Many thousands of words (at least!) have been written about the killing of the famous lion by the dentist Walter Palmer, yet there is still much to learn from this episode. It illustrates the power of social media when people engage with a cause. It gives us a point sample of changing attitudes to trophy hunting, and perhaps of attitudes to the hunting and killing of animals in the name of sport generally. It illustrates the power of a name and celebrity status in the development of empathy for an animal very few actually met or knew. Cecil had a name, and this helped people identify with him. It illustrates how the language people use reveals the way they think. Note that Palmer's statement referred to his taking the lion rather than killing him. In common with other hunters referring to the harvesting of animals rather than killing this language objectifies the animal and sanitises the act. We harvest or take insentient plants or objects. This may reveal the attitude of the hunter to the animal. The use of language in animal welfare debate is fascinating and I shall discuss it at more length in my next blog. What I wish to pick apart here is the melange of anthropocentrism and concern for animal conservation and animal welfare the episode has become. If we are to make the world a better place for animals it is useful to distinguish the concepts.
Anthropocentric arguments include those relating to the moral status of an action, such as killing a lion. They are human-centred as they relate to human morality, although the actions may have repercussions on animals. Thus one of the key arguments against leisure hunting is that it is immoral for an individual to take pleasure from taking the life of another sentient being. In popular language, it is the 'how could they/ how can they live with themselves' argument. In effect, the conflict of another's behaviour with our own moral code causes distress and makes us feel bad, angry or both.
An anthropocentric factor rather than an argument might be the fact that Cecil had a name and was a favourite; both acknowledged in Walter Palmer's statements on the killing. It's an anthropocentric factor, because names and celebrity status are only meaningful to humans. We feel extra bad about the death of a named favourite because their celebrity helped us relate to and empathise with them. This is not only the case with lions of course; consider the attention paid to the death of a celebrity champion racehorse on the track compared with that paid to the deaths of so many obscure 'also-rans', hardly meriting a mention in the press. To the individual animal celebrity status matters not a jot; it is the ending of their life as a unique sentient individual that matters. Why should the life and fate of one individual matter more than that of others of the same species simply because we have given him a name and popularity?
Some conservation arguments against the hunting of wild animals such as lions are anthropocentric. Such an argument may concern the necessity of preservation of wild fauna for future generations; how can we explain to our grandchildren that we allowed lions, elephants and rhinoceros to be hunted to extinction? Although this is a very valid argument, it is clearly anthropocentric. The key issue is the preservation of species for the enjoyment and education of our descendants- fellow humans.
Animal welfare arguments are not, in my opinion, anthropocentric, as they focus on the experience of the animal itself. A wise mentor once said something very wise to me; what matters to an animal is what happens to it, not why this happens to it. In the animal welfare argument against hunting, it is not the motivation of the hunter that matters, it is what the animal experiences that matters. Although Walter Palmer has challenged the exact length of time the injured lion continued to live after the first arrow wound, even he stated the animal was not killed until the following day. This means this sentient, unique, irreplaceable animal suffered for many long hours before being killed. Irrespective of the motivations of the hunter, of the conservation implications of his loss, of the moral outrage his killing sparked, that he should die in this manner was inhumane and wrong. Sadly, as long as hunting continues, Cecil will not be the last animal to suffer such a fate.