The meaning of Cecil

cecilCecil was not a lucky lion. First being named after the unreformed imperialist who invented the concentration camp; then to be slowly killed, skinned and decapitated; and finally, to become a meme of the moment and plundered worldwide –from stuffed toy makers to press offices groping for a current analogy. (See Patrick Kidd’s skewering of a recent press release that exploits various Cecil metaphors to sell a story about renewable energy. PRs, Kidd concludes, “have no pride anymore. Like Cecil”.)

What are we to make of all the furore (not to mention the furoar of bad puns that quickly followed)? I posit three things that we’ve learned from Cecil.

They come from nowhere 

Cecil strutted his last hakuna matata when he crossed paths with a bespectacled dentist from Minnesota. It was not as nature intended. Nearly a month later Walter Palmer was unprepared for the barrage of bile headed his way. Unlike many other shamed hunters of recent times, Palmer doesn’t have any personal social media channels and hadn’t done anything to publicise his trophy.

It just happened that he’d shot the wrong cat. The story emerged when the slain lion was discovered to have been Zimbabwe’s beloved cat. Suited with a charmingly antiquated moniker and posthumously given national treasure status, not to mention being an honorary Oxford feline,  the attention of the world was focused. Hemingway, a keen big game man himself, wrote that “there is no hunting like the hunting of man,” and the pursuit of Palmer on social media goes to prove that trolling is the great blood sport of modern times.

Although no more abhorrent than other big game hunters -arguably the snaps from Juan Carlos’s elephant hunt  at a time of austerity in Spain were more incendiary- Cecil’s cause ignited social media like nothing before. Hundreds of one-star reviews flooded onto the Google page for Palmer’s dental practice. The levels of vitriol recorded here could rank Palmer as the most loathed dentist since Laurence Olivier’s Nazi torturer in Marathon Man.

The truth-finding integrity of the tabloid media was on full display as Dr Palmer’s past misdemeanors were dragged up as further fuel to the lynch mob. The momentum of hate was seemingly too much for Palmer’s PR consultants, J. Austin & Associates, who dropped their client after 1 day. While we don’t know if he has recruited any other crisis managers you can be sure that the cost to his reputation will be greater than the $50,000 he paid for a shot at Cecil. The most that Palmer can hope for is that, like other infamous nobodies thrust into the slimelight (the cat bin lady et al), he will return to the nowhere whence he came.

Anger made easy

In the past, expressions of anger caught our attention because they were compelling. Think of the suffragettes, Bobby Sands, the Vietnamese monks: in their outrage they put their bodies on the line. Now protest is communicated remotely. Through a retweet or favourite we get all the thrill of self-righteousness without any of the personal risk.

What we’re seeing with the twitter moral police is closer to Mary Whitehouse’s brand of umbrage activism. Within a day #CecilTheLion had appeared over 250,000 times on Twitter, carried by a generous dollop of celebrity-endorsed opprobrium. Clearly the image of the lion’s beleaguered cadaver is a profoundly pathetic spectacle that has no place in the twenty-first century. Yet the strength of the protesting spirit unlocked by Cecil is strangely disproportionate when mentioned in the same breath as the daily loss of refugee life on the doorsteps on the Mediterranean and English Channel.  It’s strange that lions have names but a dead migrant is just a number.

The real turning point is for the game, not the gamers  

Writing in the Telegraph a former 007 turned a loaded pen not just on Palmer but the big game industry as a whole. What we shouldn’t lose sight of amid all the Palmer bashing, Moore says, is that recreational hunting is popular with the sorts that are eager to inject a bit of bravura into their high net worth. Could this be the tobacco moment for big game hunting? When the Royal College released its report into the risks of smoking over 50 years ago it didn’t reveal anything that hadn’t been speculated elsewhere. But its high profile ensured that attitudes were well and truly changed. For a series of circumstantial reasons Cecil has given big game hunting the kind of profile that it had not had previously. The lesson of Walter Palmer is one that will be heeded by other hunter-dabblers. They will be asking themselves, is my reputation worth a selfie with a rotting cat?


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