Even though the story of Dr. Walter J. Palmer and Cecil the Lion was an unusual one—a Minnesota dentist who illegally lured, tortured, and killed a famous lion in Zimbabwe— it was easy to predict how people would react:
1. Palmer would become a public enemy, criticized and declared evil. He would have to hide.
2. His news would be read in comparison to the other social justice stories in our feeds. So, those expressing outrage over the lion’s death would get shamed for caring more about the slain animal than the unborn or Sandra Bland.
I knew the first because I've been around the Internet long enough. People's lives and careers have been trampled by tweets, shares, and likes for “less” than illegally shooting a beloved lion. And I knew the second because I've been around Christians long enough.
From the time as a kid I began applying Scripture about justice to protecting animals to my current outspoken advocacy for pit bulls, I've heard people try to redirect my outrage. Why do I care more about homeless dogs than homeless people? Why do I care more about overcrowded animal shelters than overpopulated orphanages? Why am I more at ease sharing the “good news” about pit bulls than I am about Jesus?
Drained of my defensiveness, I’ve stopped responding with a resolute, “I don’t!” and started asking, "Why would you think that?" I’d pose the same question to those who think outrage over a lion’s slaughter means we don’t care about unborn children and selling baby parts or about police brutality and the suicide of Sandra Bland. This isn’t an either/or situation.
That the tale of Cecil the Lion and the Cowardly Dentist has grabbed us—with its clear villain, its undeserving victim, its sinister plots, its global connections, its cover-ups, and its rising and twisting plotlines—isn’t something we should apologize for. Or hush up.
At the heart of this story we see the powerful brutalizing the weaker: a human with gobs of money and weapons proving to no one in particular that he always be the true king of the jungle. This lion, a protected animal lured out of its sanctuary, was shot with a bow, only to survive and suffer for 40 (biblical!) hours, later beheaded and skinned. His death means a likely death for the lionesses and 12 cubs he leaves behind, now targets of a fellow male lion, Jericho, the new leader of the pride. It’s a reminder of the many creatures illegally terrorized and poached in this cruel, crazy industry.
Cecil was beloved not only by the researchers who studied him or the Zimbabweans who admired him, Cecil the Lion—who would’ve roared for his prey and sought his food from God, as the psalmist tells us (Ps. 104:21)—was a creature made and loved by God. And like all animals, like all creation entrusted to us, for our care.
Of course, animals are lesser, so there are times, I suppose, to kill a lion. Like there was a time to kill that grouper I ate in last night’s fish tacos. The Bible actually speaks directly about killing lions. In Judges, Sampson tore about raging lions with his bare hands (and honey from its guts!). David—another beloved of God—killed lions while protecting his sheep (1 Sam. 17:34). Benaiah, one of David’s “mighty men,” oddly killed that lion in a pit on that snowy day (1 Chron. 11:22). Yet none of them seemed to enrage God for it.
Likewise, had Dr. Palmer killed a lion in any of these ways—to defend himself, protect his sheep, or in a mano-a-lion fair-fight fashion—I’m not sure the international outcry would be there. After all, we aren’t reacting to every last animal’s death or even to all instances of animal hunting. When a friend tells me she ran over a squirrel on her way to the pool with her kids, I don’t publicly berate her cruelty in driving.
Our outrage over Cecil the Lion’s death is about manner and method. It’s about entitlement and conservation, power and abuse, cowardice and pride. The same things, in fact, that are at the heart of stories we’re shamed into thinking we should be more concerned with.
Yes, it catches our attention because lions are popular, familiar, cute. We can forget they are mighty predators—fiercely and wonderfully made—who could’ve killed mighty Benaiah and the now-infamous dentist. But the story draws us because we are human. We understand at a primal level that though animals are “below” us, they are entrusted to us, which makes their harm at our hands even worse.
So Cecil the Lion helps us see how often we fail to protect them: by allowing horrible forms of needless hunting, by permitting tortuous farming practices, by turning away from animal abuse and neglect. And recognizing our responsibilities toward animals doesn’t discount our responsibility toward one another. Love isn’t a zero sum game.
I stand by my girlhood readings of passages like Proverbs 31:8-9. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” For me, that will always include animals, those without a voice or witness. But I realize that we won’t always speak up for the same poor and needy; we won’t always defend the same set who can’t defend themselves. Still, whenever we see anyone speaking up for another, rather than seeing our causes in competition, let’s champion each other’s efforts for justice.