This weekend I spent time at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center near Brazil, Indiana. Most of the cats at the Center are tigers, due in part to the popularity of tiger ownership as a status symbol, as well as the obsession with breeding white tigers. Such breeding inevitably produces many non-white tigers, which then require sanctuary.

White tiger.
White tiger.

There really are very few places that one can get so close to big cats; in the wild it’s unwise, and in zoos there always seem to be greater physical barriers, whether through glass or moats or just sheer distance. The EFRC keeps the cats in wooded, fenced habitats. Some of the cats are quite affectionate, and would come up and rub their faces against the fence when our guide called them, just like ordinary kitties.

010Others, though, behaved very much like one would expect wild tigers and lions to behave. I stood in front of one tiger who was enjoying a deer bone, and was quite unperturbed by my presence as he gnawed gruesomely on the hoof. I admit, gruesome or not, I found this thrilling to watch. These tigers were enormous creatures, 500 pounds of pulsing muscle, and yet still graceful on the paw, leaping up on their boxes, and jumping back down again.

I watched in fascination as one tiger meticulously groomed his paw with a tongue that looked as big as a raw pot roast. There is no understating the gravitas of these beasts; I was left speechless, and could only thank God or the universe that something so great lives in the world.

One enclosure housed a lioness and a huge male tiger who had lived happily together since they were cubs. I liked these inter-species companions very much. Perhaps, I thought, we can live together after all.

I went back into the human world on Monday, and went about my business, still thrilled by these enormous wild cats with their own personalities and quirks. Facebook, as usual, was the purveyor of all manner of outrages, and I saw that one involved a lion that had been shot and decapitated in Zimbabwe. I couldn’t click on it just then, with the memory of these cats so fresh in my mind. But it was a viral story, and by the end of today I knew the details without ever having read an article. So I read one to make sure I had the facts, and yes, Cecil was a popular, friendly, human-oriented lion who’d been shot by an American trophy hunter. And all across my Newsfeed, I saw people united in horror and outrage. Left and right, men and women, Democrats and Republicans, all religions, all stripes — all were horrified by Cecil’s fate and the rapacious hunter who killed him.

For my part, I felt Cecil’s story in my gut, and it hurt. But intellectually, I knew that people were never so united in outrage when the habitat of these big cats was disappearing; when the numbers of tigers in the wild plummeted to dangerously low levels. Why now, with this one lion? In some ways, that’s just a function of how human beings are galvanized to action. We all respond to a story, and to personal acquaintance. And people got this story.

For me, Cecil’s death is like an avatar for what we’ve done to wildlife in the course of my lifetime. Around my birthday last year, the London Zoological Society reported in its Living Planet Index that since 1970 — the year of my birth — fully 40% of wildlife populations had been decimated. A life can be measured in so many ways, but that was the most sobering. In the time I’d been alive, so much of value had been extirpated. How many of these huge, muscled cats had drawn their last breath with each successive birthday?

Cecil’s story also reminded me, yet again, of the paradox of humanity.  Human beings killed this lion for fun. Other human beings dedicate their lives to offering sanctuary to them.

Outrage is a quick-burning fuel, so I hope that this one gets harnessed to blow up some greater truths in the larger human awareness. Killing these animals for pleasure and sport is repulsive, to be sure. But other wildlife is no less dead, just because it was collateral damage to human expansion.

Rest in peace, Cecil.


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102 thoughts on “Big cats and human complexity

  1. Might I humbly suggest you check out my Tumblr for some of the weird, thoughtless, wacky, and horrifying ways that we humans interact with lions here in America? I’ve been researching the fascinating history of African lions in the United States and have amassed a rather large collection of images on the topic. The absolute glut of lions here between the World Wars resulting in some of the oddest ideas of the nature of these animals imaginable (not to mention some of the first laws regulating the private ownership of exotic species.

      1. Well, crap. Yeah, you probably have to sign up for an account (nothing requires you to use it, however). Sorry about that.

  2. I agree about the habitat loss. I have been trying to raise awareness about the destruction of the Malaysian rainforest for palm oil production, the last natural habitat of the orangutan and Sumatran Tiger, elephants, and others. Maybe people came together over this because the responsible person was identifiable and the victim had a story, unlike when big corporations are responsible and there are many faceless victims? I hope that something good comes out of the outrage, such as a law to forbid the bringing of the “trophy” to the U.S.

    1. I do think a gut-punching story will do it. And also, sometimes with larger environmental and wildlife questions, there is the reality that it’s a structural issue where one person can do very little. I’m glad for your efforts on palm oil! I try to avoid it when I can. So much structure to overcome, though.

