The Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the Lion broke something in me and I have questions.

I posted the following piece earlier today on my personal Facebook. After further thought, despite its disconnection from my usual subjects, I decided to bring it here. I am aware that I could lose readers over this, but I ask that if you are offended, will you take a moment to try to help me understand before you go?

Here’s what I wrote, words in italics were not in the original FB post:

“TLDR: Just a core-dump about the dentist who killed the lion.
Summary: Dentist = bad. Big-game hunting = bad. Middle class “normal” hunting = bad. Internet’s response = also bad.

Also, I’m probably going to regret posting this.

Is my [Facebook] feed especially thick with posts about the dentist who killed the lion, compared to yours? (Because I live in Minnesota, maybe?) Has this gone incredibly viral everywhere?

This thing is making me feel sick. I don’t appreciate sport hunting. I especially hate trophy hunting. I have an instant and immediate distrust of anyone who thinks killing animals is some kind of entertainment, or a way to prove prowess.

I eat meat. When it comes to killing for food, I lobby for comfortable, “natural,” humane living conditions and swift, efficient, painless kills. I do think that non-hunters / non-farmers / non-butchers (including me) have it too easy and are fortunate to live in a world where others are willing to harvest meat for us.

I think the dentist is a horrible person. I would never befriend someone like him, nor finance his hunts by patronizing his business.


I am disturbed by the internet’s response to his actions … or rather to him getting caught and outed for his actions. The collective is taking an awful lot of blood-thirsty glee in “hunting” him. His business, his name, his address and his telephone number have been widely distributed across the web. I keep seeing words like retribution, revenge, punishment, etc. The comments people are leaving for and about him are vicious.

How are we going to feel if someone kills him? And how do we feel right now about destroying his life? He has children and a wife. He must have friends. How is annihilating this one family making anything better?

What, exactly are we doing here? I think it’s likely that the guy didn’t know that he was going to shoot a beloved celebrity lion who was wearing a tracking collar … which is really the only reason we know what he’s done. I have to assume he thought this was a legal hunt … demented and sad, but legal. So in a weird way this was an accident.

Folks who focus on THAT part of this mess (the celebrity lion, the bad hunting practices, the missed shot) aren’t swaying any of the current or potential trophy hunters out there, because they all assume that they’d do it better.

When you take the bungling and the cheating out of the equation, and the sense of outrage that anyone dare be so self-indulgent as to spend $50,000 to shoot a rare animal in Africa, you are left with hunting vs non-hunting.

But most everyone who is commenting about this is very careful to draw a line of distinction between this $50,000 fiasco and “regular” hunting. That sets us up for a trophy-hunting vs meat-hunting showdown.

Here’s my problem: what meat-hunting is, for nearly all of middle class America, translates to this, “Of course I’ll eat it. And that makes it okay that what I really want is the thrill of the kill and a 10 point buck’s head in my living room.”

If you doubt me–if you think it’s about putting meat on the table–we could sit down and figure out the cost per pound of venison or bear, once licenses, and equipment are figured in.

I personally know people who hunt regularly. What they tell me is, “I love being outdoors and seeing the animals.”

Go outdoors then. Take a fucking camera.

[I apologize for the “fucking.” Not because I don’t swear like that, but because it injects more heat into my thoughts than I wanted to. I’m leaving it, though, because that IS what I said as I was figuring our what I wanted to say.]

Is it the camaraderie? Why can’t camping with your buddies be enough?

Is it the shooting? Why can’t that desire be satisfied by target-shooting, trap-shooting, trick-shooting?

Is it about running dogs (for bird hunting)? Why can’t that desire be satisfied by flyball trials, herding, agility coursing?

Is it about practicing and passing along survival skills that may become necessary if our society collapses? Do you understand that if our society collapses we’ll all be eating whatever we can catch and kill, with whatever tools we have at hand, and that it will have little to no relation to the kind of hunting that you do in season, with your guns and bows? [Fast birds, deer and bear are not likely to be options once the ammunition runs out.]

What I’m not hearing is an admission that there’s more to it. How much of the desire to hunt is about peer pressure, and tradition, and proving yourself? Why are you willing to yield to those kinds of pressure?

And if it’s not that stuff, than what is it inside you that wants to kill the animal personally?

That’s a serious question. I lack any desire to kill. To me, it’s a grim, unpleasant necessity sometimes. (Yes, I have intentionally killed small animals. I killed mice for snake food for some years. I’ve killed other animals to end their suffering.)

Hunting for anything other than needed food is pleasure hunting, just like what the dentist does. And I don’t get it.

If we are capable of hating this dentist so much, how is it that we regularly give Uncle Jack a pass for his annual deer hunting trip?

