The Short Crappy Life of Walter J. Palmer, or, The Oddities of American Wealth

"The Repast of the Lion," by Henri Rousseau, ca. 1907


The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner's, 1938

Joseph Conrad
Harper & Brothers, 1904

Anyone who has followed the demise of Cecil, the African lion, and Walter J. Palmer, his American slayer, can't help but be struck by the parallels with Hemingway’s classic story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” where a wealthy but timid American bumbles around the African savannah under the protection of a guide, procures a few hides, and ultimately meets his demise—which admittedly comes amidst the charge of a raging cape buffalo, rather than the global news media, though both are depicted as fierce and, in some sense, accountable for his undoing.

Of course, in Macomber’s case, hunting, as the guide puts it, “made him into a man. Women knew it, too.” In Palmer’s case, Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, responded by declaring, “hunting is a coward’s pastime.” Citing his “lack” of “empathy,” she actually demanded his hanging, a curious position from a group espousing anticruelty. Sharon Osbourne, among the many celebrity respondents, put it even more colorfully when she told Entertainment Tonight, “I think what should happen to Palmer when he’s dead is that his body should be dragged for a few miles behind a car, then his head should be cut off and mounted on a wall.” She also explained her reasoning: “This is a man who has used his money to get permits to kill endangered species—these glorious animals that hurt no one.”

Alas, the African lion is not technically endangered. Nor is it entirely harmless, as, for example, the 563 Africans who are believed to have died at its hands—or paws, as it were—between 1990 and 2004 might willfully attest had they not become lunchmeat. Nevertheless, when the wife of a semi-lucid, needle-veined rock star, and one valued at $220 million, accuses you of wastefulness, you know that big-game hunting has lost some repute.

For those of us who tend towards the vegan camp, as I do, the global response to this incident is remarkably interesting, not because it reveals profound human sympathies for animals. Indeed, Sharon Osbourne enjoys steak as much as the next person—although, curiously, her husband has evidently gravitated towards the vegan end of things, the question of his cognitive capacities notwithstanding. No, what the Palmer situation reveals are the complexities of human, and specifically Western, perceptions of animals, especially the loveable kind.

An estimated $58 billion was spent on pets in the U.S. alone in 2014. To give a sense of where else that money might have gone, one 2014 study estimated that, all other things being equal, it would cost about $8.5 billion to eliminate malaria, a disease that, according to the World Health Organization, kills one child in Africa every minute—or about three children in the time you’ve been reading this. Would it be oversimplistic to say that every one of those dollars spent on pets, with the exception of those deemed necessary, is tantamount to murdering humans, since that money could have been used to implement life-saving measures? In an ideal world, perhaps. But it’s also clear that Americans are fairly lonely, and estranged from one another, and perhaps from themselves—and, hence, from a very crude standpoint, that isolation helps to explain the overwhelming appeal of pets. They’re also fun to cuddle with, and one can’t say the same about (most) from the African continent.

Even more bizarre is that we cuddle one creature while butchering another. Clearly, humans tend to have much stronger affinities for dogs than for cows, since dogs, after all, have been bred as companions and have evolved to grow up with us (lest they be put out on the street, or the steppe, as the case may have been). It’s also fairly clear that dogs are at least popularly perceived to be far more intelligent than cows, even though most researchers remain dubious at best of such comparisons. Moreover, as many philosophers have pointed out, if intelligence were our sole criteria for assigning moral value, infants and the severely mentally disabled would soon get short shrift when compared with, say, a bright Rhesus monkey. And with all deference to the aesthetic achievements of Black Sabbath, one might begin to wonder where the Prince of Darkness would fall, given, shall we say, his benighted state of affairs. One need not ask Mrs. Osbourne.

