Death of a Lionized Lion

There were 42 people murdered in one American city, Baltimore, in July, but it was a killing thousands of miles away from the East Coast that captivated headlines and aroused outrage in the U.S. and other Western lands. It wasn’t a murder, but rather the shooting of a lion named Cecil in the southern Africa country of Zimbabwe.

The shooter was Walter Palmer, a 55-year-old Minnesota dentist who had previously participated in several African safaris and reportedly paid tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege — if it can be called that — of killing a lion.

The 13-year-old lion, a “star” member of his species, was a favorite with foreign tourists and the subject of an Oxford University study. It was apparently lured from a sanctuary where hunting is forbidden, and then shot with a crossbow. Wounded, the lion escaped, but was found the next day by the hunter, who killed the animal with a gunshot.

The lion’s remains are reportedly being prepared for taxidermy. Dr. Palmer’s guide, Theo Bronkhorst, was charged by local authorities with conducting an illegal hunt and released on $1,000 bail. Dr. Palmer himself managed to return to the U.S. But his dental practice is closed and under surveillance by local police, and his home is also under watch. He is in hiding.

That is partly because the illegal killing of a lion is punishable in Zimbabwe by a mandatory fine of $20,000 and up to 10 years behind bars; the country, in fact, is calling for extradition of the dentist, who managed to return to the U.S. And partly because of the many calls for his prosecution and, in some cases, for his torture and even death.

Former CNN host Piers Morgan, for instance, proposed a new sport, “Big Human Hunting,” suggesting that Dr. Palmer and others like him be shot with arrows and then “we’d calmly walk over, skin him alive, cut his head from his neck, and [take] a bunch of photos of us all grinning inanely at his quivering flesh.”

And the animal rights group PETA issued a statement in which it declared that Dr. Palmer should be “extradited, charged and preferably hanged.”

Among Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s creations are animals that inspire awe. The lion is referred to by Chazal as the king of the wild animals, and has been celebrated as a jungle monarch by writers, poets and naturalists for centuries. Other inhabitants of the African bush, including large cats, apes, elephants and rhinoceroses, rightly command wonderment of their own.

While killing animals for food, clothing or to protect people is permitted by the Torah, hunting is deeply frowned upon; and when engaged in solely for the sake of amassing biological “trophies,” considered wrong. That is the upshot of a well-known teshuvah of the Noda B’Yehudah. Hunting as a regular activity is associated in the Torah only with Nimrod and Esav.

And so we do not defend the killing of this animal or any other member of his species — or others — that do not pose a threat or serve as a source of food. The wanton killing of any creature, even one that has not been given a human name, is repugnant.

At the same time, though, much of the reaction to the killing of the lionized lion is deeply disturbing, even outrageous. Threats of violence against the hunter? Calls for his death? What is alarming about such overreaction isn’t just the fact that it is so clearly an overreaction. It is the underlying message that animals are somehow entitled to be treated as, even viewed as, truly akin to human beings.

They are not. And ignoring the clear line between creatures who have consciousness of ethical and moral right and wrong, and the free will to choose between them, and creatures that do not is a dangerous thing. Leave the lions alone, but don’t think of them as anything but animals.

Last week also brought some other animal news. More than a year ago, a lawsuit was filed in a New York state court charging that a state university on Long Island was holding two chimpanzees (with cute names, of course, Hercules and Leo) in “unlawful detention,” which would be a crime were the detained beings human ones.

Thankfully, State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe denied the request by the animals’ proponents to free them, citing the fact that the law “presently” sees a distinction between people and animals. She took the case, though, very seriously. Her 33-page decision included references to discrimination against women and African-American slaves, and acknowledged that “efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are… understandable.”

“Some day,” she continued, “they may even succeed.”

Let us hope not. This slope is not only slippery but leads to a bad place, where not only are animals seen as human but humans are expected to be no better than animals.