This is trivial, in some ways, compared to all the other ills of the world, except I have this creeping suspicion that it’s not. This overblown, sensational story is lightning in a bottle. This is about privilege and resentment. This is about the ability of a society to shape itself and to censure individuals who step out of line. This is about seeking understanding of the other side … or refusing to do that.

I’ve been trying to see and accept the other side my whole life. I have grown up in a state that approves of hunters. I have hunters in my family. I have friends who hunt.

I’m tired of the explanations for hunting that I’ve received.

What I see is a continuum that includes my duck hunting neighbors AND my lion-baiting neighbor. What is the difference? Why are we willing to crucify the dentist and accept the rest?”

PS: I was going to post some photos of hunters posing with their kills from Flickr’s Creative Commons, but doing that seems a little too similar to what the wider internet is doing to the dentist. My point would not have been to shame individuals, but to illustrate my biggest question to hunters:

Why are you smiling?

It’s a real question, not snark. I genuinely don’t understand.

And is there anything else you could do (like the activities I listed above) that could give you the positive feelings you get when you hunt? If so, why not do those things instead? 

31 Comments on “The Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the Lion broke something in me and I have questions.”

  1. zipcoffelt says:

    You ask a lot of good questions. Thanks for standing up. This guy made a huge mistake – let’s give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t act from malice – and it’s unfortunate that he lives in a world where his actions became instant news. With everyone having an opinion. We all need to think first and ask, what am I doing? What are the consequences? That’s the take-away for me.

    • This has been an interesting afternoon. I have been reminded why I don’t post about political things often.

      So far, my very surprising take-away have been that we as a collective seem to really like being polarized. I didn’t realize how easy it would be for people to read what I wrote and ascribe a conservative or liberal agenda to me.

      (Nothing you’ve said is making me feel that way, btw, it’s just the zeitgeist of the post’s fall-out so far.)

  2. Because he hunted an endangered species for the thrill of it. So he could say he bagged a lion. Because he killed the cruel and inhumane manner in which he killed a noble beast. It took a day and half to die. They tried to hide the tracking collar. Have you ever heard of joint and several liability? You can say he didn’t know but the people he hired to participate in this cruel venture were his employees. He bares equal responsibility.

    There will always be dentists in the world; lions are another question. I’m sorry for his wife and children but the man at the very least deserves a long stay in a Zimbabwean prison. If left to me his punishment would be much more medieval. Then I’m a vegetarian. To hell with him, it wasn’t a duck.

    • It’s funny how that part of what I wrote is triggering so many people. There’s a discussion going at my FB too, and my conservative friends are pulling that sentence out to say they agree with me on at least that.

      I’m beginning to think that I really didn’t make myself clear enough about my feelings about the dentist. He’s scum. A part of me is glad that he did get caught in such a spectacular way. I hope they can find a way to prosecute him for breaking laws. I’m not convinced that will happen, though, because he can so easily blame the guides and because hunting lions is LEGAL (which blows my mind.)

      Even so, I fear a world in which the internet can try and convict someone and destroy lives in the process.

      MY point was not to give the dentist any sympathy, but to say that what he did is the extreme end of a spectrum I don’t understand. I wonder how “good” hunting contributes to this obviously horrible hunting. And I’m wondering where is the line between the two.

      • Culling herds I can understand. We did after all kill all the natural predators. The lion was tagged. He was not a game animal. The dentist had previously been cited for violating hunting rules in Minnesota I believe. He is fully responsible for the actions of his employees. If I hired a person to kill someone would I be any less guilty than the person that pulled the trigger? .

  3. A good read, Renae. Thank you.

    I also have family and friends who hunt. I do not nor do I have any intention of starting. I also very much enjoy a good venison steak, roast or burger when I can get one. It’s probably been five years since I’ve had any of those. I live in a state that is 70% forest. Around here the white-tailed deer population is explosive. They cause a great deal of damage to larger crops as well as small home gardens, not to mention all the vehicles involved in accidents with deer. They are beautiful creatures and I love to sit on my front porch and watch them nibble on the neighbors evergreen shrubs in the dead of winter. I’m not so fond of them eating mine, mind you. 🙂 My dad even puts out cracked corn for the wildlife in the winter.

    I completely understand hunting to thin the herds that are out of control in my neck of the woods and the friends and family I know that hunt consider it their job to help do that. They are doing a service to farmers, home gardeners and a plethora of car owners. All of them take great care to kill as quickly and cleanly as possible. All of them eat what they kill. There was even a sterilization program in place by one of the local universities several years ago, hoping to help curb the growing herd on Campus. It failed. The last report I read which was this past spring, said it failed miserably. The herd not only remains, it’s grown. I don’t know if any of that answers any of your questions beyond the simple, “Why do people hunt when they don’t NEED to hunt in order to survive?”

