Walter Palmer, the American who sparked international outrage when he hunted and killed one of Africa’s most beloved lions, returned to work Tuesday, walking silently into his Bloomington, Minn., dental practice as protesters shouted “Murderer!” and called on Palmer to leave town.
The 55-year-old dentist had all but gone underground over the summer to let the global backlash die down, following a controversial hunt that left the 13-year-old black-maned beauty Cecil the lion dead in Zimbabwe’s savanna.
Palmer broke his silence Sunday, telling the Associated Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune in a joint interview: “I’m a health professional. I need to get back to treating my patients. My staff and my patients support me, and they want me back. That’s why I’m back.”
The Star Tribune reported Tuesday morning that Palmer arrived at his office at around 7 a.m. local time, with “a modest police presence nearby.” Returning to work for the first time in six weeks, the newspaper said, Palmer was greeted by “a few protesters and many members of the news media.”
“Hopefully, this will die out and we can move on,” Bloomington Deputy Police Chief Mike Hartley said of the protests on Tuesday, according to the Star Tribune.
But amid the protests, some of Palmer’s patients came to his defense.
“Who are they to tell me who to see and who not to see?” patient Thomas Dressel told Reuters, talking about the protesters.
Another patient, Ryan Rice, told the news agency, he was heartbroken.
“I have no problem with him taking a lion or giraffe, that’s his own business,” he said. “I do have a problem with social media and how people have tried to slander this individual.”
Palmer, from Eden Prairie, has avoided the public eye since he released a statement July 28 about Cecil’s controversial death.
But he spoke out Sunday to clear up misconceptions about the hunt and to express his aggravation that his family has become a target online.
“It’s been especially hard on my wife and daughter,” Palmer told the news organizations. “They’ve been threatened. In the media, as well, and the social media. … I don’t understand that level of humanity, to come after people not involved at all.
In July, Palmer was named by British news media as Cecil’s killer. Authorities said he and his hunting party lured the famous lion from the Hwange National Park and that Palmer hit the prized animal with a compound bow. Palmer finished the job the following day with a gun, authorities said.
In the interview Sunday night, he admitted to shooting Cecil but disputed early details about the hunt. For instance, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force reported Palmer and his team had hunted the wounded lion for 40 hours before Palmer shot and killed him with a gun.
“The lion was not taken with a gun. It was not 40 hours later,” he said. He said it was taken the next day with a bow and arrow.
Palmer also disputed that the hunt cost him $50,000. Palmer declined to go into further detail about the contentious hunt.
“There’s many inaccuracies as I’ve pointed out,” he added, “and some of these I’m not ready to talk about right now.”
Reiterating what he said in his July statement, Palmer said Sunday: “If I had known this lion had a name and was important to the country or a study, obviously I wouldn’t have taken it. Nobody in our hunting party knew before or after the name of this lion.”
It’s still unclear what happened to Cecil’s body.
Officials in Zimbabwe have called for Palmer’s extradition, but he has not been charged with a crime. Theo Bronkhorst, his guide, has been charged with “failure to prevent an illegal hunt,” according to the Associated Press. Honest Ndlovu, a local property owner, faces charges for allowing the men to hunt the lion on his land without getting authorization.
Since the world learned of Cecil’s death — and that Palmer was responsible — the dentist and his family have taken the heat. Protesters congregated outside his practice, River Bluff Dental, beginning in late July. Some created memorials, leaving stuffed lions to represent the one that died by his hands. Children dressed in lion costumes.
The practice was forced to shut its doors, and Palmer came under attack on social media.
“I find it so pathetic that ‘man’ has the need to hunt exotic creatures,” one Facebook user wrote on a page for Palmer’s dental practice over the summer. “What is so appalling is the lack of respect for our natural world and its delicate eco-web. … To say I am shocked and disgusted is an understatement.”
Others called into question his hunting history.
In 2008, he pleaded guilty to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about killing a black bear in Wisconsin. He shot the animal outside the area that he had a permit to hunt in and then lied to authorities about where he had killed it, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He was sentenced to one year of probation and fined close to $3,000.
Cecil’s death ignited a debate about big-game hunting.
On Sunday, Palmer declined to say whether he might return to Africa, telling the AP and Star Tribune: “I don’t know about the future.”
But he did say that in the weeks since the Cecil story exploded, he has not been hiding out.
“I’ve been out of the public eye,” he said. “That doesn’t I mean I’ve been hiding. I’ve been among people, family and friends. The location is really not that important, and I really wouldn’t say. But I haven’t been in hiding.”
This story has been updated.