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Raising Voices For Cecil The Lion

Cecil the lion's slaughter at the hands of trophy hunters in Zimbabwe has lit up the Internet and social media with protest and outrage in recent days.

Earlier this month, an American dentist from Minnesota named Walter Palmer paid hunting fees to organizers in Zimbabwe; either these local men, or the men and Palmer together, lured Cecil out of Hwange National Park. Palmer then shot the magnificent animal with a bow and arrow and finally, hours later, killed him with a rifle. Cecil was then beheaded and skinned.

The men who organized the hunt have been arrested and a petition has been circulated to extradite Palmer to Zimbabwe to face charges.

In addition to the outcry on behalf of Cecil on social media, there's a competing chorus that I have noticed, primarily in my Twitter feed. It takes the form of a question worded along these lines: "You raise your voice for this lion, but where was your voice for __________?" (Insert in the blank the name of a well-known human being who has suffered or the name of a social justice cause related to human suffering.)

The implication of this question is clear: Our energies are better spent on "people causes" and not "animal causes."

In reply, I offer three points:

  • Great human suffering is connected to poverty, violence, racism, sexism, homophobia and so many other troubles in our world. Feeling empathy for other animals may only enhance our empathy for people who are caught up in this suffering; most of the animal caretakers and activists I know and work with show, by their actions as well as their words, that they care deeply about human pain.
  • Cecil was a lion beloved by tourists and tracked by scientists at Oxford University. His life as an individual animal was important, full stop. Cecil's death also is a symbol of the big-game hunting business, which deserves scrutiny. The Washington Post described it on Wednesday as "a sport that draws thousands of deep-pocketed Americans to the African savanna each year in search of beautiful beasts they can boast about back home." The Los Angeles Times underscored, also, that trophy hunters are disproportionately American.
  • Outrage for Cecil may telegraph a kind of tipping point; people no longer wish to stay silent when they learn of the suffering of animals like Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe or Marius the giraffe in the Copenhagen Zoo, or SeaWorld's captive orcas and whales, or monkeys taken from their mothers and stressed at biomedical labs or animals confined in factory farms.
  • None of us should hesitate to raise our voices for animals and, more importantly, move beyond social-media outrage to take actions that make lives better for animals.

    As I said in 2013 to NPR's Petra Mayer, each one of us can do something of significance. Maybe you're all about educating children in wildlife conservation, or working to get cats and dogs spay-neutered. Or maybe you decide not to eat so many animals anymore. Whatever works for you, it all makes a difference.

    Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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    Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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