    As for big game and trophy hunting, I’m just as in the dark as you are. I hope someone will step up and answer your questions for their perspective in a civil and educational manner.

    • Your comment, in conjunction with the others I’ve received here and at FB, made a light bulb start to glimmer over my head.

      I can see all sorts of reasons why animals need to be killed. What I am offended by is the sense that it is fun, or something to be proud of.

      Maybe I was scarred by my stint at the humane society when I was 19-20. That’s where I was first exposed to the death of an animal, up close and personal. (I assisted with the euthanasia procedures, up to and including making the injections. I wasn’t supposed to do that part, but I was faster and cleaner about it than some of the vet techs, so I did it.)

      …Whoa. Do you see what I did there? I bragged about being good at killing animals. So I guess I need to take back what I JUST said about it being nothing to be proud of.

      I won’t take back, though, the idea that is is not fun and that it shouldn’t be.

      I’ve asked a young man I know, who took the time to respond to me thoughtfully over at FB, if I can bring his comments here. (I haven’t heard back yet.) I can paraphrase some of what he said though.

      He said that hunting feels like satisfying work, not fun, and that it’s mostly about tradition … and that he intends to carry that tradition forward.

      That’s the part I’m trying to understand.

      EDIT: The young man gave me permission to share his thoughts. I posted them in their complete form in a comment below.

  4. roberthorvat says:

    Tragic. Thank you for your thoughts.

  5. Jay Moeller says:

    Renee, I’m glad you vented, and expressed your feelings. Mine are the same so I like to think you are speaking for me and for the millions of others who are opposed to sport hunting. Thank you for taking your stand. This is one reader who will continue to watch your spot.

  6. If it were up to me I’d shoot him in the chest with an arrow then let him run through the savannah for a couple days. When he finally expired I’d skin him and put his head on a pike. But that’s just me.

    • I’d rather he’d just stop hunting … and serve as an example.

      In a weird way, I’m grateful for his stupidity. I hope what has happened to him will discourage a least a few people from doing what he’s done. Hunting for big game trophies (at the very least) has to be recognized as a shameful “hobby” and being a big-game hunter has to become recognized as deeply, deeply uncool.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I found your post today on FB wonderful!!! Your thoughts also make sense to me. Growing up on a farm, my father butchered cows, and pigs. I hunted with him for Pheasants and Ducks. We always ate what was killed, except for the critters who did harm to the garden. That was our lively hood. Although I have seen my father kill many animals for food and the necessity to not allow the food be destroyed by wild animals. I never once saw him smile! We always gave thanks to the creator for what we had to eat. I do not wish harm on the man who killed Cecil, that would make me as barbaric as him. It is sad to see what multi-media can do. Many people and most of them innocent will be harmed, by us blood thirsty humans in search of some kind of “justice”I don’t think harming innocent people (not the man who killed Cecil) is justice,
    and I am more sad about that then anything.

    • Thanks for coming here, A.

      I agree with everything you’ve said here. I was thinking about how much I hated those damn gophers that ate all my tomato plants out at the old place. I didn’t go after them, because I was just puttering around with gardening, but I do see your point. I don’t feel qualified to judge folks who take killing very seriously and have good reason to do it. I’d like to see alternatives given a shot, but sometimes there’s nothing else to do.

      As for the dentist, I’m glad that he is subject to public censure, but I am ashamed, as a human being, of some of the vicious things that are being said to and about him. There should be social consequences for his actions (from being a big game hunter in general to screwing up this particular hunt so badly) but it makes me sad (and scared) to see how brutal the masses can be. The relative anonymity of the internet can and does produce horrifying behavior.

  8. scillagrace says:

    I see it as an exercise in Dominance. And Dominance is what makes him smile. Victory and Dominance is somehow wrapped up with Honor in many Western cultures. In those rare and serious moments when Victory and Dominance is humbling and troubling (like on Abe Lincoln’s face at Gettysburg), I think we get closer to being human beings and not simply human dominants. As an aspiring practitioner of Eastern philosophy, I’m becoming “dedicated to the proposition” that every living thing is equal.

    • This is a brilliant observation, scillagrace. You put your finger on an aspect of this that bothers me a great deal. I adore what you said here:

      “In those rare and serious moments when Victory and Dominance is humbling and troubling (like on Abe Lincoln’s face at Gettysburg), I think we get closer to being human beings and not simply human dominants.”

      Those words just blow me away. Thank you.

