so it’s not an easy sport to defend ethically,” Moffett continued. “But you need to think that issue through based on the overall rational merits, the logical merits of the case rather than just having an emotional response of ‘Oh, Cecil was killed and Cecil was very much loved.’”
For Moffett, a man who spends his professional and spare time thinking about these issues, either in the classroom or the wild, the conclusion is that hunting is worth it when done responsibly.
“I do think that in the case of hunting there are sufficient merits to the case to override the prima facie, or first initial, plausibility of its causing harm to an animal,” he said.
Translation: hunting can be worth it, but killing Cecil probably wasn’t.