In Defense of Walter Palmer


Right now the world is gathered in outrage. Tweets. Hashtags. Facebook posts.

What burning issue gathers before us? The Syrian Civil War? Religious genocide in Iraq? Human tragedy in makeshift boats in the Mediterranean? No of course not. We live in trivial times and thus get angriest about trivial matters.

An American national named Walter Palmer, a recreational hunter, killed a lion in Zimbabwe. Turned out he was a protected lion, named “Cecil,” and the hunt was illegal. That’s all.

Now on one hand, I can understand some outrage. We get burnt out on the constant daily grind of being exposed to human tragedy via a 24 hours news cycle and thus we eventually get pushed over the edge by something that, in the grand scheme of things, is extremely unimportant. Furthermore I am not unmoved by claims of aesthetics. The African lion is a grand, regal animal and seeing one die at the hand of some unimposing, faceless Midwestern dentist just seems so…anticlimactic. At the same time this inchoate rage is definitely not an appeal to the cerebrum nor will it help a single endangered species.

It seems that this kind of incident-outrage cycle is seasonal. People became similarly unhinged when Kendall Jones went trophy hunting or when a Danish zoo had the gall to let the lions eat a giraffe. (Let’s make up our minds America; are we pro or anti-lion?)

However the faux-outrage is misplaced, exaggerated (dry those tears Kimmel, get a hold of yourself) and frankly unscientifically stupid. All sorts of claims are thrown into the Two Minute Hate of Walter Palmer. Hunting is morally wrong. We are all moral equals, and etc… Lastly, the narrative seems driven by this borderline religious belief in a certain brand of environmentalism that is more flower child cult than science.

Human Beings Are Morally Superior

This is an easy to one to address. By any measure you want to choose, human beings are superior. If you want to go purely natural; homo sapiens is a superior species. If you doubt me, look at the scoreboard. Manual dexterity combined with immense intelligence due to a larger brain has created the dominant species. At the end of the day, Palmer belongs to a species that came up with a way of combining natural resources (wood, stone, metal) into extremely powerful tools for killing. “Cecil” couldn’t. Palmer lived, “Cecil” died. I understand if this makes you upset, but let’s not pretend the lion was the human’s natural equal. He wasn’t otherwise he’d be posing in a photograph (another testament to the staggering inequality between humans and other animals like lions) with a dead Palmer.

If you wish to go metaphysical, it’s also fairly clear human beings are in a different moral category. It’s a rare person, outside the halls of PETA, that will tell you that the dead men and boys of Srebrenica is the moral equivalent of a chicken processing plant, or that “Cecil” is the same as Walter Scott shot in South Carolina. If they continue to insist on this fiction, bring up the fact that we would not possess a single iota of anger if “Jericho,” the other male lion in the area, had killed “Cecil.” Even if they tell you with a straight face that, “A pig is a boy is a rat,” the fact they have no words for an animal killing an animal and yet have tons of vitriol to pour out for any other combination of death is telling. Inherently we recognize that human beings belong to a different moral category.

Sure that could mean that there are some moral duties imposed upon us as a result of our special moral status. However the people who propose said duties tend to be pretty long on moral impositions and pretty short on where on earth these come from. Why should I, one human being, accept what you, simply another member of the species, demand I do? Obviously this is a much, much bigger discussion than some lion, albeit one made all the more difficult with a lack of a common source of our moral duties or a common language to discuss them. So for the sake of brevity I am going to skip over this. I do accept that human beings, qua human beings, have some ethical duties towards other species. Generally I don’t think gratuitous harm or extinction are actions that are morally acceptable. Also humanity, in our own interest, should responsibly manage the environment. But I don’t know that leads to some species egalitarianism or excludes hunting.

In Defense of Big Game Hunting

If it could be proven that the sort of big game trophy hunting that Jones and Palmer, among others, engage in has an overall detrimental effect on the population, I would say that it would conflict with our moral duty to be responsible managers of the environment. But it doesn’t.

The reason why vulnerable species, like the lion, suffer such difficulties is that they live in fairly poor areas of the world. In underdeveloped continents like Africa, they often are poached or otherwise harmed by human beings who are placed in a zero sum game. In a country where the average monthly wage is $253, with 70% unemployment (hey Kimmel, you going to cry about that?), the idea of turning down an offer of over $50,000 to help guide a hunt is the equivalent of putting a gun to your head and your children’s heads. Poverty largely exacerbates this situation. Who among us is going to really blame a Zimbabwean for killing a lion to set them up for life? To make that kind of money you would have to work (if you can find it) for 18 years or so on the average wage. Helen Forbes of the United Nations points out that poverty is what we have to address if we want to stop harmful poaching;

It is shocking, and yet almost comprehensible when we think of the lengths people will go to in order to feed their children. Addressing rural poverty, and creating opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, is a critical element in turning the tide on wildlife poaching.

Even people who try to argue poaching isn’t a poverty problem, basically outright admit that it is.

You’re right Helen. Let’s build some opportunity so people don’t have to kill lions. Hmmm. What opportunity could we build? Oh how about hunting?

Promoting privately owned parks with legally issued, and regulated hunting permits both provides opportunity and protects the lions. Say what? The problem is the tragedy of the commons. No one bears the economic cost if lions go extinct in Africa. They are largely owned by the government ergo, the locals (nor big game hunters like Palmer) bear any cost if they don’t exist. Thus there is only potential gain by killing them. However allowing people to make money off of regulated hunting would wean people off unregulated, uncontrolled poaching and would make them economic stakeholders in the survival of lions. Don’t believe me?