    2. Ever since I learned about the impact palm oil production has on animal habitat loss (in the context of orangutans), I pay extra close to the ingredients of packaged foods. I’ve declined to buy many carb-based foods because of it. Or, if I can’t get around it, I look to see how far down “palm oil” is in the list of ingredients. I resort to taking weird solace when I end up deciding to eat a farm animal instead, “At least no palm oil was needed in the production of this dish.”

      I shudder to think about other non-food products that have palm oil in it.

  3. Once again you have nailed it. I confess that until recent years I have been fairly oblivious to the concerns of habitat loss and the way that we as humans have decimated entire species because we deemed them nuisances or pests or just for “sport”. I’m beyond grateful that I have had an awakening where these things are concerned. Fortunately, it only took some Misfit creative people and photography (and birds) to wake me up. It’s heartbreaking that it took killing a beloved lion to spark such outrage in people but I hope that outrage takes hold and that people will take time to educate themselves about the damage we have done before it’s too late.

  4. I was devastated when I read the news about Cecil. I just don’t understand why people keep killing animals for fun. I hate how some of the humans think that they’re superior, they could kill any animal around them.

  5. I envy your compassion and sensitivity. We must all learn to love beings instead of things. Green pastures for you Cecil full of Zebras and Gazelles … RIP to them too… 🙂

  6. This story about Cecil has just disgusted me and at the same time I’m so sad. Most definitely angry as well. I love all animals and I have respect for those in the wild. Thank you for bringing this to awareness as I too have seen this on Facebook and was mortified. Bless his soul!

  7. Reblogged this on Caterpillar To Butterfly and commented:
    Sharing this on my page because I feel so strongly about Cecil’s story. The killing was senseless and makes me so sad and angry all at the same time! I wanted to share with those that may not be aware of this heinous act on wildlife.

  8. Your feelings about Cecil hit the nail on the head. He was a majestic animal. I fear for the cubs he protected who will be in danger against the other male lions. It is a deep sadness for an animal whom I have never seen until recently to be hunted in the manner that he was.

  9. I’m kind of sad since the death of Cecil doesn’t cause any reaction from Indonesia aside of those who are already aware of animal conservation or animal lover. In Indonesia, a home of exotic Sumatra Tiger, lions, and other big cats, the enforcement of law to protect endangered animal is really lacking. Tigers are hunted for pelts or ‘medicine’, their forest is burned for to plant oil palm trees and illegal logging is eating our forest gradually. Yet the perpetrators are rarely punished. Sadly my country is one of the country that contribute to the disappearing habitat of those majestic cat.

    Cecil’s death is saddenning, and I agree that in the end it’s up to us if we can turn her death into something that can trigger betterment in our treatment to those majestic big cats and wildlife creatures in general. Betterment such as better protection for wildlife ecosystem, reform on hunting ethics, stricter enforcement of protection in conservation area (which is sadly highly lacking in Indonesia), international collaboration of wildlife protection. Don’t let this end into mere hashtags facebook comments, and trending topic only

    1. Wow, this is a great comment, very thought-provoking. Thank you.

      As an American living in the United States, I think some of us here tend to judge what happens in other countries without understanding that it is our country that often makes it possible for those things to happen. We buy the palm oil and the logs from vanishing habitats. One of the things that is swirling around in my mind is the need for everyone to make a decent living. And I think it’s so important to focus on offering everyone the means to do that without desecrating the environment. That is often what gets lost in the thinking in the U.S. We forget our own comfort and material wealth and criticize other countries for not enforcing environmental laws. I think perhaps the same may be true of China, on an increasing scale This is a point on which the world must work together. It’s not enough to keep American trophy hunters out of Zimbabwe. We have to address the economic need for trophy hunting, and in Indonesia, the economic incentive for deforestation, hunting and habitat loss.

  10. I highly agree with your viewpoint. I think also that human beings tend to ignore problems that they “hear about” in passing because they have no connection to it themselves. However, once the situation becomes real and people are educated about the consequences in such a manner, it is as if the problem is now apart of their own lives.

  11. You may be very interested in the documentary series called “The Years of Living Dangerously.” It is on Amazon Prime and was originally a Showtime special. The first episode is online. Check it out if you get a chance. Very powerful!

  12. Beautifully expressed.

    I believe the fate of Cecil, and our generally poor stewardship of the earth and its creatures, is a direct reflection of how little regard we afford one another. If we can’t treat each with honor and respect, how can we be expected to treat the world around us with honor and respect.

