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On Killing Cecil, Violent Thoughts, and 'Real Men'

31/07/2015 15:50 BST | Updated 31/07/2016 10:59 BST

Like many, I was heartbroken to learn of Cecil the lion's death, caused by somebody who had paid for the 'thrill' of killing him. It was hard not to feel angered by him suffering 40 long hours before those responsible finally ended his misery. The news of his pride, left vulnerable by his absence, only deepened feelings of dismay at his needless death.

Cecil is not the only animal to be killed this way, and he most likely won't be the last. Trophy hunting is big business in Africa, and illegal poaching takes many lives also. Animal agriculture takes more lives still - around 55 billion land animals per year before we even begin to account for those killed through habitat destruction and pollution from the industry. However, for some reason, Cecil's death has captured public imagination in ways that the deaths of many before him didn't.

A number of factors have been discussed as to why Cecil's slaughter has caused particular outrage. For starters, he was a lion and, as Ernest Small PhD noted in an interview with Think Progress, we tend to be prejudiced in favour of charismatic animals like lions, often to the detriment of other species.

Secondly, Cecil was considered, in human terms, a special lion. He was part of an on-going long-term study, and wearing a radio collar. For this reason we knew more about him than other lions; and familiarity with individuals often makes their deaths more upsetting than those of individuals we know little about. He was reportedly the head of two prides, leaving cubs behind who are likely now vulnerable. He usually resided in a safe area, but was lured from it deliberately by those who sought to kill him. It would seem that the calculation and deviousness of this act just makes it all seem that much more brutal.

Whilst it is natural for such details to make the story more emotionally tangible for us, none of them are at the root of what makes Cecil's death bad. Whether we knew him or not makes little difference to how much he wanted to live, the same as any other animal. The way he died was awful, but that's not what made his death bad either. Had he been killed in an instant, it still would have been wrong.

As Thomas Nagel said, 'It is sometimes suggested that what we really mind is the process of dying. But I should not really object to dying if it were not followed by death.' The main reason death is bad, to quote Nagel again, is because it is, 'the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence'. As I have discussed before, this is true for Cecil as much as it is for any animal who does not wish to die, be they a beloved big cat, a human being, or a farmed animal.

I say none of this to suggest that we ought not feel sad about Cecil's death. On the contrary, I believe it's likely to be the strength of such feelings for animals that will help us to achieve liberation for all of them. However, I do believe we ought to reflect on some of the ways in which we have expressed our upset about it.

One reaction to Cecil's slaughter has been to question the masculinity of his killers. This included comments about penis size, about how 'real men' should act towards animals, and even the suggestion that Walter Palmer's motivation was an inability to get an erection. I know people will argue that they are 'only joking', but we must acknowledge that such jokes do not exist in a vacuum.

Behaviour like hunting, and other violent acts of dominance, often stem from societal expectations of what masculinity should look like. When we talk about 'real men', even in jest, we reinforce the idea that there's a right way to be male. We are not going to solve the problems gender expectations cause by tinkering with definitions, jokingly or otherwise. If we want to see significant change in this area, then we should do away with such definitions altogether.

Another common reaction has been one of wishing a violent end for the individuals who killed Cecil. Of course, when discussing these violent ends people are usually 'joking'. But it's dangerous to try and pretend that thoughts don't go on to inform feelings and behaviours. Whilst I am not about to argue that people making these off-the-cuff remarks will directly lead to violence being visited upon a certain dentist, it's not ground-breaking to posit a connection between public discourse and behaviours.

If we truly want an end to violence in the world, then we need to initiate that end in ourselves first. In order to achieve this, we must recognise that thoughts and words come before action. And so, we must begin by tackling the violence in our own thoughts, words, and behaviours if we wish to see an end to it in the behaviour of others.

As for Cecil, and other animals who are needlessly killed, things won't change until we radically change the way we look at all animals. Focusing our grief and adoration upon a select few individuals or species won't change the fate of all those we haven't named or collared. Only recognising that all individuals are special, that they all want to live, no matter what their name or species, will bring about the change we want to see in the world.