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August 17, 2015

Lions have been much in the news lately, as in the story of the American tourist who was killed by a lion in Johannesburg's Lion Park, and more recently the killing of Zimbabwe's beloved Cecil the Lion by an American trophy hunter.

It came as no surprise to me to witness the public shaming of the dentist who is now in hiding after being outed as Cecil's killer. After all, he did set out to kill a lion, even if not specifically that one. If you abhor the hunting and killing of animals, especially endangered ones, then perhaps you have reason to be indignant.

But what surprised me when the first story hit, the one of the woman mauled by the lion through her open car window, was the likewise vicious response condemning the woman not only for being stupid enough to roll down her car window but also for visiting such an immoral and vile place such as the Lion Park in the first place. Surely it was an accident, even if caused by carelessness and a disregard for the rules? Surely wanting to see lions on your African vacation - something all of us lucky enough to have traveled there are guilty of - cannot be construed as an immoral act in and of itself?

There are so many angles to this newfound spotlight on the African lion that I've put off writing a blog post about it until now, and I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. I'll try to organize my thoughts below and hope that you'll read to the end before chiming in on the debate.

Canned Hunting

I can honestly say that I never heard that phrase until a few months ago. I had shared an innocent picture of someone petting a lion at the now infamous Lion Park - barely 20 minutes from where we used to live - on my Facebook page, and woke up to my own version of public shaming the next day. "How could you?" was the consensus of several animal rights advocates who'd discovered my post and appropriated it for their campaign. But it was effective. I followed up on all the links they readily supplied and tried to educate myself about what it was they deemed so reprehensible to prompt such a - so I felt - vicious attack.

"Canned Hunting," according to Wikipedia, is "a trophy hunt in which an animal is kept in a confined area, such as in a fenced-in area, increasing the likelihood of the hunter obtaining a kill." That this happens never really occurred to me. I was aware that lions are hunted, in some countries only and in exchange for large fees, but I thought they were wild. The thing is, there aren't that many truly wild lions left. According to the World Wildlife Fund. around 30,000 African lions remain in the wild today, with a sharp decline seen over the past 20 years. And while the wild lion population is dwindling, the canned hunting industry has grown at an alarming rate. Semi-tame lions are bred and raised in petting zoos all over South Africa (and, I suppose, other African countries too) and then sold off, once they become too big and dangerous to handle, to places that cater to trophy hunters who hail mostly - but not exclusively - from the United States.

Is Hunting Immoral?

Animal rights activists decry the practice of canned hunting as shameful because it gives such a huge advantage to the hunter versus the prey. The lions are confined to a small area, and they are also not adapted to live in the wild as they've been reared by humans. But honestly, doesn't the hunter, with his gun or even crossbow, have the advantage anyway? It's really just a matter of time, even if you're going after a truly wild lion. If you're going to be outraged about canned hunting, shouldn't you be outraged about all hunting? And it doesn't even stop there. In my research for this blog post, I came across the excellent headline Eating chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the Lion . While no doubt controversial, the author has a point. Unless you are a vegan, you are contributing in some shape or form to the breeding of animals purely for our consumption. Und unlike the cute lion cubs who at least get to have fun and play outside while they're little, the chickens might never even see daylight.

It reminds me of the scene in 7 Years in Tibet where Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer despairs, when supervising a building project for the Dalai Lama, because the workers he employs make no progress and instead are busy digging up worms so as to relocate them, lest they be hurt by the construction. It strikes you as ridiculous at first, but what truly is the difference between a lion and an earth worm? They are all God's creatures.

While I could never shoot an animal for sport and don't understand what makes hunters tick, I also find that I can't wholesale condemn those who can. I do believe there is a place for hunters where wildlife populations need to be controlled, and it

is also true that large fees levied on trophy hunters can help pay for conservation efforts. Yes, we humans are the reason that wildlife populations are out of whack in the first place, but that debate leads us nowhere. We can't turn back the clock, and even if we were able to stop all hunting overnight, we would create other problems.

However, do lions specifically need to be hunted? From what I gather, lions, as the top predators, are the ones already doing that job for us - controlling wildlife populations to preserve habitat. With their numbers dwindling so alarmingly, it's hard to make a case that hunting them serves any purpose other than the hunter's ego.

As I said, I'm no expert, but I have learned that nothing is ever black and white. There is a huge grey area in these testy debates, and I for one need to read much more about it before I can form a firm opinion. From what I've learned so far, I can't support the practice of canned hunting, and will never again walk into a petting zoo such as the Lion Park so innocently, now that I know what is the likely fate of those cute cubs. And I will do my best to warn my readers about what's going on. Scroll to the bottom and you will find a list of links to articles about canned hunting and animal protection websites.

Public Shaming

It's so easy to do. Someone says something inopportune online or commits what you deem an inexcusable crime, and you go and publicly shame that person, setting off an avalanche that might result in them going into hiding. Easily done, since you don't know him or her. I recently read an eye-opening article about this. A writer had actually tracked people whose lives had been ruined by such public shaming campaigns, and I couldn't help but think "what if that had been me?"

We all make mistakes. It behooves us to think long and hard whether we really want to be the first ones to cast the proverbial stone. I have no particular love for the dentist who shot Cecil, but does he deserve to lose his livelihood over it? To receive death threats that have forced him to go into hiding until further notice? And not just him but most likely his wife and kids as well? Does the family of the woman who was killed by the lion deserve to be told, over and over again, that she was stupid and deserved to die? Where is our empathy?

I've never liked self-appointed vigilantes, and that is precisely what the Internet shaming crowd seems to be. Like a posse, like a lynching mob, they move on from one victim to the next, not bothering themselves too much with nuance and second-guessing.

Perhaps there is some good to be found in all of this. Zimbabwe, I've heard, has placed a moratorium on certain hunts and put long-missing rules in place - though I'm sure in the end the lure of big money will continue to prove too enticing for officials of such a poor and corrupt country. Delta Airlines has announced that it will ban the transport of animal trophies. And, as this New York Times editorial so aptly points out, perhaps the recent spotlight on a single lion will rub off on the much larger issue of poaching endangered species such as rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks.

If only we could publicly shame entire countries, like Laos, Vietnam, and China, into submission to stop their insatiable and misplaced hunger for African animal parts.

Further Reading and How You Can Help

An excellent article by Dereck Joubert on not only the morality but also the economics of hunting; National Geographic - Hunting Lions for Fun

To learn more about African lions, why they are vulnerable, and how you can help, read: World Wildlife Fund: About the African lion

In case you've found yourself - like me - enjoying the interaction with cute lion cubs at a petting zoo, read: Five lies you need to stop believing about the lion cub petting industry

If you're seeking a ban on the captive breeding of lions for the canned hunting industry, join: Campaign Against Canned Hunting

If you'd like to see all animal trading banned, support: Ban Animal Trading South Africa

If you're looking to visit an animal park but are unsure whether it engages in ethical practices, check out: WASP International - Ethical Wildlife Sanctuaries

If you're looking to volunteer at a place but are unsure whether it truly promotes conservation of animals, see: Volunteers in Africa Beware Facebook Page

No doubt the story of Cecil the Lion has pulled at our heartstrings so much more than the countless statistics of slaughtered rhinos and elephants ever can, because it allowed us to put a face to it. If you can stomach it, here is another way you can put a face to the killing:

Perhaps we can all take this message beyond one lovable lion and do our part to educate the world about other endangered species targeted in senseless killings. While remaining professional and polite about it.


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