It already works.

Tanzania is a great example of how legal, regulated hunting can help decrease poverty. In one country alone, it helps provide millions of dollars, supporting 3,700 jobs which in turn provides for over 88,000 people, who would otherwise be in desperate poverty. Also the articles notes that it is just factually false to pretend lions are in danger of going extinct in Africa any day soon. We are pulling back from the brink.

Obvious right-wing rag, Conservation Magazine, also noted;

Is there such evidence? According to a 2005 paper by Nigel Leader-Williams and colleagues in the Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy the answer is yes. Leader-Williams describes how the legalization of white rhinoceros hunting in South Africa motivated private landowners to reintroduce the species onto their lands. As a result, the country saw an increase in white rhinos from fewer than one hundred individuals to more than 11,000, even while a limited number were killed as trophies.

The piece goes on to note the benefit also to the elephant population in recent years. Similar cases abound in the United States with modern elk and white-tailed deer, as well as the American bison. Lastly it must be said that most hunters are not psychotic Bambi killers but rather normal people who simply wish to partake in a very natural activity, especially for omnivores. If anything hunting can be a primaeval test of skill that can, for some, be a form of communion with nature. Sure much of it can be mechanized and divorce itself from nature. But that isn’t true of many forms of hunting. If you are going to tell me that Japanese mass mechanized whaling is the same as the Makah tribe hunting whales in their canoes, you are going to elicit an intense guffaw and perhaps a monocle polishing. For instance an earlier study in 2006 found that 86% of hunters who travel to Africa for big game would prefer to do so in the context I just provided.

Big game hunters and environmentalists can actually get along, and usually do so, as most major conservation groups and research organizations endorse legal big game hunting.

Environmentalism is Broken

And yet some continue to be outraged. The recent, very good, piece from The Washington Post demonstrates this.

The article outlines how environmental organizations back the practice and how it can bring, in the case of South Africa, hundreds of millions into the community, saving tens of thousands, if not far more, from a life of miserable poverty and likely an early death. Then, for the sake of balance, it turns to animal rights activists who make a “moral argument.” They say you “can’t look at the numbers” (what?) but instead need to “protect natural functioning eco-systems.”

Herein lies the problem. For many scientifically sound environmentalism and conservation has turned into a religion, where everything is sacrificed on the altar of “Nature.” The problem is that it dramatically mistakes what nature actually is.

First, it actually harms the ecosystem. Basing conservation on this notion of pristine, leads us to try and protect every single animal. The result is a scenario in which, “We’ve turned the notion of natural selection on its head. Nature isn’t the only force that picks the [animals] that stick around — we’re doing it too.”

Second, our over-emphasis on animals harms people. Rosaleen Duffy in her book, Nature Crime (which, disappointingly is not James Patterson’s gritty reboot of the Berenstein Bears), does a great job explaining how conservation is not a win-win scenario and instead we need to make scientifically sound trade-offs where human beings’ needs (like the people in Tanzania who rely on big game hunting) are considered as well.

The main cause of this backwards way of looking at conservation is this Disneyesque desire for a nature that is the opposite of Disneyland itself; untrammeled by dirty, capitalist human hands. In the book Rambunctious Garden, author Emma Marris explains,

For many conservationists, restoration to a pre-human or a pre-European baseline is seen as healing a wounded or sick nature. For others, it is an ethical duty.

It’s pretty easy to see how this doesn’t resemble science anymore, it’s simply another religion. And sinners like Palmer must be punished (like doxxing his business and making death threats on Twitter).

It’s time to realize that while we can embrace human duties towards nature, there is no such thing as “nature” without human beings. It’s time to dial back this hatred of people who hunt or visibly becoming morally repulsed at the notion of killing an animal (and thus have some burning need to see someone punished in order to satisfy our malady). Erle Ellis, director of the Laboratory for Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology has the solution in what he calls “post-naturalism.”

Postnaturalism means loving and embracing our human nature, the nature we have created to feed ourselves, the nature we live in. What good is environmentalism if it makes you depressed about the future? Nature is gone. It was gone before you were born, before your parents were born, before the pilgrims arrived, before the pyramids were built. You are living on a used planet. If this bothers you, get over it.

Human beings aren’t going anywhere, nor is our effect on our environment. Attempting to save every animal and purge the earth of human corruption isn’t scientifically sound nor is it emotionally healthy (seriously Kimmel, get some help). We need to look away from our moral betters, overzealous to impose more and more duties on us, and instead to the actual science on what helps preserve, and create, a better environment, an environment that also includes Walter Palmers, who probably need to pay a fine and then be able to move on.


Some sources for those who are interested in the wider discussion of conservation and hunting;



Wesley J. Smith has a great piece over at the National Review on the killing of the lion and how he opposes it on what he calls “human exceptionalist” grounds. Smith has done great stuff on opposing animal rights and instead proposing animal welfare within the context of defending humanity’s special status. To put it simply he argues this was wrong on the basis that we have God imposed duties towards animals. He gives probably the best case against this hunt.

He also brings up good points in regards to the illegality of the hunt and unnecessary pain caused to the animal. In regards to the first, I am buying the idea that Palmer thought the hunt was legal and was conned by his guides. Secondly, I do agree that causing gratuitous pain is a problem and we have an ethical duty to avoid it while hunting. I think it’s a problem with bow hunting. On the one hand hunters don’t want to over-mechanize the process, but it does lead to riskier shots that won’t immediately kill the animal.

However I don’t think he spends enough time on how the practice can not only benefit local communities but also benefit the population by leading to a decrease in poaching.

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