    If we’d learn to treat each other with dignity, everything else would fall into place.

  13. I wish this would serve as a real wake up call for people to step in and help save the environment, but like anything else it will be a big deal for a minute and then no one will remember 😔.

  14. Reblogged this on mubeenazam and commented:
    It is so sad that some human beings gain great pleasure in killing animals in such a barbaric way and take photos of their ‘trophies’…absolutely sick as a lot of these people are ‘educated’ to some extent or another and I believe can put their energy, time and money in much more beneficial ways to help the world to become a better place…for all.

    1. I agree! For me, the fact that they are sometimes scary only makes them more valuable. In fact, one of the things I fear the most is that human beings will cleanse the world of everything that frightens them. That is a dangerous game.

  15. I really enjoyed reading this, I’m glad to know there are writers interested in the wider concern which reaches under the crust of the popular issue at hand. Unfortunately cases like Cecil, which can be used to highlight global concerns, are limited by their half life. Public consciousness has the attention span of a pea. Once public consciousness subsides, Cecil will be quietly forgotten amongst the pantheon of his unnamed friends. It is difficult to motivate humans to connect over problems which will plague a generation which we haven’t birthed yet. But we can try.

    1. Hi Jenni — I agree. Most people will move on once they see some other shiny thing to look at. But my hope is that some people will not. Some people will have been awakened to these issues. And maybe — just maybe — even as the outrage around Cecil recedes, he will come to represent a layer in the larger social consciousness around wildlife and the environment. And maybe that will be one small step forward. We’ll see.

  16. I hate how humans can kill such magnificent animals just for fun. Cecil’s story is devasting, and what’s worse is that this is just one out of many similar cases around the world. Even though some groups of people are trying very hard to save these animals, there are always people who take the lives of animals as if it doesn’t matter. Humans should know that they don’t have the right to play with the lives of animals. Thank you for sharing you.

    1. I agree. And I actually think that’s one of the things driving the anger around this issue — the sense that this was a rare animal that belonged to the world, and this tool just came along and took it for himself. While I think the mob reaction toward the dentist is in some ways disturbing and unhealthy, I’m happy that there has been such near universal condemnation of the act.

  17. What an eloquent narration of the need to protect animals in our world. Thank you so much for keeping Cecil’s story, though none of us may keep his body, alive.

  18. This reminded me of a poem: “White Tigers” by R.S. Thomas. Indeed, our humanity has been exploiting on what has been conferred to us for self gratification.

    Every vile action has to stop and I sincerely hope that Cecil’s death will act as a poignant reminder for the atrocities of Man’s actions and act as a deterrent lest something similar occurs.

  19. This is so true. It’s something that has really upset me in the news this week. I touch on a lot of issues about science in the news in my blog, I’d love it if some of you checked it out.. no pressure of course! I hope that blogs like this help to stop acts of cruelty like this.

  20. Reblogged. Being a Conservationist, there is too much misinformation out there that people are “educating” themselves with. While Cecil as acted as the Poster Animal for wildlife lovers everywhere, most people will move to the next news de jour. ie. A man in PA, US has now been charged by the Zim govt for an illegal killing in April.

    It seems maybe at least Zimbabwe will keep up law enforcement for a while. The writing is finally on the wall however regarding Trophy Hunting. Tourism and Photog Hunting is now the $$$ and sense (‘scuse pun), and brings in far more dollars to the area. Hopefully Mugabe will grab a clue, settle his country down, stop some of his corruption, and bring more money in for the country to prosper, rather than spending it on his lavish lifestyle.

    Now being on the world stage, we’ll see.

  21. Well done. I would respond to those who think you care less about humanity with the unshakable fact that NO humanity will survive if we continue to wreck an ecosystem in which everything connects, and the destruction of any part affects the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. We are the earth, and in killing her, we are killing ourselves.

  22. Reblogged this on vdancer808 and commented:
    I think that this reading reminds me of a thing that happened on the news.The lion got killed by some person and the lion doc nothing wrong. He just killed it.

  23. It’s somehow rare to see people who still care for Animals. I admire people with so much compassion. They say people with soft heart for animals have greater compassion for people so I salute to all who care and share a piece of their love whether it’s human or animals. We must always remember love is for all because it’s kindness that projects. Take care all.

  24. Well said and you bring up a good point. We as a society tend to focus on the minute rather than the big picture. I truly hope more people hear what you have to say, it’s important.

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