In fact, what the current neural research suggests is that empathy itself, if not sympathy, and which Dr. Palmer is alleged to lack, derives from something called mirror neurons, or brain cells that fire in response to the perception that someone else is acting similarly. Thus, when we see a person suffering, we learn to suffer with them. This sympathy is by no means the rule, of course, and some have suggested, not without controversy, that autism, for instance, might correspond to malfunctioning mirror neurons. All of this is hotly contested. And of course one of the most shocking revelations, though one that seems to have provoked more interest among animal rights advocates than the scientific community, perhaps because of the latter’s propensity for testing on the advocees of the former, is that this empathy exists across species. It may even help to explain why humans find more affinity with creatures that resemble themselves (say, chimpanzees) than those that differ starkly (say, your average slime mold). Although, again, in the case of Black Sabbath, one defers.

What all of this gets at is that humans, through a combination of evolutionary adaptations and neural processing, can relate to their dogs and, indeed, find value in them through that. By contrast, abstract images of Africans, or anyone living far away, do little to arouse our sympathies on the whole. By the same token, a cow we’ve never seen, and one that we can barely conceptualize while sinking our teeth into a bun, does not stop our hearts the way it does when we see a puppy laid out on the road. Familiarity matters. At least when it comes to our moral accounting.

And thus when Dr. Walter J. Palmer shot Cecil, he was indeed, as Mrs. Osbourne alleges, shooting a "glorious animal that [hurts] no one." At least in her eyes. This is because:

  1. Lions are glorious for someone who has never been chased by them (and I’m guessing the shit-scooper at the San Diego Zoo isn’t feeling a whole lot more sympathetic to them than Palmer was).
  2. Africans, like other (primarily) third-world victims of lions like Cecil, don’t hold much weight in Mrs. Osbourne’s, or other Westerners’, eyes. They are, in a sense, disposable—otherwise, one would have seen more wealth directed to them—whereas lions, a precious commodity (like diamonds, it should be said), need to be preserved and protected. One Zimbabwean, Joseph Mabuwa, even said as much in an interview with Reuters when he asked, “Why are the Americans more concerned [about Cecil] than us? We never hear them speak out when villagers are killed by lions and elephants in Hwange.”

Now, one can hardly fault Mrs. Osbourne for defending a beloved creature. After all, she’s been doing it for close to thirty years. Where things do get foggier—pardon the expression, Oz—is when one encounters op-eds and other supposed “think-pieces” that claim that hunting lions like Cecil is the best way to protect the species as a whole, since it promotes conservation.

One of these brilliant articles appeared recently in The New York Times under the heading “Outcry for Cecil the Lion Could Undercut Conservation Efforts.” The article explains that, according to conservationists, most animals, including lions

are killed by local residents for meat or in clashes as wild habitats shrink, Africa urbanizes and the continent’s population grows at the fastest pace in the world. But above all, the animals are illegally slaughtered by highly organized, heavily-armed poachers who sell ivory and organs, mostly to Chinese markets.

For your average American reader, this last bit adds a nice touch of race-baiting, too. Nowhere in the article is it asked whether slowing Africa’s growth rate might help, much less providing it with sufficient foreign aid, or, even more dastardly, rethinking the global free market. Among the so-called “experts” consulted for the article was one who had coauthored a study purporting to show that “overhunting was a smaller risk than a blanket ban.” This is true, of course, and largely like saying that boycotting Bangladesh for its frequent factory fires would result in a loss of employment there. If all other trends continue, that is correct. It also presumes a rather stunning lack of faith in the locals’ capacity to improve things given the removal of other Western constraints, namely a corrosive free market. This should not be a surprise, though, given that the study was funded primarily by Panthera, a so-called nonprofit organization that bills itself as working “to ensure the future of wild cats” and was started as the brainchild of one Thomas S. Kaplan, the New York billionaire who made his first fortune exploiting a silver mine in Bolivia. Even a quick glance at his biography calls to mind Conrad’s famous quip in Nostromo, which recounts an American-backed colonialist’s effort to retain a Latin American silver mine: “There is no credulity so eager and blind as the credulity of covetousness, which, in its universal extent, measures the moral misery and the intellectual destitution of mankind.”

One can only wonder if Walter J. Palmer, in his own minute way, wasn’t the most recent manifestation.


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