• Paul D. Wilke

The Ghost of Cecil

When you hold a minority view, you get the opportunity of seeing from the outside the quirky inconsistencies that govern human behavior. This is particularly the case for me when it comes to how we treat animals. I've written elsewhere (here, here, and here) about the radically diverging distinctions we make between our pets and our food. We give pets names, recognize in them distinct personalities; we love them, dote on them, and eventually mourn them. And most of all, we consider them part of our families. But for the animals that become our food? Well...bacon is delicious and chicken wings too, and a Big Mac hits the spot. Any well-timed humor is enough to deflect reflection. See? This socially constructed dichotomy between food and friend fascinates me.

So it's oddly amusing to watch social media blow up in righteous indignation at another big game hunter who found himself in the news after a poorly considered selfie. If you remember from a couple of years ago, Minnesota dentist and recreational big game hunter Walter Palmer incurred the wrath of our bacon-loving nation for killing Cecil the lion. The backlash made Palmer one of the most hated men in America for at least one news cycle, an experience he would no doubt like to forget.

Enter Idaho Game Commissioner and fellow big game hunter, Blake Fischer. For those who haven't heard yet, Fischer is getting the internet mob treatment for posing with a dead baboon family he killed in Africa. It seems there's another unwritten rule about killing animals: not only are pets off limits, but you can't kill ones that remind us of Disney characters. Apparently Fischer didn't get that memo, nor did he learn anything from Palmer's unpleasant fifteen minutes of infamy in the social media maelstrom.

After his hunting trip, Fischer emailed photos of his kills to a hundred friends and co-workers. He wrote, “I have been back for a week, but have been hunting and trying to get caught up. Anyways, my wife and I went to Namibia for a week . . . first she wanted to watch me and ‘get a feel’ of Africa . . . so I shot a whole family of baboons. I think she got the idea quick.” Well, you be the judge if that was in poor taste or not. I'd only say 'getting a feel' for a place for me doesn't mean shooting the local fauna, but that’s just me. In any case, here's our hero posing with his dead quarry, no doubt still stoked with the adrenaline of victorious combat coursing through his veins. Four against one and yet our brave warrior prevailed.

Behold, the Beowulf of Idaho!

I can think of one major reason this bothers people. These were primates, our evolutionary cousins, and the dead ones in this photo were apparently part of a family unit. Even Fischer admitted this. “I get it — they’re a weird animal. It’s a primate, not a deer.” The implied familial intimacy in the picture, with the dead baby slumped in its mother's lap, resonates more than the giraffe and leopard that Fischer also bagged on his trip.

Former Idaho game commissioner Fred Trevey lamented, "My reaction to the photo and accompanying text of you [Fischer] smiling and holding a ‘family’ of primates you killed, dismays and disappoints me.” Steve Adler from the pro-hunting group, Idaho for Wildlife, said: "The biggest thing is the baboon thing. I was really troubled. That's my biggest issue. He killed the whole baboon family and you've got little junior laying there in mom's lap. You just don't do that. I hate wolves as much as anyone, but I'm not going to take a wolf family and put it on display and show the baby wolf."

And that's coming from a long-time hunter who really hates wolves! Just as troublesome, especially to the public, is seeing the satisfaction on Fischer's face, as if he had slain a dragon or something and not just a couple of monkeys minding their own business.

Fischer's defense was that he didn't do anything illegal, unethical, or immoral. Those last two claims are debatable, but he's right, he didn't break any laws. Fischer's mistake was to transgress the public's unspoken decorum about what kinds of animals we kill and how we do it. We're not actually supposed to see the killing done or the aftermath either, and you can't kill animals for fun, especially if it risks reminding people how much we have in common with them. Killing baby baboons and then posing them for macabre selfies crosses an imaginary line, but one that is often only apparent in retrospect.

And don’t forget how language plays a role in determining one’s emotional response. A group of baboons is actually called a troop, not a family, but when people look at Fischer’s photo, they see a family, and once you see a family, you relate. Framing it that way naturally evokes compassion, making it possible to emotionally connect to the scene in the photo with something more than an indifferent shrug. As a troop, they’re just dead baboons, subject to no quota or hunting fee, which is why Fischer chose them in the first place as the best way to 'get the feel' of Africa for his wife. But perceived as a family? Well, that changes things. Then the photo is offensive, it's uncomfortable, and maybe just a little bit too relatable.

The gruesome nature of the photo makes the violence more than just an abstraction. We see it and it makes an impression. In contrast, violence, even on a mass industrial scale, is not something we can easily relate to when it takes place out of sight. We don't see it and so don't care. People today are forced to confront little more than the neatly packaged and bloodless products they find in the grocery store. Tasty commodities, not sentient beings. A system like ours conditions us to selective compassion, one where people form intense emotional bonds with the creatures they interact with and relate to while remaining frigidly indifferent to everything else. Don't fool yourself; the system is set up this way on purpose to perpetuate this status quo. A glance at the numbers shows just how out of proportion our society's priorities are when it comes to animals. In the U.S., almost ten billion animals are slaughtered in nightmarish conditions every year for food, and yet people get most angry about Cecil the lion and a couple of baboons. One evokes outrage, the other, yawns. The reasons why are worth exploring. I'm convinced that our hearts are in the right place, now we just need to get our brains and bellies there as well.