  9. I thought about this lion. He is a creature of a higher order. He is a predator like us. He also had a family he was responsible for protecting. Hunt for food, not fun. This was tragic. It is always tragic when an animal is killed for fun.

    • Simply and eloquently put, Juliette. I’m very sad for his cubs. (My understanding is that the new pride leader will kill them, to establish his own line.) At least Cecil didn’t die in secrecy and obscurity, as the other lions subject to sport hunting do. Perhaps his senseless death will be a catalyst for change.

      I hope so.

  10. I thought it would be fair to include some comments here from a hunter. I respect this young man very much and I appreciate that he took the time to thoughtfully reply to my questions when I posed them on FB. I asked his permission before bringing his thoughts to the blog.

    He said in response to the original post:

    “You’ve known me for years. You know I enjoy hunting. I’ll tell you why I hunt and what I enjoy about it. For sake of discussion I’ll even include my thoughts on this lion hunt.

    I hunt out of tradition really, my father hunts, so I hunt. I was taught to take only what we need and follow the regulations as they are there to preserve the game. I enjoy the hunt for the challenge and it’s rewards: wild game meat. Wild meat has a distinct flavor difference to farm raised. And many wild animals, if hunted by the rules, are a challenging catch, even using our guns and bows. The more effort a hunter puts into making a clean kill, the harder it becomes.

    As far as this lion hunt goes, yes he had a permit, but the lengths he went to to bait the animal off of the reservation was in my opinion distasteful. Trophy hunting in general is. I do not however know weather or not those tactics were legal.”

    I responded with this:

    “Thank you A. I’ve always respected your methods, and I believe you were taught well. If you’re up for it I have some questions based on what you just said.

    First, I’m a little surprised that you still hunt. I sort of thought that paintball was filling some of your needs in that way (smile emoticon)

    Do you expect to teach your son to hunt? (Well, I should say, any children you have, boy or girl.)

    It seems to me that the pleasant associations and memories of a hunting trip are outweighing what I ASSUME is a painful moment … the actual killing.

    Am I wrong about that? Is it hard to do? Is there a secret joy in the act itself? Or is it more like a neutral sensation that doesn’t have a big emotional impact?

    He replied:

    “Well I haven’t done much of either lately. As for teaching L. or future kids to hunt I haven’t, but yes I would, the same as my father taught me.

    For me it’s a sort of neutral sensation. It comes with some satisfaction when you know the animal died quick. Otherwise it comes with some stress trying to end the misery you just caused. Either way I’d say there isn’t much emotional impact.

    Paintball fulfills a desire to feel alive, it opens adrenal glands when you hear paint flying past you at 200 mph. Hunting feels more like work. Sure it’s enjoyable, but at the end of the day you paddled or hiked for miles, you braved the elements, and you have to clean and prepare whatever you harvest as well.”

  11. It’s not just in MN. I’m in NC and we have been inundated with posts as well. I think people hunt for animals for sport because hunting people is illegal. I think many people have control issues that promote a desire to kill. How many times have you innocently said “I wanted to kill him.” Even in jest the desire is there in a precise moment. It’s about turning a feeling of powerlessness into strength.

    • I know that the NC culture is similar to MN in that way. Or at least I think I know that. They hunt different animals, maybe. (I think about these things because I’m moving there eventually.) I kinda forgot you’re already there 🙂 It will be nice to “know” some folks when I arrive.

      I think I catch myself when I say that. But I’m weird that way. As my kids were growing up there were a few words that were literally forbidden to use: stupid (in relation to a person, especially any family member) and shut up. There were consequences if anyone slipped. (Though I think it was really just a disapproving look and a verbal correction.) That seemed to do the trick, so I never had to escalate, so I don’t know what the “consequences” were. 🙂

  12. Agreed with Sheila – it’s gone viral nationwide (much as the protesters dangling from the bridge in Portland have, or at least, I assume they have). You raise some good points, as do your commenters. I am anti-hunting, period. Unless you’re living in the middle of the forest 50 miles from civilization, there’s always a Safeway down the street.

  13. mike says:

    I apologize for the “fucking.”

  14. Ego boosting exercise or fulfilling lust. Your question about what motivates him actually killing the animal as opposed to hunting and tagging reveal more about his drives and thoughts than any excuse about tradition. Can he not control his urges in this day and age?

    • Thank you for you thoughts on this. You made me think of a phrase that escaped me when I was writing the article: “blood lust.” It’s a strange concept to me, but I think it is part of the equation for some hunters … whether they admit it or not. I suppose it’s a deep, biological instinct, but — you’re right — it feels like something that should be fought against, not supported by societal traditions.

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